Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Seventy or Eighty Times a Minute: Erin Lyndal Martin Essaying the Heart

What does an essay about the heart look like? The easy answer, the easy essay to write is symmetrical. Writing it is as easy as folding a sheet of paper in half and cutting out a half-circle along the edge. This sort of essay suffices if we believe it is that paper symmetry beating peacefully, rhythmically, inside ourselves. If we believe open heart surgery is a matter of scissors and scotch tape, that we can always cut out another heart.

But an essay about the actual human heart is, by nature, asymmetrical. Some parts have more work to do than others. Some tissue is more dense. Some blood has farther to travel. In writing an essay about the human heart, just as in studying the actual human heart, there are anomalies. Elvis’ heart was twice the size of the average human heart. Or take the story of Hannah Clark: born with a weak heart, she had to have a transplant at age two. Rather than replace her heart, surgeons grafted a second heart onto her own, which they removed a decade later. Hannah said she was happy but felt empty, could feel something missing from her chest.

Writing an essay about the human heart lacks the exigence of handling the actual organ. But there’s no doubt it’s just as messy, and every prick into the allegedly familiar muscle of our own hearts is a risk.

I tried to paint mine before I dared write it. Not the metaphor, but the muscle of it. I wanted so badly to paint it, but how do I account for the color, and where does one begin? The instructional book said to start with a circle, then add the pouch that houses the cardiac muscle. There was a lump where the aorta would go, and I remembered the eleventh grade mnemonic: V is for veins that visit the heart; A is for arteries that carry blood away. The aorta is the largest artery in the human body but it is covered with skin, which is the largest organ in the human body.

I have felt so much skin with my own and if it were possible, I would have lain many times with my aorta touching another’s just to see if our heartbeats would comingle or simply syncopate.

When I was a teenager and they said my cat had a heart murmur I mistook it for a death rattle, my hands shaking as I held her crate on my lap while my mother drove us to the vet school for an ultrasound.

They had to shave part of her belly and it was so pink.

I do not like to think about my own heart.

I saw it once, on an x-ray when I had pneumonia and it terrified me how my heart looked like a ghosted fist.

I don’t know what it is I wanted from my heart, but I wanted more.

“The heart is a most incredible pump,” says the children’s book I got at the thrift store. On the facing page is a picture of a torso, and the heart looks like neon cursive.

In 1929, a German surgeon examined his own heart by threading a catheter into an arm vein and plunging it into his heart. This was considered science, not a suicide attempt or madness. What I wonder is if he was surprised by what he found there, merely a pumping muscle?

It was nearly 40 years later that the first heart transplant was performed.

Laura Jo’s baby brother was born with encephalitis and died as a toddler. His heart was given to a young boy who grew up to be a marathon runner. So I’m not the only runner in my family after all, Laura Jo said.

My father had open heart surgery. Consider that phrase. It is all you need to know.

Every day, the heart generates enough energy to drive a truck twenty miles. Which means that in a lifetime, your heart could take you to the moon and back. Literally.

I have not figured out how to harness the energy of my own heart.

Broken Heart Syndrome is a real diagnosis. I learned about it from Ana, how the heart can physically stun from grief, how the syndrome is also called takotsubo after the shapes of octopus traps that a broken heart resembles.

It reminds me of hearts in fetuses. First their hearts are simply tubes like fish hearts, and then their hearts grow to look like frog hearts. The next stage is snake hearts or turtle hearts, and then their hearts become human at last.

The heart and the fist grow at the same rate, so you can estimate the size of your heart by the size of your fist.

I have tiny hands.

I thought this would only be a problem when I played piano and struggled to reach intervals of an octave, but does it mean my heart is small too? Perhaps I am an anomaly: small fist, large heart.

It would be a beautiful corporeal metaphor. A lover, not a fighter.

If my hands grew, there would be no word for that. If my heart grew, it would not be magic. It would just be dilated cardiomyopathy (common in large dog breeds and golden hamsters) and then I would need a heart transplant.

I wonder if I could get a baboon heart like Christian Slater in that movie. On October 26, 1984, Dr. Leonard Bailey put a baboon heart in the chest of infant Stephanie “Baby Fae” Beauclair, who lived for three weeks after the procedure. When asked why he didn’t choose an animal more closely related to humans, Dr. Bailey responded that he didn’t believe in evolution.

I believe in evolution.

As of 1999, scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts were growing heart tissue in a bioreactor which was developed by NASA. The point of the bioreactor is to make cells “think” they are in a body. The bioreactor is kept on a space shuttle (presumably on land), so when the scientists want to check on the heart tissue, they get on the space shuttle. The first photo that appears with the article I read about this is of a barn engulfed by kudzu. Kudzu. Which looks nothing like a heart. There is a paragraph in the article that explains the kudzu. It says the scientists are working to get cells to take on a certain shape, just like the kudzu grew to the shape of the barn.

Jeremy was born with a hole in his heart. He told me this one night when he was already drunk and was mixing screwdrivers for us. “I was born with a hole in my heart,” he said, and picked up a heart-shaped pillow. He never explained the connection.

Then later that night, with more drink in him, he said, “I was born with a hole in my heart,” and picked up the pillow again.

How long was it after that that Jeremy died of a pulmonary embolism? One year? Two? I can’t think of time in relative terms. I know there was a magnolia tree planted in his honor, but nobody has told me what happened to the heart-shaped pillow.

The heart-shaped pillow was easy. I want to write an essay about it, one in which I describe its plaid and its ribbon, one in which I stick to the easy details of an easy artifact. Or I will buy plaid fabric instead of writing an essay, and I will make a heart-shaped pillow just like Jeremy’s, and I will forget it had anything to do with his own heart.

Forget that it had anything to do with the fact that one’s own heart can be not enough.

There is no symmetry here. Elvis and his engorged heart lived ten years longer than Jeremy. Neither of them got a second heart grafted onto their own to be stronger, only to get strong enough to give it back. To be happy but know something’s missing.


Erin Lyndal Martin is a creative writer, music journalist, and artist. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Lemon Hound, PANK, So to Speak, and Passages North.

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