Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hearts Made of Stone, or Crossing the Bionic Border

As I write, the two-day-old incision on my left shoulder is slowly healing.  The muscle in my heart is beginning to form scar tissue, to cover and secure the two tiny barb-tipped wires that were threaded into my heart through a vein, and then twisted until they buried their little corkscrewed ends into my flesh.  I dimly remember an old stop-action nature film, of wild oats planting themselves.  Fallen to the ground, and moist from a recent rain, the seeds' coats begin to swell, and the long, thin, whisker-like leafy coverings twist themselves together, lifting the seed head up off the ground.  Then, drying out, the whiskers let the seed heads falls back, and then untwist again, turning the pointy seed head into the soil and burying it.  (Pig penises apparently have a formal similarity, but we'll just picture wild oats for now)

Less than twelve hours after having been released from the hospital where heart surgery was performed on me, so quickly, in the morning, I was in another hospital, in their emergency room.  I had been having throbbing, tearing pains in my chest, and as I was being admitted, and as more needles were being poked into my arms, I was becoming ever more deeply certain that this hi-tech 'solution', this soi-disant 'pacemaker' I'd chosen to remedy my ailing heart, was actually an irreversible mistake, and that surely I would be dying very, very soon.  Very soon.  Within hours.

My surgeon and the pacemaker manufacturer's technical representative showed up, and as I was now lying on an emergency room bed of questionable cleanliness, with the usual profusion of tubes and hoses and wires spouting from me like... well, like one of my own pieces of artwork... the professionals consulted the touch-sensitive screen of their chunkier-than-ordinary lap top  (the Paula Deen model, perhaps?), making hi-tech asides to each other while wave patterns and strings of numbers popped up and disappeared.  And I was pondering my imminent demise, wondering if I should go with burial, or cremation?  And the wake:  a sit-down brunch, or the buffet?  Full strength, or decaf, or both?  So many decisions, so little time.

The technician suggested that the voltage on one of the wires (remember, the threading and the twisting, the veins and the heart flesh...) was set too high.  He asked me how far apart, time-wise, these contractions were, and as I tried to recall, I wondered briefly at the term 'contractions', and whether or not we'd maybe shifted, subtly, into another scenario.  I told him the stabbing happened about every two hours, while gently feeling my suspiciously swollen lower belly -- what all had happened in that operating room, while I'd been under anaesthesia?  After they'd done the assigned task, had they then switched gears altogether?  Were they really just using me now, to create a breed of half-plastic, half-meat radios?  I put this troubling thought out of my mind, trying instead to describe as accurately as possible the intense pain I'd felt.  He was still touching the screen all over, almost in a trance, and fiddling with the keyboard.

'I'd bet that what you felt...' he mused, not looking at me, as I couldn't help wondering if the child of our unnatural love would be a portable, or a table model, and if I were technically the father, or the mother, or just the delivery unit.  He entered a few more numbers.  'It probably... felt... something like... this.'

He touched the screen.  I thought my chest was going to split open, from the middle, from the inside out, spewing shards of window glass all over the room.  Three times, three internal spasms, in quick succession.  Once more, and I would have turned over all my passwords, all my account numbers, plus the deed and keys to the house.

Tech and surgeon nodded their heads, and agreed that maybe it needed to be turned down, from what felt to me like twelve hundred and fifty volts, to just three.  And let's all have an appointment ten days from now, they said, closing up the portable control booth.  We'll continue the fine tuning, they said as they left.  (For all I know, I thought, we might also be looking over a list of baby names.  Or model descriptions.  And what about pre-school?  Or would the baby go right to Radio Shack?) 

As it turns out, my heart is quite literally broken.   Not in the sense of fracturing apart into shards under the sofa, but in the sense that, even though it looks whole, it doesn't work the way it should.  One of the two natural sources of electricity in my heart, that are supposed to prompt it to pump my blood all over the place, has stopped sparking.  If this failure hadn't been discovered, and hadn't been mended with the little subcutaneous battery I'll now carry with me everywhere, I would most likely have died suddenly in my sleep within the year.  Or fallen down, brain dead, in a grocery store aisle, thereby causing a scene, and messing up people's schedules, because they would have to put down what they were doing and go to their closets instead, looking for something black to wear.  This last not applying to my friends in New York, who are eternally funeral-ready.

From one of the articles in one of the documents amid the bale of paperwork I've been given to help me understand my new bionic accessory, one source suggests that, in addition to heredity and lifestyle choices, the state of one's heart may quite literally mirror the state of one's emotions.  Which idea seems cautiously seconded by a news item in Tuesday's NY Times, on the front page and above the fold.  In an article by Benedict Carey, titled 'Grief Could Join List of Disorders', the first sentence reads:  "When does a broken heart become a diagnosis?"

The first song I can remember from my childhood was a late 40's or early 50's tune, sung in the tight harmonies of the time -- Hearts Made of Stone.  'Will never break...' the vocalists went on and on.  Implying that marble or basalt hearts would be preferable to their poor fleshy ones, which being made of the ordinary materials, were prone to the kind of damage that could only be assuaged by singing about it, in parallel fifths.

My own little heart, at about that time, when I was maybe nine years old, was maybe a few ounces in weight, and that little bundle of muscle was totally dedicated to my mother.  She, for her part, dreamed of other, grander things, of past brushes with fame, and of the fine housing she would someday enjoy, in New York City.  She was thus fairly indifferent to any hint of my slavish devotion.  She had a way of looking past my efforts, first to attract her attention, and then to massage that attention into something that might feel to me like actual approval.  This intense focus of mine, though rarely rewarded with any meaningful success, remained unswerving.  In fact, entering as I was what psychologists term 'The Oedipal Phase', I began to state flat out, with childish seriousness, that I meant to marry my mother, in spite of whatever or whoever might get in the way.  The whoever, of course, being my father.  I dreamed disturbing dreams. He turned into a menacing tiger, and to save myself, I had to kill him.  Awake again, I felt guilty, confused about this inward betrayal of my daddy.  But the flaming, maternally-directed love never flickered.  My heart beat just for her.

Then came the very hard part, a great deal of which might eventually have an impact.  This impact might not necessarily be easily visible, but it might well have an appreciable, or even a measurable impact.  Sooner or later.

Right at the very first, before the family unit had shattered into pieces (none of which went under the sofa) the very hard part was realizing that I wasn't The One of her children that my mother would take with her, when she and my father got The Divorce.  She had decided that, in spite of all my efforts, I wasn't good enough, even though there was only the one 'M' on my report card, for math, and while she stood in the living room, looking at this mark, I expended an embassy's worth of appeals and justifications, trying to soften her expression of horror into one of acceptance, forgiveness and understanding.  Maybe I could do better?

I vowed that I would do much better, even as we got to an even harder part of things.  I had to get in the front seat of the black car, where I sat hoping for a last minute reprieve, as our luggage was being loaded into the trunk.  But there was no last-minute change of heart, and I ended up having to wave back at her, over my right shoulder.  Then, as the car moved off down the crunching gravel driveway, I looked inside myself.  I and saw, up very close, a great cold grey stone door, grinding slowly across a slightly wet grey stone floor, to finally slam, irrevocably shut.

Where did these things go, in a person -- fears like these, and struggles and disappointments and final surrender?

There came ten years of sadnesses, not one of which could be separated from the others, to then be adequately acknowledged, appreciated, mourned, and released.  There was institutionalization, with its impersonal allotments of physical and emotional abuse.  There was a life in a truly unhealthy and destructive family setting, a setting where boys were bad and girls were good, where children from one blood line were used as live-in help, and beaten or chained in bed as thanks for their efforts,  while children from another blood line had party clothes hanging in their closets, in a bedroom painted pale lilac and pale violet,  and went to dancing school.  A family system in which the boys were resented on a daily basis, resented for the amount of food they consumed, how quickly or slowly they consumed it, and what noises they made in the process.  A home in which these boys were routinely reminded of their tainted heritage -- 'Your mother only wanted a girl' -- and criticized for their failing even to each other -- 'You boys don't even love each other', and threatened with return to the institution from which they'd just come.

Where does a steady, focused stream of such corrosive input go? 

And for each of us, for my three brothers and me, the time to face of any one of these griefs was forbidden.  We were taken to task for not having forgiven the fact of our institutionalization -- despite the fact that the only time this event was mentioned was to hold our own institutionalization against us.

Maybe this is why I feel such resonance with programs that send researchers out into the polar wilderness, where they drill into and through the compacted ice sheets, and pull back out long core samples, that show precipitation and pollution, year by year, going back centuries.  I've recognized that one of these cores might serve as a model for an inner emotional history -- anyone's emotional history.  Layer upon layer of misfortune and loss, impacted, pressed together until they fuse, and hidden in the dark below the surface.

But, as seems to happen from time to time, things submerged or buried can be worked on by even more powerful forces.  What was buried and supposedly forgotten, suddenly bursts out in the light, not hidden any more.  I feel ashamed about my buried heart condition, now newly laid bare -- I should have lived differently, I should have cared for myself better, or with greater intelligence.  But is it possible that what I know of as a malign trove of buried memories has actually been determined all along to reveal itself?  Is it possible that my core sample of unexpressed grieving has transformed itself into a diagnosable condition, with attendant choices of how to handle it?   The buffet, or a sit-down meal at the wake?  Should I continue to live in stubborn denial, and not so secretly hope to die, soon and suddenly, in my sleep?   After all, this would sidestep what I fear -- the coming inevitable indignities of old age, infirmity and the complete loss of relevance to the world around me.  Or should I take what is, for me, an historically and familialy unusual step, to drag these old wounds out into the open, tease them all apart, confront the mess, and with what little energy I can muster, make at least an effort at repairing the damage?    

For now, my heart is at least temporarily patched back together.  It is being regularly shocked into doing the job for which it was designed.  Now, perhaps, I'll find the wherewithal to face the countless other broken things I've carried with me for decades -- some as twisted concepts, others as literally twisted steel and plastic -- and then see what, if anything, can be done with them.  I may only be able to mourn for the memory of possible projects represented by each hoarded memento, but which projects must be returned to the pool of possibility from which they came.  I may have to confront a secret cache of paint tubes or little brushes, grieve because I couldn't allow myself to use them, and then let them go on into someone else's life.  (The only really good tube of paint, I've lately come to realize, is an empty one)
I definitely need, at least in the metaphoric sense, to stand before the thin calendar of remaining dates available to me -- to confront the shock of my own inescapable finiteness, and try to figure out how to parcel out the hours.   But now, unexpectedly, and maybe only for today, I have an uncharacteristic hope, as a new implement in my emotional tool kit.

Meanwhile, I have another appointment, to double check the wiring of what is either my heart or, now, someone else's?  And maybe to have an ultra-sound, to determine whether I'm nourishing, in the recesses of my very being, a smart little solid-state radio, or a set of conjoined speakers.  Delivery will be a bitch.  

©  2012    Walter Zimmerman

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