Some years are more memorable than others, and not always for the reasons we expect. The year I had a suspected heart attack with resultant stent implants was the year too much happened. It was as though the ragged old life force had been slowly drained out so the new might find its way in. In the midst of it all a thief had crept in when I was too busy keeping all the wheels spinning to notice. Little by little a major artery narrowed and became more inflamed until it seriously objected to being a thoroughfare for all that blood. This stealthy activity took its toll on the intricate system of checks and balances amid sinew and bone. My body–which had once seemed a stronghold against all my impulsive whims, negligence, illnesses, wounds internal and external, and simply the daily adrenalin output that occurs from living a life with verve and a sense of purpose–felt like a stranger.
There were events that should have been warnings long before the operating room. First, there was the worsening, unpredictable tachycardia that had started years before with a dental infection. It was akin to riding bareback on a galloping horse through brambles. Then there was the job that became an endurance test as the year went by; panic could wind me tightly as a rubber band ball as I neared the building. And finally I experienced becoming an orphan: the loss of my second parent, my mother. Her departure turned my days and nights into a dark river of tears.
I was being made vividly aware that I had little control over life. This, for a woman who had labored long and hard to correct many errors, eradicate shabby intentions, achieve excellence in small but meaningful ways. And who did not leave the house without every hair in place. What had kept me standing tall no longer made me strong. My heart demurred and that objection brought me to my knees.
And so, I took three years off from work as a counselor. My cardiologist would have said that I was taking my time recovering from the events that occurred in response to coronary heart disease. I went to the hospital cardiac rehabilitation room and exercised dutifully. I walked daily and rested when tired. I attended a support group for those who had various types of heart disease and was buoyed by their hope and courage. And when the fear of impending death again haunted me, Dr. P. would reply quickly but not unkindly: “We all die of something eventually.” The pragmatism of this corrected my viewpoint.
But ultimately what I was really doing was grieving all the losses, as one more can compound all the others we have had. Right before my surgery, 9/11 happened to us all; it was a wound unlike any other. The tsunami of grief led me into a land of shadows and light, terror and beneficence, surrender and empowerment. I sat deeply still in a chair with books or pencil and drawing paper. I walked for hours. I looked, and in seeing the world from the sidewalk, saw facets of myself that had been forgotten. I ruminated some days and others, thought of nothing. I prayed in a hundred different ways. And I sang.
That was one revelation that awaited me in the cave of grief: I could sing. It might have been another simple act. But I had not really sung for thirty years. An eager performer with a passion for singing, I had stopped when I was twenty, when I had been challenged by other losses and impediments. I made choices that no longer included music. It had been such a devastation that I would not speak of it. Singing lullabies for my children was the most I could do, and they were secret moments of relief, even joy.
Now, so many years later, I moved from dreaming to wakefulness with music that seemed to broadcast from an internal radio. I spontaneously recalled songs from my childhood, songs my father had taught me as he accompanied me on the baby grand, folk songs that I had written as a teen and those I had sung on stages. Hymns came back to me, songs from old records of the big band era, classical art songs I had been trained to sing for music competitions. I called my brother, a professional jazz musician, and hummed a tune into the phone until he could name it for me. He even asked if I wanted to sing a couple of songs with his band but I declined.
I kept my singing close, wondering over the pleasure of it. And I sang at home, then in choral groups and at times in church. I sang because the songs wanted voice and I could again offer them mine. But even more, singing helped fill the empty places after weeping had left me empty. Each breath and note coursed through me as the living blood in my veins and I got stronger.
That was a beginning of more surrender, which infused me with a renewed life force. I began to rediscover personal power, in large part, by singing my heart out. Between the return of music and writing my way through a geography of sorrow, I gradually came to more intimately know the ways of the heart.
It is not just the most vital organ in the center of the body. It is the center of our living because it knows best, feels the most, intuits deeply. This small but powerful organ speaks to us in a myriad ways, driving us into each day, alerting us to danger, responding with mercy and kindness, leaping with joy, constricting with anger, made calm and expansive with peace.
In the three years of going inward and circling outward again, I found that what the heart means is this: it is crucial to live bountifully, as though you cannot bear to live less. Live from the profound wisdom and constancy of your heartbeat no matter its surprising rhythms. Do not be derelict in your devotion. It will fight for you if you love it well.