My Heart

In a clinical setting, every part of the body that is hidden away, invisible to the eye, can be compared to that which we can see.

My father shared this with me years ago upon learning he had bladder cancer, the blemished organ compared to a grapefruit by his physician, associated with something known.

I’d always had an aversion to grapefruit – to their bitterness – and in the grocery store later that night, feeling bitter, I remember holding one up to where I believed my bladder to be. Approximately.

It would take up a lot of space in there, I decided, and quickly replaced it.

It scared me to think about my body and its workings too much.

I once played a nurse on stage in a theatre production. After weeks of emoting through the hospital room scene, I began to think – “Maybe I should be a nurse.” I already had the uniform, the stethoscope, the necessary props that would give me access to understanding the science of the body.

I was accepted into a nursing program where I enrolled in basic chemistry, in medical terminology, in human anatomy. And while the other students in my cohort scribbled frantic lecture notes, I sat at my desk, lightheaded, my breathing shallow, the pulse points at my wrist throbbing hard. I could barely watch the demos on drawing blood or even taking a patient’s blood pressure without becoming ill. Ineffective. When rounds were assigned in an actual hospital, I left the program, my days as a nurse quickly reduced to a recollection that I had played one, once, on stage.

Three years ago, unexpectedly and very quickly, I had a stent placed into an abnormally blocked artery of my heart. I was sent home the next day with a diagnosis of coronary heart disease and didn’t have the option to ignore the workings of my flawed cardiovascular system. In fact, I was forced to think about it a lot, attending cardiac rehab classes to learn about changing my behaviors, about risk factors and about the anatomy of the heart. I did not become ill or ineffective. I took my own blood pressure and pulse. I educated myself on medications, on cholesterol levels.

And I learned that it wasn’t the workings of the body that frightened me as much as the idea of my own mortality – of anyone’s impermanence. I couldn’t bring myself to think of my life simplified to the functions of cells. I couldn’t stand the idea that a split-second pause of breath affected the lungs, the heart, the oxygen to the brain. It frightened me to consider the frailness just under the skin, the body’s delicate balance of veins and tissue and nerves. It terrified me that while I went about my business every day, making decisions and shaping my future, beneath the surface I had absolutely no control. None of us really do.

In a clinical setting, every part of the body that is hidden away can be measured by that which is visible, compared to that which we can see.

The heart – I’m told – is the size of a fist. I hold up my own hand and hold it to my chest, small and tight, imagine my heart within beating, pumping, hard and fast and alive with awareness. But from there, there is nothing against which I can measure the remarkable size or shape of what lies inside.