The size of a fist, its valves and veins amaze me. I am captivated by the miracle of the heart this week. It beats in each of us, from our first breath to our last, yet how little we consider its…loyalty, its reliability.
On Monday, my stepfather had urgent triple-bypass open-heart surgery. He had been having pain and tightness in his chest and neck on his neighborhood walks with my mother. Days after he saw his doctor for the abnormalities, I found myself meeting with his cardiac surgeon to provide moral support to my parents and help translate doctor-speak. I’m not a doctor. But I had questions I wanted to make sure were asked and answered precisely — questions my mother and her husband might be too overwhelmed at the moment to put plainly. My stepfather is 70. He has diabetes. He is in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s. My mother is still recovering from the death of her mother. It has been a painful year for both of them.
All things considered, the surgeon was not worried. He does this every day. We, on the other hand, do not. So it has been an unusual week. Mom is bunking with us in Manhattan so she can be closer to the hospital. She is sleeping on a pull-out couch, bearing with the disappointing thin mattress. I am working from the waiting room at the hospital. It’s drab and clinical, but the wifi works. The television is playing soap operas that I thought went off the air years ago. On the wall are “thank you” signs, seemingly drawn by children, expressing gratitude to the brave hospital workers who “put their lives on the line for us” during the pandemic. We have both sanitized our hands 428 times since Monday.
It’s been three days since Pop came out of surgery, more tubes running through him than a summer water park. He’s doing well so far. I remain astonished that someone — who is well trained — can slice your chest, saw your breast plate, open your chest, remove a vein from your forearm and use it, like a pipe-cleaner for an arts-and-crafts project, to build three bypass tubes — all while the heart keeps pumping. Then put everything back in place and sew you back up like nothing happened. Conceptually, the telephone still baffles me. So does the radio and the airplane. Off-pump open-heart surgery is truly astounding.
At least once a day this week, I have put my hand over the miracle in my own chest. This thing keeps ticking day and night, sleep and no sleep, winter and spring, through rain, sun, snow, sleet, a tornado. Through the sadness of life and its elations. Its excitements. Its devastations. When the world takes our breath away and when time stops, this heart keeps going. It is the center of each of us, a muscle, invented by no one, a clearinghouse through which all of our life passes. It cares not if the day is incredible, spent on a rollercoaster, or if it is mundane, spent right here in the waiting room. It is undeterred. It just keeps on beating.