My Backwards Inside/Outside Hearts
When I was twelve, I packaged all of my Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears books and put them in the back of my closet, but not before branding the side of the box, “For my future children,” in red Sharpie. With that act, I first felt the stirrings of my external heart. That crimson script labeling a tangible gift for some small person who did not yet exist somehow made the possibility of motherhood feel real.
I’d always expected to have a child at a young age, sometime in my early twenties, but life happened. I didn’t marry until my late twenties and by my early thirties, a child was beginning to feel like a wisp of a fantasy. My internal heart felt the clock ticking, time passing, tick tock tick tock. At 34, the sense of urgency made the decision for me: I started preparing my body to have a child. I spoke to my doctor about changing my medication to one that would be safe for pregnancy, started getting into better shape, and imagined how we would rearrange the house to make room for a nursery. I only had two more hurdles, the first being my recently diagnosed diabetes. Diabetes significantly increased my risks of being unable to carry to term and deliver a healthy baby. The second hurdle was getting my husband, Shawn, on board. I’d broached the subject of parenthood occasionally over the years, though not seriously, and had always been countered with an excuse: time, money, school. But if I was ever to become a mother, I would need his cooperation. I couldn’t put the conversation off any longer.
I usually reserved our serious conversations for the dark. It was often easier to hear his words rather than see his reactions. And the darkness would hide my tears if I got an answer I didn’t want.
“Shawn,” I whispered in bed one night as he was about to drift to sleep. My heart was racing.
“Mmm?” he mumbled, the sheets shuffling as he lifted his ear out from beneath the covers.
“What do you say we try to start a family soon?” I spurted, breathless, my nerves breaking through in my voice. His answer would determine the direction of our future, the realization of my lifelong destiny.
“Sure, okay,” he muttered, before tucking his face back into his pillow.
Well, that had been easy.
Two months later, just after 3:00 a.m. on Mother’s Day morning in 2013, my dog nudged my arm, interrupting a dream in which I was taking a pregnancy test. I was only two days late, but I had never been late before. I already had a pregnancy test, hoping to need it at some point in the coming months. I also had a full bladder. Why not? I let the dog outside, went to the bathroom, and took the test. As I washed my hands, I glanced down and stopped breathing as my brain struggled to process the single word on the result screen:
The stillness of the pre-dawn world embraced me and was loud, kept in rhythm by my pounding heart, a steady tempo in my ears. I was an eager child, in the dark, on a quiet Christmas morning and I’d just sneaked out of my room and discovered what Santa had left for me.
I was going to be a mother.
I was trembling.
I crept back into the bedroom and knelt on the bed.
“Shawn,” I shook him impatiently and whispered, “Shawn!”
“I just got a positive pregnancy test!” my voice quivered, afraid to speak too loudly and break the spell.
Shawn, only partially awake, held his fist up for a bump, then rolled over to go back to sleep. I giggled, knowing I’d get a more appropriate response in the morning when he’d had a chance to wake up, and went to let the dog in.
As I crawled back beneath the covers, my body vibrated with excitement, relief, and fear. Was I ready to take on this responsibility? Could I do it? Did I have what it took to be a good mother? Just how difficult would my age and diabetes make my pregnancy? It was too late to worry about that now.
The bed was shaking beneath me. I thought of the second little heart beating within me and prayed I could be the mother I needed to be. In the dark, I felt Shawn stir and turn over. A strong, comforting arm lay across my chest and held me.
“Calm down,” he whispered and began petting my hair. “It’ll all be okay.”
I was blessed to be able to get in to see a high risk OB/GYN who specialized in diabetic pregnancies. Under her care, many of my risk factors were negated, including my diabetes. However, by the end of my seventh month, blood pressure was becoming a concern. I was swelling and increases to my medication dose were no longer working. On the day before Thanksgiving, with seven weeks left to go, I was put on bed rest. I followed my doctor’s orders, terrified to do otherwise.
Finally, in the second week of January and two weeks before my due date, I realized my lifelong wish: I became a mother. I held my perfect little boy for the first time, my heart hammering in my chest, my heart slumbering in my arms. I was 36.
Though I had tread lightly throughout my pregnancy and delivered a healthy child, the toll the past nine months had taken on my body was evident. My blood pressure continued to spike following delivery and I had issues with my c-section healing properly.
Two weeks post-op, I suffered a retinal artery occlusion -a stroke in the eye- after another blood pressure spike. I began to worry about the strain the pregnancy had put on my heart. Fortunately, the only noticeable effect was a blind spot that slightly disrupted the vision in my right eye for several days before going away.
In addition to my other issues, my blood sugar, previously so well controlled, got out of hand. It took almost a year to get it back to my pre-pregnancy levels. Though my blood pressure remained a little high, everything else began to stabilize after my son’s first birthday. But as an older parent, I fought my metabolism as my energy levels dropped. I dealt with never-ending fatigue. Even though my son started sleeping through the night at six weeks, I never felt like I’d had enough sleep. Yet there were times I would lie in bed while the world rested, wide awake after feeling my heart skipping suddenly. Concerns over my health began to haunt my thoughts.
A few weeks after my son’s third birthday, my primary care physician changed my blood pressure medication to alleviate some unpleasant side effects, causing an unexpected bout of severe rebound hypertension. I spent Valentine’s Day in the E.R. as staff worked to get my blood pressure down. The hospital doctor recommended I follow up with a cardiologist, who decided to put me through a stress test to rule out any issues. The stress test indicated an abnormality.
I immediately thought of my son. Maybe I loved him so much that my heart couldn’t contain it all. I pictured it like the cogs and springs in a cartoon clock that had been wound too tightly, parts begin to pop out and it explodes in a shower of gears. How ironic it would be if my issues stemmed from the difficulties I had following my pregnancy, that to give life to my external heart, maybe I had to sacrifice a portion of my internal one- like Adam’s rib, only a bit more precious.
For the next week, I confronted my mortality, hoping that any issue I might be having was being caught at a very early stage and would be easily treatable and curable. Thoughts of my little boy randomly broke me into tears. Had I done him a disservice by waiting so long to bring him into this world? He was still so young. If something happened to me, he would have no concrete memories of me. I would be a shadow, vague images and feelings, and his most vivid memory of me would be of my passing. He would never understand how completely he possessed my heart.
The cardiologist scheduled a heart catheter that would reveal the issue. The doctor would sedate me, then insert a catheter through the artery in my wrist, pushing through to my heart and injecting a dye to get a clear image on a monitor.
The morning of the procedure, my mother came to take my son for an overnight visit to allow me time to recover. I clung to my baby tightly, reluctant to let him go. If the doctors found a serious problem, there was a chance I would be having a stent or even surgery that afternoon. If something went wrong and I never saw him again… I fought to remain casual.
As I strapped him into my mother’s car seat, I leaned in and kissed his cheek.
“I love you, Pumpkin,” I muttered into his hair, “with all my heart.” I caressed his cheek as I pulled away. “Be a good boy and mind Granna,” I smiled.
“I will, Mama,” he grinned back.
I was comforted by memories of his smile as I suffered the pokes and prods from two different nurses who pursued my notoriously elusive veins. As Nurse One dug around in determination on the third stick, I closed my eyes and reminded myself, This is for him. I inhaled deeply through my nose and tried to ignore the prodding sting in my forearm.
No matter what outcome I get today, I thought, I will overcome.
Two hours later, I had the results of the test. My heart was perfectly healthy, as were my arteries.
“However, you are special,” the cardiologist grinned at me. I waited for him to continue.
“Um, in what way?” I finally realized through the sedation that he was waiting for me to ask.
He explained that I had a coronary anomaly that caused the abnormal stress test. For over 90% of the population, the coronary artery has two branches on the left side of the heart and one on the right. Mine, however, was backwards, having two branches on the right and only one on the left. What had looked like a serious blockage and lack of blood flow after my stress test was due to my only having one branch on that side of the heart. Though it would result in abnormal stress tests for the rest of my life, the anomaly would do nothing to affect my health. He also assured me that the occasional fluttering sensations in my chest were completely benign and nothing to worry about. I only had one thought as I listened to the news:
I wasn’t going to drop dead any time soon.
At least, not from a heart issue.
A week later, as I was working at my laptop, my son came up to me holding a small camera tripod. He introduced himself as Dr. Hutchings and waved the tripod over my chest.
“What are you doing, Sweetheart?” I asked.
“I’m going to fix your broken heart,” his lips were pursed, his face a study of seriousness.
It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how much Shawn and I had been discussing my health over the past two months. Three weeks ago, my son started telling me he wanted to be a doctor. Suddenly, I understood why.
He wanted to fix me.
I put my laptop aside and clasped his cheeks in my hands.
“Baby, my heart is already fixed,” I looked into his eyes before kissing him on the forehead.
His smile lit up his face, “Then you have a broken armpit,” he replied. “I will fix it and make you better!” A wave of the tripod later and my armpit was miraculously cured.
Perhaps it is fitting that the arteries of my internal heart are wired backwards. Though I will turn 40 in a few months and I often feel each of those years on my shoulders (and in my joints), there are moments when I imagine my two cores fusing and my external heart shines so brightly. He lights up when he picks one of my tattered Dr. Seuss books from his shelf and begs me to read it to him yet again. Each day, he pulls me into his moments of discovery and sweeps me away in his sweet innocence while he explores his world. Between those beats as I relive comprehension through his eyes, , I feel time reverse and, if only briefly, I grow younger.
And both of my hearts drum in sync.