A Heart Like No Other

I had the privilege of being the last to hear my grandmother’s heart beat.  When you pronounce someone in a hospital, there are usually heart monitors and other machines to confirm their passing.  A host of other medical professionals are usually standing by, and a curious stillness after the cacophony of chest compressions and beeping machines enters the room.  It is like a held breath, just long enough for the exact hour and minute to be noted, and then everything begins again, the clock restarted, time marching onward.  Gloves snap, charts close, trays rattle, and all the people melt away, on to the next pressing task.

In hospitals, signs of holidays are everywhere to keep patients oriented to time and place, and to cheer up staff and visitors.  Valentine’s Day is no different, red and pink hearts decorating hallways and doors.  Perhaps because my work was in cardiology, Valentine’s Day always carries a different meaning for me, all the emphasis on hearts reminding me of the steady beats I listen to every day.

The night my grandmother passed away, the rhythmic rise and fall of soft, sad voices in prayer filled the spaces between each beat and breath.  I knelt beside her bed, my fingers on her pulse, feeling the erratic beats slow.  Without a monitor, I had to trust my trembling hands to lay my stethoscope on her chest.

Absence of sound is a funny thing.  You have to listen longer, to the in-between spaces that stretch out, a ribbon of silence, and it is you that pulls away, weighing the likelihood of sound against your willingness to listen further.  I bend my neck, a prayer, the blessing of this moment heavy on my head.

In that moment, I am a child again, kneeling at my grandmother’s bedside, hesitantly echoing her words, the air in the darkened room heavy and still, time marked not by the ticking of a clock, but by decades of Hail Marys.  In those hours at her feet, the sounds of my mother’s country molded my tongue, and I say the Sign of the Cross in Vietnamese, joining my family in benediction and intercession.  I look at my watch, unable to see the numbers through my tears.

My grandmother was born in the Year of the Snake. Like clocks, a calendar in those days wasn’t important, the tasks of the day tied to the setting of the sun and the turning of the seasons from wet to dry, harvest to sowing, and so we don’t know her exact birth date.   It seems wrong somehow, that instead of honoring the date she came into this world, we observe the date of her death.  She was not sad, but ready, longing to be in Heaven with her angels, two little boys who died in childhood, in the days before vaccines or antibiotics.  I learned about the power of grief from her, as she told me stories about her clever little boys, rheumy eyes still wet with memories from decades long before, when she was a young mother losing her sons.

I grew up under those watchful eyes, her hands always slightly gnarled, but soft and smooth, as if the years of running rosary beads between her fingers had transferred the smoothness to them.  My earliest memories are of being with her, eating crusty French bread dipped in Borden’s condensed milk, or walking around our apartment complex through early morning dew.  She never really seemed to age, until after I moved out into my own home, married with children of my own, carrying my stethoscope like a talisman as I made my way through the world.

In the year before she died, my grandmother was hospitalized where I frequently did rounds.  In that hospital bed, surrounded by those beeping machines, she was so much smaller than I remembered, and so much less herself.  The nurses and physicians would comment on what a sweet patient she was, and how attentive my family was, as she was never left alone.  Though she received excellent care from the staff, I am grateful that she did not die in that hospital bed.  Instead she died at home in her own bed, surrounded by family.  The oxygen saturation of her last breath was not measured, her arms lay untouched by IVs or needles, my stethoscope the only foreign thing in her room.  Hers was the most peaceful death I have ever witnessed.

There were no machines, no trays, no gloves, just the soft touch of loving hands folded in prayer.  I do not know the hour or the minute of her passing, and it is not noted in anyone’s chart. I know it was the year of the Dog, and that my grandmother finally went home to be with her angels.


A Jellyfish in Space

I am the runt of the litter.  At just 5 feet tall, I am constantly wishing that God had given me longer arms to compensate for the lack of height, but then again, I’m not sure that the animal I most want to resemble is a gorilla.  I recently read an article that gave me some insight into what animal I might resemble most though:  a jellyfish.  Specifically, a jellyfish who was incubated in space.  I don’t have stinging tentacles or an amorphous see-through body (thank God, no one wants to see everything I ate for dinner), but I do think I have a similar relationship with gravity.  Once back on earth, these jellyfish are unable to equilibrate back to Earth’s gravity.

Moon jelly Wikipedia

In this past week, we have been mesmerized by the Olympic games, taking little breaks from homework and housework to goggle in awe at men and women of breathtaking talent and grace.  It is so far from the realm of possibility for me, these acts of athleticism.  This sense of the great distance between me and those with any athletic ability began in childhood for me.

My brothers and sister have inherited some natural athletic talent that mysteriously passed me by.  All of them played softball for our township recreation department every summer.  Our family even sponsored their teams, and their summer wardrobes sported t-shirts in rainbow colors with “Brownstown Recreation Department” on one side and “Park’s Service and Towing” on the other.  I never owned one of those shirts.  Summers were filled with the shouts of “Hey, batter, batter. . .swing!” and that curious metallic ringing that an aluminum bat makes when it hits a softball.  Just the memory of that sound evokes the sensation of the hot silver lines in the bleachers imprinting on my then skinny thighs, and the dusty, humid evenings spent watching my siblings play.  I desperately wanted to be one of those kids who, magically it seemed to me, could not only make that bat sing, but who could also make that dirty softball fly.

Instead, in gym class, when it was my turn to grip that bat, which seemed so heavy and awkward in my hands, it never sang.  If by some miracle or fluke, I managed to connect with the ball, the sound my bat made was a soft “snick” or “puck” and instead of flying, it would drop, as if in that particular spot, Earth’s gravity had been replaced by Jupiter’s, and then the ball would begin rolling backwards towards me as if I were a black hole, sucking in all of the closest matter.  After another game of dodgeball in which my face managed to attract at frightening speeds yet another dodgeball, I was convinced it might be true.


Determined to overcome this genetic anomaly of lack of coordination, I joined the track team in high school.  Of all the sports in school, this one had no balls which might be sucked toward the athletic black hole known as me.  I thought perhaps that of all sports, this might be the one which might allow me to join the ranks of the coordinated.  I mean, really, everyone knows how to run, right?  As a sophomore, I had no idea that some of these kids had been running in track meets for years before I had even considered putting on tennis shoes.

In track, for those inexperienced foolish people like me who had no idea what they were doing, there is something known as Exhibition.  Now for an introvert like me, the very word is frightening.  What, pray tell, did the coach wish me to exhibit?  It turns out, what I had to show everyone was my unerring ability to come in dead-last in every race.  I am not exaggerating. I’m sure somewhere in a forgotten desk file, my pitiful performances are documented, and perhaps used as an example of what not to do.

And so, when I read the report of these poor jellyfish who cannot adjust to Earth’s gravity, it suddenly became clear to me what had happened.  Sometime while I was floating in embryonic bliss, I must have been exposed to gamma rays in outer space.  My feet (and arms) don’t behave the way they are supposed to because I am not on my home planet.  That must be it.  I can’t just be that unathletic, can I?

This ineptitude skipped my oldest.  Her ballet instructor sighed happily at grace-filled lines seemingly created for dance.  I marveled at her ability to steal a basketball, lob a tennis ball, and perform the breast stroke.  My son walked at 8 months old, learned to ride a bicycle at age 3, effortlessly blocks soccer goals, and performs flips in acrobatics class with ease.

But my middle child, she is the child of my heart.  Like me, she still has difficulty riding a bicycle.  After watching her younger brother zoom up and down the street, she begged to ride a friend’s motorized scooter, and though my head told me this was beyond her level of coordination, my heart argued that I had set my limits on her. And so with trepidation, I tightened the helmet straps on her head, and watched her wobble down the empty street, her brother and friends cheering her on. I could sense her joy at the newness of the experience.  I knew instantly, though, when that exhilaration turned to fear that life was suddenly going by too fast, and began running towards her, to avert the crash that was inevitable.  Through the grace of God, she managed to avoid the parked Jeep, crashing in the middle of the street.

There were no broken bones or lacerations that day, though she bruised her cheek, and vowed never again to touch the scooter.  For the next week, every time I looked at her, my heart quelled, thinking that I had passed my problems with gravity on to her.  I castigated myself, worrying over endless scenarios that would end in bodily harm for her.  And then, I watched the absolute joy with which she shimmied her way through jazz class, completely unaware that her turns were not in time with her classmates, watched her cartwheels in acrobatics class that were so unlike her brother’s, and began to smile.  I could feel her joy in the dance, happy just to be moving in concert with the music and in the applause that she knows is for her.   I would wish no less for anyone.

And so, as we watch these Olympic games, though I marvel at these magnificent athletes, I finally feel a kinship with every other human being on this planet.  Though some would call these feats inhuman, it is in fact the opposite. These Olympians are flesh and blood like us, wholly immersed in pushing their bodies to the limits of human endurance, speed and agility.  We watch these games not because their abilities are so far beyond our capacity to master, but because we too can sense that joy that comes with moving in concert with the universe.  And for once, I am not the only jellyfish in space, just a woman who loves to dance and knows the applause is for me, and for every one of us, as we celebrate all that is possible.

The actual PubMed abstract and article (because I am a nerd):  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11537934

The article which explains the article in non-nerdy terms:


The Call

As a firefighter’s wife, you learn to accept certain things as part of the job.  When he was a volunteer for two different fire departments, sliding out from under warm covers in brutal Michigan winters to get to the scene of another person with difficulty breathing or another structure fire, I learned how to go right back to sleep before he had even finished putting on his boots.  When he came home with bandaged hands and told me he could not wear his wedding ring anymore because 100 pullups made his hands bleed while in the Fire Academy, I learned how to apply antibacterial ointment without adding the salt of my tears.  When he got held over because he was force-hired when another paramedic was ill, I learned how to rearrange schedules for pick-up for dance class, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and soccer without even a change in heart rate.

As a physician assistant, I thought perhaps I had an advantage over other firefighter’s wives.  I’ve been trained on how to react in emergencies, explained to wide-eyed patients that the chest pain they felt was not indigestion, sutured gunshot wounds, bloodied numerous pairs of gloves in procedures and surgery, and so thought I was prepared for the life as the wife of a firefighter.  And then, in one moment, this illusion which I clung to was swept away.

It was a simple photo. Taken by his partner in a candid moment after a house fire, then posted to Facebook.  When he first became a firefighter, he would call me on his way home, just to let me know he was still alive, and this habit continued at his new department, after he got off from his shift.  Frequently, his calls come while I am with a patient, so the conversation consists of only a few reassuring words, but it is enough to let me know the world is as it should be.  He is safe for another day.

Like most couples, at the end of the day, we share work stories. Since he is a paramedic/firefighter, we discuss Patient X, treatments, and transports, and our children are used to dinner table stories of crashes and fires, though most stories have to be edited for little ears.  He will say only “It was a bad one,” and I know it will be a conversation for later after bedtime stories, nighttime prayers, and goodnight kisses.  I have heard so many variations of cases, and somehow this has lulled me into thinking of them as routine, part of the job, just another fire.

On this day, I am between patients, checking Facebook, this picture of him, so unlike most I’ve seen pops up on my screen.  My son has inherited his daddy’s smile, all cheeks and teeth, full of life and laughter, infectious and enthusiastic for all the blessings we are surrounded by, and pictures of my men are lit by these smiles.  But not this picture.

In this picture, he is tired.  The house smolders behind him.  The air is thick with the haze of smoke. The ground in this desert city in which we now live is wet with the efforts of hours, and criss-crossed by hoses.  The uniform which I’ve seen hanging in his locker, is smudged with soot.  The helmet with his name emblazoned across the front is held in one hand, and I can see that he is trying to muster up the energy for that brilliant smile, but he can’t quite manage it.

I have visited each of his fire stations, trying to nod knowledgeably as he points out gleaming rows of knobs and levers on the fire trucks, listened to explanations of all the safety equipment and training, shook hands with his station mates, but, of course, I’ve never been on scene.

Never seen the fires raging, smoke billowing, men and women moving in concert to save lives and homes.  Never seen this man, who gave up a lucrative position to go back to school for his 3rd career finally doing what he loves, look like this.  This man whom I met as a boy, who asked to hold my hand 3 babies ago, who loves being a firefighter because he can help people, looks out at the camera, and I finally see him, in his element, and my heart contracts in fear.

I am a firefighter’s wife.  I thought I knew what that meant until this photo.  And later, when I get that call, that tells me he is home, and safe. . .I know it is only for today.  And I pray, with renewed urgency for strength to a merciful God and His blessed mother, that I and all the other partners of firefighters, continue to receive that call.Image