The Lives that Live in Drawers

DSCN1796My desk is crammed with paper items and I immediately got sidetracked from my objective–finding a document. Each drawer I opened revealed sign posts to other times. I realized my life could be considerably pieced together by whomever rooted around in the piles. Two deep drawers contained unsorted cards, letters, drawing and photos from many decades.

I shuffled the photos. My children stared back at me, busy, happy, worried, loving, annoyed, surprised, sassy. All aged before my eyes. I pondered how time and experience had molded them.

All children are born into a voluminous web of longing, desire, and hopefully, love. Some are not born easily, on a doctor’s timetable and certainly not with all the world at their naked feet. Some leave the aqueous mysteries of womb with fierceness and some with solemnity. The unique creature each baby is peers out at us with surprise and acceptance: this is the place to be. For now.

I had been informed at age twenty-one, after my first marriage, that I had a very slim–emphasis on very–chance of pregnancy due to reproductive problems. My core trembled with distress. After a couple of weeks I decided it was alright. Maybe some women were not meant physically or psychically for mothering. I was working hard to heal from some life-altering events, so allowed this might be best. And I was in college, studying creative writing, painting, sociology, art history. The man I’d married was a sculptor, obtaining his Master’s degree. We were poor but there was much to aspire to and to accomplish.

But a prognosis such as I was given should note dramatic exceptions. I got pregnant and gave birth to three of five children and every time it seemed an astonishing thing. Maybe the doctor had been wrong. But her concern about the reliability of my reproductive capacities was not.

My children did not arrive in a timely fashion. They were born prematurely. The heftiest was five lbs. four oz. This was thirty-five to forty years ago, when premature babies were always considered very high risk. Interventions often seemed desperate and minimal. Very tiny newborns were placed in Isolettes–really, incubators for human babies– in the hope they would survive, then grow well enough. That they would have minimal damage internally and externally. The probabilities of things going wrong outweighed any optimism. 

There had been warnings of things going askew almost from the start with intermittent cramping with bleeding, warning of a disastrous early labor. At six and one half months, there was no stopping my body’s insistence on slipping Naomi into earth’s atmosphere.

It was a night of a swirling blizzard. I was cold, fearful and overcome with the beauty of snow. It took longer than I expected, but I hovered on the rim of consciousness after being administered an alcohol-solution IV (something no longer done) for hours along with other medications. The foot of my bed was raised up to  encourage her to stay tucked inside longer. Labor and childbirth were experienced as though underwater, from a distance. I wondered how she felt about it.

And then she arrived. My first daughter was born shining through her skin. Her luminescence overtook all and burst into my awareness as hope in the flesh. Her tiny voice ensued like the cry of a new bird, insistent, soft. It was a moment of reckoning. For the doctors: She breathes but how much longer? For us: She breathes and so she will carry on. Even as she was attached to a monitor that noted any interruptions in vital functions, even as each sudden alarm cast a dark shadow across my prayers, I felt her spirit rise up to greet the world.

Naomi was born two and a half months early; she weighed two and a half pounds. She fit neatly into the nurses’ palms. Tiny veins traced purplish-blue designs under fragile skin. She held a purity and innocence despite her hard work of survival. I could not touch her; it was not allowed back then, not until she grew stronger, gained weight and could eat on her own. We watched nurses and doctors through a nursery window, saw her wriggle thin limbs, saw how unready she had been to come. Staff reached into the portals of her Isolette with gloved hands to check vitals. She accepted feeding tubes with forbearance. Her father and I pressed against the cool glass, watching our daughter stretch inside a glass box. We wanted to break into the room and that glass, pull her close forever.

That first time I whispered, “She has artistic hands, oh, look at her long beautiful fingers!” It was terrifying to not hold her, feel helpless in the face of so much wonder. I was not encouraged to keep breast milk flowing; she was too weak to nurse. And it was not the way in nineteen seventy-three. I wept hard over it.

For over two months she remained there. We drove  forty minutes to the hospital each way many times a week. Each visit increased our longing. But Naomi grew strong; her eyes began to focus better and follow us. She finally breathed well and drank from a bottle.

She came home at last, into the lushness of spring and our arms.

Caring for a preemie infant, even one with no serious issues, is not without challenge. There was finicky digestion that presaged allergies, sleep issues, skin sensitivities. She quickly tired of being touched, so foreign was it to her realm of experience. There were painful ear infections, a fickle immune system. But in the midst of this was a reigning delight. Her tenderness of spirit and probing curiosity were evident as soon as she began to better interact with others and the environment. Her determination to thrive and explore were heartening. As for me, being a mother was an epiphany, a series of lessons in love.

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A first word uttered was “moon.” Her eyes were two blue stars glowing in the center of my universe. Large, round and keenly focused, their new acuity informed me of intrigue once unseen. She was indeed an artist; her hands guided me in making new the ordinariness of things. I discovered how to be accountable not out of obligation but out of devotion. How, in fact, to build another life, a far finer one. Her very presence, as well as the duties required, aided in saving me from myself. I think it can be said that my first daughter taught me how to love without expectation. To know God in a more intimate manner.

Each child gives us a chance to find the best in ourselves. As we go along for the journey a child’s presence and needs define a new life together. One’s first child unearths a great and ancient story of primeval bonds, of the boundlessness of familial loyalty. The first child informs us of ourselves in ways we cannot imagine.

Before Naomi, I had given little thought to parenting; I had babysat only a handful of reluctant times. But my knowledge was hourly expanded with skills soon diversifying. Moment by moment, I became more willing to traverse that rugged, breathtaking terrain. I realized parental love fills a bottomless well from the inside out; it is there despite our errors.

Naomi plumped up and communicated with us but didn’t speak sentences until well after she was two. We worried a bit. But she spent hours building complicated designs from blocks and other more random items. We watched her, loathe to interrupt. Her concentration was uncanny. She could sit at my feet and play while I wrote poetry and stories. She did not have any disabilities that we could see. Instead, she became a gifted student. Her need to gather knowledge, make sense of the universe and create of its components were an intellectual engine that drove her. But quietly, so that teachers commented on how she seemed to disappear at times. Her way of being was marked by tenderness toward others, as well. The capacity for stillness and observation grew. She increasingly focused on visual arts although she also had excellent aptitudes for mathematics and science. She completed her Masters of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University, and became the visual artist she was meant to become.

Time has altered some things but not all. Her passion for the arts and for learning have taken her many places. She is no longer the quiet one off to the side. She has been making all kinds of art for many years– sculpture, installations, performance art, videos and photographs, printmaking, drawings–and teaches at a liberal arts college, as well as coordinating the art gallery. Exhibiting often and winning prizes, she has also attended many artist residencies here and in other countries.

The infant who appeared delicate and weak in doctors’ eyes and spectacular in ours defied the odds for that time. She became strong in body and mind, and has hewed her path with tenacity and vision. I cannot begin to tell you how much I admire her charitable heart and independent spirit. Her courage to create despite the obstacles that being an artist presents. She has made my own world a more habitable and happy place.

This is a very brief story of one of three children who were not supposed to be here. And there are two others, also welcomed, who were given to me to help raise. They each inspire and intrigue me. Do you begin to see why those pictures waylay me. I am in my sixth decade. That is how motherhood is; it is never truly set aside.

My drawers remain stuffed. They need a full day of attention. And my thoughts are still full of color, tumbling, rushing, rippling as I contemplate all the treasures. What a grand tale every life is. What an exotic, a lustrous thing.

Naomi-6

A prescient poem by Naomi, age 12. Her website is www.naomijfalk.com.

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Under the Baby Grand Piano

IMG_2343Under the baby grand piano was an undisturbed expanse. Sunlight brightened beige carpet and sage green walls. The legs of the piano were mammoth, at the end of which were brass rollers, in case anyone thought to move it. If I lay still and touched the wood, I could feel the vibrations of the chords and melodies brought alive by my siblings or father. I could watch feet at work on the pedals, altering the presentation of notes. I could see the underpinnings of the piano and marveled that it held everything needed for such sounds, especially when the top was propped open. If I was quiet and my father wasn’t giving string lessons, I could stay undisturbed a long while.

I brought pillows to create a miniature home within the small domain. My dolls took their seats or made their way through a maze of textured softness, to the length of curtains, behind which they would wait. They came out to converse, fume and laugh, to smile and bow. Then back they went into their pillowy house where we would listen to the piano’s bountiful voice, enchanted. Sleepy. I put them to bed with brilliant scarves my mother gave me; they doubled as dolls’ clothing and impromptu partitions. I covered my face with a floral scarf, then lay back. This was a front row seat. This was my own hidden world, and I was stage manager, director, actors.  The music surrounded me–piano joined by cello or violin or clarinet– and fluttered or blazed its way into mind and heart. My dolls had to be told what I already knew: this was simply home.

Such found spaces were the start of an obsession with dwellings that stayed with me. As a child, it was the piano space and the hideaway behind the evergreens in the back yard. It included the aging maple tree, as well, for branches could be chairs, leafy limbs could be walls and stairs to, depending on the number of climbers, the treetop look-out.

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I grew up in a three bedroom, one bath home that housed seven persons. It was a household that welcomed neighbors, frequent visitors, or students of my father. My parents entertained regularly and fit a number of people into the modest but attractive dining and living rooms. The Michigan bungalow was less accommodating than what was preferred, especially since it was not as large as the rambling old Missouri house referred to by the street corner it was on, “Trenton and Lamb”, with its many fruit trees, breezeway and larger rooms. But the house I grew up in didn’t feel that crowded to me. The bedroom we three sisters shared was adequate. My brothers were a dash across the hall. We learned patience and fought quietly. There were ways to create space within space, with books or blankets or a closed closet door. Or a piano. And our yard and the tree nursery behind were heaven.

As I grew up I began to sketch houses as a way to challenge myself and indulge a love of design. Rooflines slanted this way and that; living rooms incorporated glass ceilings or streams; screened balconies were big enough for pajama parties in humid summer nights. I drew the houses I wanted to live in when I grew up: cottages on lakes, glass and fieldstone forest homes, habitations that hid in the sides of hills. And an old, narrow brownstone, of which I had read and thought quite exotic. Once, when I was old enough to accompany my parents to the swanky home of their arts-patron friends, I was overcome with glee when I saw a tall tree rising through the rooms, through the roof. Anything was possible, I decided. I saw what could be done, how people could match houses to dreams.

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I lived a lot of places after leaving my parents’ home. As a college student and newlywed, I once inhabited a chicken coop that was more likely a shed. It had, of course, been fully renovated but one could barely walk in and out of the tiny spaces we called rooms. At the peak of the roof in the kitchen and bathroom we could stand up full height but without elbow room to move. I can’t say I was fond of it, but it was unique, and was shelter enough for a time.

IMG_2351By age thirty or so, I stopped counting how many times I moved, either for school or work. Over time there were several children joining us. Then divorces. Buying a house seemed a far-off dream.  For someone who had grown up in one house, it was surprising how easily I adapted. I was, in fact, excited about each new city or town  and with it, the discovery process of making new friends. I had an expansive appetite for adventure; the apartments and houses were part of it, the setting for a life.

Without money to burn or a gift for either decorating or domesticity, I had a few challenges. There were my own paintings at first, then prints and photographs hung. There were ways to make things feel intimate, eclectic, homey. Candles blurred imperfections. Incense camouflaged telltale remnants of previous tenants. Books overflowing bookshelves fixed any dull spot. My cello and a few guitars looked handsome in the corner. Handmade ceramics lent an artistic, earthy feel. Colorful pillows and wall hangings (harkening back to life under the piano), children’s art work, warm color on well-used walls: it could be a place to call one’s own, if even for a short while. Add love and we were set.

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Then we were transferred to Tennessee, where we bought an A-frame house on a half-acre of land. It was built into a hill and from the road the A-shape looked deceptively like one-story. An anomaly in the small, southern town with a village green, it reminded us of northern Michigan homes. With four bedrooms, two baths and two spacious living areas it was large enough for five kids and then some. There was a murky pond which we soon found attracted snakes. There was gardening space which rendered a few good vegetables despite ignorance and weather. Insects abounded, which interested me, except for the black widows in the woodpile–but they were worth a quick look. Facing away from the road, on the ground level, were two bedrooms, a family room, kitchen, all of which looked out onto a large yard and woods. We had a woodstove to use in winter. I kept the fires going while my husband worked long hours. I loved the work, the country- modern feel of the house. I dreamed of getting a big dog but the neighbor’s German Shepherd mix visited daily. The cicadas rasped and buzzed in the deep heat of summer and we watched thunderstorms roll past our large windows. The kudzu vines that grew rapidly were mighty and strange. It was green hilly country coupled with good architecture.

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When we left less than two years later, it was the dog who made us cry. He leapt up and licked our faces as we closed the door. We left too soon, but a career called us to another place and a new start once more: Detroit. Still, we found a place in the outskirts, in a suburb that looked like a village putting on fancy raiment. It was not what we’d hoped, smaller and older and in need of a facelift. There would be changes again in a few years. And more after that.

Today I live in the inimitable Pacific Northwest, where the land itself takes my breath away. If that isn’t enough, my city offers a panorama of structures; it favors both old and new. I remain enamored of structures and gardens–of houses, in particular. I pour over good architecture magazines and books. You will find me walking our distinctive neighborhoods, eyes scanning placement of windows, finesse of a portico, the way a veranda encircles a house to bring the outdoors in but keep family and friends close. I take my camera everywhere. I don’t want to miss the odd element or small detail.

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You might be surprised: I don’t live in a wildly imaginative or beautiful home. I live simply. It is what we need for now and suits me. But I sometimes long for, even dream of just the right house. I still secretly draw, add a warm watercolor sheen, light dappling a courtyard. As we are apt to do as we get older, I wonder if becoming an architect rather than a counselor would have been a good path. Regardless, you and I inspire our dwellings, create whatever we need them to be, and they can inspire us in return. They are, as in my baby grand piano fort so long ago, our places to be fully ourselves. Home.

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Naming the Beauties and Beasts

Sitting on the rickety bench made of well-seasoned wood, I chewed on the pencil eraser. It tasted rubbery but also like words, the little and big ones I had gotten rid of while list-making. I studied my list now: Anisa, Melody, Rena, Roan, Genevieve, Carter, Tupper, Link. There were more. I updated my notebook of names sometimes daily. They were people I had not yet fully met but wondered over, with their singular lives and vast stores of knowledge, their foolishness and kindnesses. Their violent hearts. Little lies. Arms full of flowers for anyone who was lucky enough to cross their paths. Hands of love like birds nesting.

They lived and breathed just as surely as I felt the dampness of leftover morning dew on my bare feet. Robins sang out a morning newscast. The pine trees leaned in to me with their dark greenness; I felt the spongy carpet of old pines needles with my toes. If I was lucky, no one would find me for awhile.

What next?

I wrote in a bigger notebook with smooth, grown up college-lined pages: “Rena and Roan knew their way up the path. They had been out to the mountain many times. Roan whinnied a little as his mistress settled on his back and then he picked up speed. Behind them, Tupper sat on the porch, worrying his pipe, the smoke disappearing into the cloudy sky. Somewhere out there Link was fixing fence and not thinking about anything else. Rena would change that.”

“Cindy! Time for breakfast and then chores!”

I scratched an old mosquito bite on my leg. Why did they sometimes call me that awful name? It was Cynthia. Names were pretty important. I knew that even at only ten years old and kept my Book of Names handy.

I propped my head on my hands and turned a little so that I could see a bright sliver of Stark’s Nursery through the branches. A dirt road cut through the swath of tiny new trees and bushes. It beckoned me. I could wander through the nursery for hours, thinking of girls who ran with Bengal tigers, or a ship of spies sailing to Shanghai. I acted out many parts in the stories in the nursery, away from prying eyes.

Something fell thorugh the branches, then stopped its descent. I suddenly thought of outlaws and shining knives that were hidden in leather sheaths on belts and shivered. That was not the story I was working on although it often came back to me. I hadn’t found a place for it in my notebook yet. No, it was Rena today. So, why was she going to that mountain? To take something to Link? Yes, a letter from far away, the one he had dreaded and wanted all at once…

The bushes parted and the hidden doorway cracked open.  My sister stuck her head in.

“Mom says come in now. What are you up to?”

“Writing a story.”

“Oh. Well, write later. We have to practice our music lesson and you have to straighten up the living room and then dust and I have my stuff to do. Their bridge party tonight, remember? The Halls and Grays are coming and I forget who else. I’ll be gone by then!”

Gloria squinched her eyes and wrinkled her nose, then stepped back, the bushes closing over her. I could see her shoes, mostly white tennis shoes. I reached down and grabbed a shoelace and as she walked off she tripped, then laughed as she righted herself. I waited for her to charge back into the hideaway; instead, she ran across the back yard. The screen door bounced once, twice, and then was quiet.

I sighed. Streaks of sunlight were sneaking in and warming me up. The pine needles gave off a toasted pine scent that made me drowsy. I closed my eyes and soon was half-dreaming, wandering into a woods somewhere far off, maybe the Black Forest in Germany. Where beautiful dragons lurked who could be friend or enemy in a flash, and powerful men kept watch over all trees and food. Where women and girls often fended for themselves. Only the smartest and fastest survived and when they did, they were made Victorious and Wise Queens of Hyacinth Castle.  The one they had rebuilt after the terrible winter storm…or maybe it was the smaller one they had taken from the weeping dragon…was she still around? Yes, Fraxonia.

A fly buzzed my nose. I shook it off and peered between the branches at the nursery. I thought about walking in the forests up north, near Interlochen Music Camp where we were all headed in a few weeks. That was it: the one real place I often longed to be. Interlochen. Where there was nothing but music and art and dance and plays and writing stories. Starlight on water. Sailboats breezey in the sun. Nothing else mattered there. Just letting wonder happen. Making something small become bigger and better, with work. What stories would come to me there?

The notebooks fell off my lap and I opened my eyes. The Book of Names had opened to the center page. And on it was one word: Charlisa. I whispered her name and picked up my pencil, drew the edge of a lake and placed Charlisa there. She held her hand to her eyes and surveyed the towering trees.

“This time,” Charlisa thought, “this time there will be an end to the dark mystery that imprisons our land and we will all walk free again.”

I sat up and studied the drawing. Not the best but no matter, Charlisa was about to…. what? Make a tree house? Find her friend the messenger? I could hear my mother walking across the yard. I reluctantly closed my notebooks and stuck my pencil behind my ear. Then I went through the hidden doorway and into the other world where my mother had paused at the cherry tree.

“I know, I know,” I said grumpily.

But she smiled the way she did when she was teasing, her grey-blue eyes bright in the spring morning, and asked,  “What did you write about today?”

I put my arm around her waist. “I was naming more characters. But then Rena and Roan came up again–out there on the ranch. But the best thing was Charlisa. The one I couldn’t figure out at all. It turns out she has found her lost country. Now she has to get to work and make things happen.”

“Good, more to come. But right now, food, and then other work,” my mother said and we entered the house where blueberries and french toast waited.

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A postscript: After my mother died in May 2001, I became disheartened when I was  diagnosed with heart disease and was unemployed; I have written of these events in other posts. One night I was watering flowers on the balcony, wondering what to do next– not with my life, exactly, but just how to best live it, especially as I was not sure (and still am not; is anyone?) how long there was left. Sadness seemed to follow me day and night. But that early evening I felt her presence strong and clear as though she stood by me, and she said one thing only: “You must write.”  I suppose she thought I needed a reminder that I have always had to “name the beauties and beasts” and let them speak in Story. So that is what I still try to do, even on those days when all appears to be a shadowy mystery, or when there seems nothing left to say, as it has seemed the past few days. There is always a story waiting to come forward, so I sit down and write once more.

The Heart Chronicles #17: A Heart that Flies

Today I was thinking about the ways poetry has helped my heart become better literally and figuratively.

I became lovestruck by the fourth grade. We were instructed to write a poem after having been read children’s poetry from a big anthology. My classmates wiggled impatiently in their seats, stared out the window, tapped their pencils, whispered of other things. But I sat with head down, pencil racing across the paper as though in a trance. I saw on the vast canvas of my mind an old man on a raft; it was raised aloft by the sea’s heaving green waves. He was sailing toward a place that he loved, a far away home that drew him forward, but he was tired. A flock of seagulls called out, soaring and diving. The old man, though both hearty and wise, thought he might not make it. He raised his eyes to the strong-winged birds and they brought him sea plants. He tied them to the raft and the seagulls took the other ends into their mouths. The wind blew mightily. The seagulls pulled the raft with the old man on it to his beloved destination.

It was a rather long poem, the teacher said, but she liked it. Still, just where did that poem come from? I had no good answer. It had just visited me and I got to write it down. That year it was chosen to be read at a conference on childhood education and creativity. That seemed a bit odd to me,  as the best thing was the happiness I felt in the making of my first real poem. That it had given pleasure to others was a pleasing side note.

And so I continued to write poems as I grew up. I liked to write plays and stories but poetry was the strongest voice, the one that took all the feelings, thoughts, ideas and crystallized them one by one. I read Theodore Roethke, Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser,  Elizabeth Browning, Rainier Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, ee cummings–the list grew each year as I was left amazed by their prowess. A poem was the undiluted experience, the truth of one moment, a sage that taught me what I needed to know. They brought to the light many things that were wandering in the shadows. A poem could, and did, change my thinking and clarify my feelings, even alter the course of my life. 

Writing poetry has saved some part of me more times than I could recount. It has at times been the one companion or help available regardless of the time of day or night,  state of my love life,  health of my body,  or life circumstances that brought me plenty or paltriness. Many kinds of writing have upheld me but poetry’s brevity has perhaps taught me more.

After I was diagnosed with heart disease, I found I could write little other than poems. Most were not shared; they were vulnerable poems, poems needed to cleanse and heal myself, akin to prayers.  There were not the words for big stories at first, nor the energy. What I could not explain in speaking with others, I could say easily in poems. The deepest or hardest experiences would often have no voice at all if not for them. When I grappled with losses spanning the years–of health, of love, of family or friends, or of simply time, itself–a poem would rescue me from self-pity, self-importance, self-abnegation. It freed me and brought closer the center of all that I loved, to God and a sense of the numinous. More clearly part of the whole, I rested.

I read today about several meanings of the phrase “the flying heart”.  The winged heart symbol of the Sufi movement is reflective of the belief that it lies between the body and the soul, a conduit between matter and spirit.   Egyptian symbology indicates that wings are the symbol of spiritual progress and the heart was the only organ not removed from a mummy–an emerald stone was placed upon the chest to assist the journey from matter to spirit. In Christian scripture there are phrases that refer to a person’s spirit being lifted by wings of the heart. The Old Testament mentions the heart 814 times; it is seen as having higher intelligence than the brain. Psalms instruct us to “lift up your hearts.”  This is what poetry can do for me: my heart can fly and, in so doing, it can make more rapid connections to mind, matter, heart and spirit.  I become humbled and liberated by the truth I am made to discover. 

And so, I offer you one poem that surfaced as my heart dis-ease was still healing.

 

Lake Language

These are damaging times,
when all the words left seem
too little or self-important,
and since I had ridden the tail end
of the procession of grief,
not one syllable could tell me anything good.

So, I left for the lake, its imperishable
silences and soundings,
its mutations ranging from deep to deeper,
the sterling surface exhaling blues and greens
while I slept, innocent.

That next day the sun rose like a crown.
What seemed to be rain drops
were branches shushing the world.
Leaves flew across
my face,  burning with color
and clinging to my shoulders in
an impromptu cape that streamed
all the way to paradise.

Every small mystery bounded the trails
so I wouldn’t lose my way: 
moss and lichen clinging to
heavy nurse logs,
black beetles in shining armor,
bees feasting til the very last moment,
streams rumbling ancient warrior ground.

I would have danced among the cedars,
risen on plumes of scented mist,

but the lake called,
waves glimmering and thrusting toward
the shore, stones turning over
like happy creatures,
clouds drinking at the edge,
its enormity clearer than light,
its pure glacier heart warming in my hands

(Poem written at Crescent Lake in the Olympic National Park, 10/02)

The Heart Chronicles#10: My Father’s Heart Still Guides Me

I was walking as fast as I could as the incline increased.  Perspiration bloomed at my forehead and chest, and my legs were straining. The thundering in my head seemed reasonable: 136 beats per minute and rising. It was hard to talk, so I concentrated on breathing steadily, mouth slightly open to allow more oxygen. I noted the rate of speed– 4.5 miles per  hour on a good incline.

“Had enough?” the nurse asked after fifteen  minutes.

“I’m getting a bit tired,” I replied, “but I want to–”

“You’re right up there for having taken your beta blocker last night. Did just great.”

And with that she slowed down the treadmill and I had no choice but to jump off, lie down and be still as possible so I could submit to the echocardiogram procedure. I was courteously commanded to hold my breath over and over although I was desperate for air. Breathe quickly, hold again, my lungs ready to burst, the muscle of my heart working furiously.  But the beats were even and they slowed gradually. In less than five minutes I was on my feet, breath easy, no pain. Still, I had wanted to go longer on the treadmill, work harder, until I could do no more. How much better could I have managed this time? Had the daily walking in every sort of weather and hiking in the woods on week-ends plus roller skating a few times, random dancing in the living room–had they made enough difference to improve my heart’s strength and overall functioning? Were the arteries still good enough?

“I train for this every year, you know,” I said before leaving the cardiovascular institute staff. They laughed. “Okay, it’s not a marathon, but it’s a little sprint, and I exercise as much as I can. I almost look forward to it–it’s a challenge. See you next week for the results.”

Every year I enter and depart the medical building, my previous visits are recalled. This is not just because I am hoping to mark progress and express gratitude.  When I stand in front of the elevator, I can see the hospital where I’ve arrived by ambulance more times than I want to recall. It is also the place where my cardiologist–capable, good-humored, frank, and attentive (what more could I ask for?)–saved my life by propping open a narrowed artery with two stent implants. He has accomplished even more by motivating me to change my thinking about health and well-being.

Still, there is a greater reason I pause at the window. My father was a patient in that very hospital at age eighty-three. He and my mother were visiting four of their children and a few grandchildren here in the Pacific Northwest when he became very ill. He had already survived a heart attack when he was seventy-one and had managed well enough in the intervening years. But the quadruple bypass he ended up having during that visit did not go well. Although he was released from the  hospital, we all knew he was not long with us. The day the procedure dramatically failed, I sat with my arms around him, listening to the siren wind up the hills to my sister’s house. The EMTs had to pry my arms away. We had all gathered to spend time with him; our beloved father passed not long after.

I never imagined I would need medical care for heart disease, and  at the same place (did we have the same operating room? I anxiously wondered one time). Return to the building next door year after year. Gaze out the window. Ponder us both, father and youngest daughter.

My father’s heart: it lives on within me. It is not the illness I refer to, but, rather, the ways in which he has influenced my walk through this world. Lawrence Guenther was a charismatic, public man who was well-loved as a musician, conductor, music arranger and educator, and as a person. Our house hummed with students who came for private string lessons. He tutored five children, including me, in the discipline and wiles of classical music. The phone rang constantly as people sought his advice or asked whether he was free to play in another quartet, at a church service, for an operetta. I used to complain of being his secretary after my siblings were gone, taking messages, checking the wall calendar. Which night was symphony rehearsal? Which Saturday morning was free to make extra money tuning a piano? When could he appraise a great-grandfather’s fiddle found in a dusty attic?

But of more significance to me were the activities in which he engaged that allowed casual, closer proximity. A man who had a keen interest in sciences, we enjoyed naming the constellations and discussing ever-changing landscapes explored during summer vacations. Later, when my parents travelled abroad, he excitedly shared slide shows, and I thrilled to the images of grand cathedrals as well as narrow sides treets packed with people of many cultures. He had a great curiosity about the mechanics of things, whether it was a sailboat, stereo system or toaster, or anything with wheels that he could repair and drive–from motorcycles to a three-wheeled foreign car to well-used bicycles.  I  recall riding to school on the back of one of his motorbikes. He was dressed in his suit and tie. I held his briefcase in one hand and hung on with the other, my hair streaming and skirt riding up, enjoying the stares of my classmates as we pulled into the parking lot.  

A person who loved games and puzzles, he created several of both.  We snatched time to play dominoes, Scrabble, Chinese and regular checkers and card games. Naturally competitive, he held me to the rules and made me work for every “win.”

He had a tiny basement repair shop I loved to visit. The sounds, smells and sights were exotic to me as a child. People brought their stringed instruments with hairline fractures in lustrous wood, or brass and woodwinds in need of refurbishment. His specialty was working with violins, violas, cellos and basses.  Watching his long-fingered, ambidextrous hands at work was a comfort, no matter what work they were about. I would lean close into the pool of workbench light as he evaluated, by listening, touching and using discerning vision, every telltale sign and symptom. The glue-pot simmered; he also repaired bows, re-hairing them with care. He explained what he was doing and why. All the work tools of his trade were lined up on a long pegboard,  and I handled them carefully, putting them back. When my father was finished with a violin, he hung it on a clothesline strung across a larger room and we would admire the burnished wood shining under the lights. And he would play each instrument to make certain music issued forth just as it was intended. It would send a frisson of happiness through me to hear it made right again.

I can see him at the head of the dining room table, the table cloth set with iris-adorned china and lovely crystal water glasses. He would reach to hold my hand and another’s, and say a simple prayer of thanksgiving. Throughout the meal he might talk a bit about a concerto mauscript he was studying or upcoming arts events, share a joke from Reader’s Digest, quiz me about classical music playing on the radio. But most of the time he wasn’t one to waste words. In fact, they were often fewer than I would have liked. Yet it was what he did, who he was, that made such a difference.

Once when I was a youth I told him how much people valued  him, as I wondered if he really knew. I shyly shared that one person even said he was “a great man”. He was silent a moment, and then quietly answered, “True greatness comes from humility. So I would hope to be known as a humble man, and as someone who dedicated my life to what I love.” I felt his embarrassment, so left him and found something to do, but I understood well and never forgot.

And I was certain what he loved: God, my lovely and strong-willed mother, the children and extended family, teaching and making music. The mysterious universe. Small adventures. Learning. Being kind if at all feasible.  I watched him and learned: beyond our shared heart disease and despite my struggles to live well, my father’s heart still guides me. He set the bar high; I work towards reaching it in my own way.

Next week I will return to Dr. P’s office and learn the results of the stress echocardiogram. I will linger at that window in the hallway, think about my father and hearts that have faulty mechanics. But I will remember his love, and then move on.