The Heart Chronicles #16: A Case of Mistaken Identity

The ocean sings a brilliant song tonight in Yachats, like a Greek chorus in full voice. I sit by the woodstove fire: the smokey scent, running waves, brisk wind coming off the ebony water inform me that I am inarguably alive. On the south central coast of Oregon I have found territories known for years and yet they seem new to me still. A four mile hike through scrubby woods to find gentle sand dunes; a climb amid volcanic rocks to discover amber agates and sea urchins; a stop in historic Florence for a meal, good coffee, and a stroll. It was there that I was called by a necklace made of brass, blue and green inks, and epoxy. It is reminiscent of a mandala, or the wheel of life. It surprised me with its vibrant symmetry and textures. The pendant reflects a sense of the eternal, much as nature does, and that is central to what matters to me.

Ten years ago this date I was awaiting surgery, as well as remarriage (after divorce many years earlier) to my husband. And before either came to pass, 9/11 happened to us all. I was up early that morning to go to the dentist when I noted that there were several messages from my oldest daughter. I got the next call. I had never heard her pierced with such anguish as she told me what was happening. And my sister-in-law was in the Pentagon when it was hit by one of the planes. We waited all day until we got word she had raced out in time, smoke and terror and chaos chasing her. Everywhere I went that day people were weeping uncontrollably. Disbelief and horror brought us to our knees at the church across the street, strangers alongside neighbors.   

Two days later we decided to go ahead with the marriage. My husband-to-be, a few family members and I set off for the courthouse for a civil ceremony. I gasped for breath from the walk up a small hill, and dearly hoped the familiar burning sensation in my chest would pass, that no clenching chest pain would disturb the event. It was a quiet group that assembled. When we stood before the judge she noted that marrying us was the best thing to happen all week. A pall covered us momentarily. I also secretly worried a bit that it might be the one good thing to happen to me for months if not years to come. It seemed a strange if beneficent thing to experience, considering what had just come to pass for our country and myself–and what was before us collectively and privately.

This is how my thinking can be when I mistake a significant event as the most defining moment of all. I suppose we each do that, and usually it is for very good reasons: a milestone, a tragedy, a turning point that is precipitated by a failure or success. But those days before and after the stent implant were molded by all of those and more. It was easy to reconsider who I was, and to conclude I was a woman forever marked by not only defeats and  triumphs over a lifetime but also by a diagnosis. Coronary artery disease. It sounded and felt decidedly like an enemy. I believed it had already changed me beyond recognition in many ways. 

The first day I went to cardiac rehab I felt anxious and alone. Everyone around me was at least ten to twenty years older. They seemed sicker, as well. Wanting only to leave, I got on the treadmill and worked up a sweat. My pulse was taken at intervals by the nurse, my chest tightened and then expanded more easily. My mind was focused on one thing only: I would not die of CAD this day. In fact, I had to get healthier. Stronger. And also grateful–for the challenge, for all I still valued. For life amidst the brokeness of the world and the frailties of humanness. I am simply one person with a health condition; it doesn’t get to dictate the whole narrrative.  

After all, as a species we are good at finding purchase again on the rockiest of paths. We mend what has been damaged. We endure, can and do regain our dignity.

Despite the progress and prayers the next couple years, the identity that wanted to persis, however, was Heart Patient. I carried all the vital information in my wallet “just in case” and saw it as more important than my name. Nitroglycerin accompanied me everywhere; it was the amulet, the lifesaver I feared living without. It took more than imagined to overcome the diagnosis and the label. I was worried it meant I was less than, weaker than,  defective and therefore not as capable. No one had warned me of these intangible side effects. I could see I needed to be fearless, to live more in faith so I set myself to the task. That is when transformation picked up speed. With each 911 call lived through, each walk and hike more demanding and pleasurable, and every important person in my life offering support, I rediscovered the core of who I was: altered but not truly different than before. For I am certain who I am. I will blink in the face of difficult times but I will not long close my eyes. Call me greedy for life: give it all to me. 

When I mistook myself for a minor invalid, the specter of self-pity hovered and made the task of living well that much more daunting. Stepping out and away from the familiarity of my losses cracked open my world and the wiser world we share. The dynamic beauty of it infused me with numinous energy once again.  Who we are is who we want–and choose–to be.

My sister-in-law seems near tonight although she is with the Washington Chorus, along with my brother, performing at a commemoration at Trinity Wall Street sancutary and St. Pauls’ Chapel, New York City. She survived the heinous attack. Truly, she is a humble, heart-centered and joyous being. Both she and my brother are  examples of what we can do with what is given.

Here in Yachats, the Pacific Ocean is a constant symphony of wonder on a gentle night. I am filled with quietude. Blessings on everyone, both here and gone.   


The Heart Chronicles #14: The Heart is Made of Stories

My mother sat on the edge of my twin bed every evening to share a long good-night. No matter the hour, I would beseech her to “tell me stories of when you grew up.” And so she did, vignettes about living and working on “The Farm”. She told me about swinging on a rope in the hayloft and the sweet pungence of warm hay as it got stuck in her hair and inside clothes; the fat, ravenous pigs she fed slop; the stealth it took to steal the morning’s eggs from beneath the fussy hens. She explained how she washed clothes on a washboard in the big multipurpose sink until her knuckles were reddened and raw, then hung the billowing clothing on a line behind the house:  “Sun-purified and perfumed,” she explained. There was that ornery mare that kicked at her spine, causing a lifetime of back pain as they seldom went to doctors. And sometimes Gypsies passed by in the dark and snatched a pig or chicken, long gone as her father ran out yelling at the top of his lungs; I thought he probably had a rifle in hand.

 The farm animals my mother and her family raised did not have names; the cats were wild  creatures that hunted mice and other varmints. My mother also confided that she would rather have stayed after school to practice basketball for her girls’ team than return to hard labor each day. I imagined the sun setting over the fields: she created the colors, sounds and scents of the country as she walked all the way from the town’s school to home, swinging the bundle of books secured in an old leather belt. Cicadas buzzed in my brain or snow swirled in a frenzy but we always got there safe and sound.

When she finally turned off the lamp, I could hear her voice weaving its magic long after her footsteps disappeared downstairs. That faraway exotic time and place, life at The Farm, lingered in my dreams.

The truth is, my mother could have made a story of walking to the grocery store and often did–a humorous character study, a surprising event that was made more fascinating through sharing. Life was never ordinary to my mother; it was full of textures, vivid designs, and had grand presence simply by being lived.  Anything could be fascinating, much of life’s stories were moving, some brought bountiful tears and often there was a lesson to be gathered from her tales. She had a natural gift for it: her expressive voice,  bright eyes and hands that shaped the air and spoke the wordless bits. All conspired to make the renderings complete. And it issued from her attentive mind and open, responsive heart. 

So that is where I learned it–that life was endless stories within a story and it’s origins were home. That a story from the heart is the best kind. My mother shared compassion for others by telling of those she’d met along the way or still hoped to meet,  of those she had found and lost, and those she loved well. Her wit was quick and full of laughter, but she also unleashed words sharp with anger. There were whole paragraphs laced with tears due to all manner of injustice she witnessed. Struck by beauty in almost any place, she could as accurately describe a fine piece of millinery as an insect she spotted in the garden. I have known few people as moved by the fractious, wondrous complexity of being human. And she knew about forgiveness, which crept in to her dreaming and musings.

It seems entirely reasonable to me, then, that the human heart is constructed of stories. It is, in truth, what I knew from the start–my mother only provided me more evidence of it as I grew up. And if it was my father who gave me music which courses like life-giving blood in my veins, it was my mother who gave me the powerful keys to the kingdom of Story, where words shape-shift and play, toil and conspire, liberate and elevate. In so doing, she gave me precious freedom.

When all else seemed lost at various junctures in my journey through the years, when I found little to keep me steady or strong save the repeated prayer for help, I reached for pen and paper. In my car, there is a small notebook, as well as in my purse and at work–just in case a gaily dressed character runs across the stage of my mind, then beckons me down the street into a cafe surrounded by an ivy-covered fence, a meandering stone pathway. Or in case the first line of a poem– Daybreak spills over the sky and earth like holy water, and rescues us all–visits me. And at four in the morning, there is another notebook and pen at my bedside when I need to solve a puzzle of dreams, or sift through the detritus of my restless mind until I can find a single thread leading to the true center of the mess. The heart of the unfolding story.

My heart has known plenty of bad stories, ones I would rather have avoided, tossed out much sooner or even set afire under a full moon. A few have epilogues that refuse to be erased. But they all somehow led me to good ones as well, those I can still build on or revise so that the endings are neater, richer, better. Even perfect endings can be created, for at least that very moment.  

Lately there have been some struggles: with the alien process of aging, with the unhappy news of two heart valves eroding, with the revelation that my five children really have long set sail when I had thought they might still be floating closer to shore. Time seems a frail thing, until I remember that time is truly not a known quantity. It is not the be-all and end-all on earth, to me. It is certainly what we each make of it. The living heart never tires of one more tale that needs to be heard or told. And so I put pen to paper or fingers to computer keys and think of my mother, who always encouraged me, even once after her death as I stood on my balcony under the gentle stars, missing her: You must write the stories. She smiled, then vanished.

(Postscript: The last Christmas I saw my mother,  not so long before her passing, I gave her the manuscript of my novel. This is the picture of us after she looked at it. She was so happy to see it, and I to share it, that we kissed each other. She flew home with it. A couple weeks later she called: “It sure kept me turning the pages, moved right along. Good characters!” She passed in 2001 at age 92, four months before I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. She had congestive heart failure.)

The Heart Chronicles #13: Regarding the Strange Music of a Heart

After I met with a writer friend today, I thought (as I often have) there are times that all that needs to be said fits best in a poem. This can seem true to me even when dealing with heart specialists, who truly (reasonably so) love their own esoteric language. But I can get frustrated sitting in examination rooms, searching for the right words. It is challenging to articulate emotional nuances, sensory experiences, and random thoughts that accompany pain or sudden discomfort. Dizziness or breathlessness. A sense of suspension of time. Flashes of intuition that come from deep within–and how they can be an accurate alert system.  How can I tell Dr. P what it really is so he can better help?

Sitting on the table, the stethoscope against my back and chest, I often suspect that what my cardiologist hears is something other than what I hear within. Because I do hear my heart in my inner ear as well as feel its beating. Dr. P early on informed me that most people do not; some of us do. I had complained that it was annoying, sometimes distressing, but he reassured me that I was fortunate, as then I could quickly inform him when something seemed unusual, wrong. Reluctantly, I agreed, but how to translate it all?

Then came an appointment that built a bridge of communication with Dr. P. It was after the second stent implant 18 months following the first. My heart seemed confused and angry since the last invasions, even though relatively small ones–a fouth angiogram and the tiny stent implant. Despite it being successful, I had worse arrhythmias than ever. They distracted and interrupted my life. They hurt and alarmed. They reminded me, even when I felt  pretty well, that I had coronary artery disease. My heart chided me.

“If you were a musician I might be able to explain them better because they have distinctive patterns of rhythm,” I told him in exasperation.

He grinned. “It so happens I was a musician. I played trumpet in high school. So try me.”

“Good. Well, it’s like a run of sixteenth notes followed by a half-measure of rests, then maybe six or eight more sixteenth notes, then a rest that goes on so long I feel like I am going to pass out. Then a full note and it kicks back in hard with plain old four beats to the measure. And I’m back to normal. But sometimes it’s like acid jazz–free-form, you know? And it feels like it could actually kill me. ”

“So,” he said, “that’s great–I mean, this musical thing. I understand better.” He shook his head. “That’s sure a new way to interpret and explain.”

It was a relief that music had come to my rescue again. But that discovery also gave rise to musings about heart disease, music as central to my being and just how my life had been changed. And as I wrote, confoundment, a sort of awe and anger all came to the fore. So here is that poem–never given to Dr. P. One day, maybe. But it helped me.

Memo to a Cardiologist re: palpitations

I have told you what I know, how there are
hidden notes beneath the bursts of pain but
it is not like the songs of my childhood,
gentle and guileless,
nor the songs that I stole into the night to hear
when I thought I was old enough
to know some things, the music all bombastic and tricky.
This is more like jazz, all icicles and firecrackers,
split time and beyond time but
unable to quit, moon-dazzled and
howling but cool as can be.

Or it might be something else
all the notes and sounds that were forgotten
or shown the back door in a lifetime of concerts
now gathered and tossed onto taut drum skins,
sizzling, renegade rhythms,
speaking out of turn but not committed to anything,
damaging each other in their greed for recompense.

And then there are nights of errant dancers,
when they burst out of my ribs
and tap and stomp and slide across my chest,
their steps wild like bats in darkness,
pushing me from bed and into
the thick of it,
now a possessed woman, drinking air.

And all this time I think I need to write it down
for you, the quarter notes, sixteenths and dotted halves,
the peculiar rests amid the trills and fortes, decrescendos,
notes tripping over each other,
one long life/line of syncopated simpatico,
the rhythms daring me to do something, anything
when the beats heave themselves over a distant waterfall 
and are gone. Floating in rivers somewhere exotic.

Someone has called for intermission
and I am left with the wild taste of starlight and
hot blood, salt and the sharp reminder
that this is where I have been left and will have to resume,
my midnight manuscript in hand, pen poised,
the symphonic possibilities of Antarctica or Amazonia
still unheard by anyone but me,
this sudden incremental music
a foreshadowing of what is yet to come.

And it always comes, the second or third or fourth part
of this ordeal/song/ride to unknown destinations.
From here it seems dangerous and entrancing as
a white panther caught in a wildfire — I imagine her now
as I lay back–her feet scorched but poised for
a death-defying leap across the chasms.
This heart is beating like a thousand captive birds with
each tiny wing pushing against the wind,
all the way into heaven’s celestial soundings
and, perhaps, back home again.

copyright 20011 Cynthia Guenther Richardson