Conversations with a Human Heart.
The piece to follow originally appeared on elephantjournal.com. You can visit it at its first home here.
“Sometimes I’m terrified of my heart; of its constant hunger for whatever it is it wants. The way it stops and starts.” — Poe
In my weakest moments, when I succumb to her worry, I am sure I will die of a broken heart; not of unrequited love, but because my heart breaks slowly for herself.
Last night, the familiar sensation inched down my sternum and burrowed itself inside my lungs. The delicate intercostals did their best, but were permeated with ache—the sting that moves so gracefully through this tender cage and nestles into these porous lungs.
If it wasn’t awful, it would all be quite beautiful: the way the pressure bleeds down tired limbs, the way the tightness weaves slowly, symmetrically, toward a constricted center. A sinister ballet, choreographed to the timid beats of my center.
She bellows out, my heart. She pleads, not tonight. Not again, not tonight. She quickens in anticipation. She knows the pain creeps on—determined, resentful and proud.
The lungs, they’ll make way over time. They’re delicate and shy and don’t care for confrontation. They need to be nurtured. They need space—so much space and light and air and all of the beautiful things that I imagine as absent in this thoracic cavity.
And the thought pirouettes through waking consciousness: My heart chakra is a vacuum.
So the pain, it moves inward. It moves now from those obedient intercostals to the delicate lungs and it moves slowly, with grace, to wrap itself around a courageous heart. She’s brave. Belligerent. And terrified. Stuck somewhere between desperation and admiration, I use up each ‘wish upon a star, blow out the candles’ kind of moment for nights that aren’t tarnished with frustration.
When the pressure finally encapsulates this living drum, she still cries out, but her tone has changed somehow. Ringing truer than her words is her pitch—the quality shifted, turned untrustworthy; and I mourn another loss.
I hate her at times for what she’s done to me, for what she’s made of me—subservient, dependent, changeable; just as she quietly hates a piece of me for having this disease. It’s tiny, a mere sliver, caught in the side of her left foot. She doesn’t notice it most days; but then, it gets aggravated and she wonders how she’ll ever get along with it—how can she possibly endure?
I’ve witnessed similar slivers of harmony with her; but much of our time is spent arguing over the constitution of joy. The moments of continuity—though rarer than we’d like—remind us of our vintage selves. We celebrate when these shadows arrive. We dance together—strangers unaware, but for the radiating joy that can be glimpsed through hazel eyes.
She beats, though inconsistent in pace, even when this body of ours defies our unified wishes. It is in those allied moments that I know the meaning of pride. Though her tempo may waiver, she’s not yet concerned with keeping up with the world; for now, she settles for more reasonable markers of success: a morning without sadness or an evening without fear. The forever-goal. The exception.
With these fickle, waking hours, her beats quicken and slow as the messages that move between us expand and recoil like breaths. The conversation is not always clear, it rarely comes easily. But even when we quarrel, each evening she waits. And when the sleep finally comes, she unfolds in hopes that dreams will dissolve the memory of our pain.
I see it clearly on undisturbed nights, the image of perfection I’ve craved for so long. Not the teenaged-version of starved beauty, but the heart-longing. The song she taught me so long ago: freedom.
But it escapes me now, I can only sense the edge of that melody. Residual energy. The psychic imprint.
“The first sound—the ‘lub’—is made by the mitral and tricuspid valves closing at the beginning of systole (SIS-toe-lee). Systole is when the ventricles contract, or squeeze, and pump blood out of the heart.
The second sound—the ‘DUB’—is made by the aortic and pulmonary valves closing at the beginning of diastole (di-AS-toe-lee). Diastole is when the ventricles relax and fill with blood pumped into them by the atria.”
But none of that makes sense to her or me or anyone anymore. Her song is not the same.
Her lub used to comfort and ground when the strain of being was too much to bear. Her DUB used to free, melt through the darkness to let the light pour in.
On the good days, her irregularities aren’t a flaw or symptom. They’re tracks—changing rhythm, key, cadence—somehow unified. All undeniably hers, her beautiful productions, but she longs for that final song—the one to which I used to feel connected; the one he can hear because it spoke to his heart too.
Other days she betrays the words that are delivered by this tongue: I’m fine. It isn’t so bad tonight. And I can feel her shrug, disgusted. In retaliation, she weeps and she struggles and she pulls me down below the depths of what is comfortable, tolerable, safe.
She demands her audience. She screams a song, distorted. Like something feral, she lashes out and I’m left to define and redefine my commitment to her. Remember why all of this work matters, I say to the space I’ve found myself in.
Today I try to care for her, as I try to care for me.
Loving this heart means speaking to her, even when I’m unsure she hears my voice.
Knowing this heart means trusting. Believing that in her deepest fibers, she still sings a song and the song is just for me.
And then it becomes quiet. The message she sends with every beat arrives:
You must listen, actively listen. You have to sit still and listen. Be patient. We must heal in a way that is raw and full of discomfort; but it can be beautiful too, if we let it. We must accept the agony of growth with the ecstasy of being. Remember what it means to listen, and to speak my truth—because I know fear like you know fear. Even in pain, harmony can exist.
There are lessons deep inside her chambers. The heart has four, but they don’t know that; they are unaware of an identity independent of the whole. I imagine them as drifting voices. A vignette of song and pulse.
We must recognize what makes us independent, then cast it away to allow for magic. We are music makers when we surrender to the rhythm that drums steadily inside of us. It’s there. We need only listen and trust.
When I give myself over, she sings a new song. Her new song is gentle, yet imploring. She sings of honor and trust and faith. She sings of honesty, of reckless truth.
There is irony in clinging so fiercely to a freedom. Imprisoned by the notion of what was, what should be.
Let go, she whispers.
Freedom doesn’t mean traveling anymore. It doesn’t mean skipping between concerts or breaking up with lovers. Freedom means knowing that a physical affliction does not have to destroy a spiritual bond. Freedom means seeing her and I as chambers of the same beating drum.
Some mornings I wake up and realize the pain is just physical. She isn’t distressed, isn’t confused. And on these mornings, I whisper to the DUB, thank you—not so loud as to startle her, just loud enough. So if she is softly resting, the words might find their way into her memory of me. On those mornings, I let words spill from my center, words she sends to the open air up above—words like these—to remind me that she longs to restore this marriage too. In those beautiful moments, she can sit with it, composed and firm, as it inches toward her sacred space.
And so, this heart has been on my mind a great deal lately: her physical function, her spiritual implications, how she grows and heals.
My heart has hurt a little; pulled between what my spirit wants and what my body is willing to give, she struggles.
Acknowledging the gap that I (we) want to mend.
This helps—always (always).