By Beth Malone
Aortic Disruption: Beneath the Wave
The heart of a blue whale weighs approximately two thousand pounds. Its walls are as thick as sofa cushions and contract six times a minute; imagine the crashing tidal wave of blood. A person could climb through an artery and crouch inside one chamber, knees pulled to chest, and watch the valves wrench open and slam closed. The beat of a blue whale’s heart hammers so loudly you can hear it from two miles away.
At the science museum, the aorta peels away and allows entry into the heart’s life-size model; my daughters climb inside on hands and knees. I watch the soles of their feet disappear. Around me, blue light glows, dappling the carpet, and ocean sounds trickle and rush. The room is dark, warm, womblike.
I could stand and peer into those broken arteries, graft my body into each darkened door, searching. Trying to catch a glimpse of them inside those secret rooms, to watch their passage between chambers, to urge them out. Something strains in my own chest: I always want them close, I always want to follow behind, I want to be present in every dark place, and I want to swallow their bright burning mysteries. But I hold back. Like a woman in training, I let them leave my sight. I let them tear away.
The heart is a muscle made to open and to close, to fill and to empty, again, again. Only a fist clenches on to what it holds. But the heart, the heart, the enduring heart—as long as it is working, it holds on, and it lets go.
Atrial Flutter: A Secret Passed
The technician waves her magic wand, sliding it through the cold jelly beneath my belly button. Moments pass but she can’t find the heartbeat, only a horrible rushing noise, like wind in a lonely plain, and I imagine the wind inside of myself, ricocheting. She stands, sashays out, away, and someone reaches an icy hand into my chest and seizes my heart, plunging it into deep ocean. The weight and darkness close so heavily around me I can’t even reach for my phone. I lie cold, naked beneath the translucent paper sheet with my hands crossed over my belly as though in prayer. Her heart began beating before she had fingers, before she could open her eyes, before she could hear my voice. But mine is the heart that supplied her, sustained her, and now beats like a bird against its cage.
The door creaks open, the wheels of the ultrasound rattle, the voice of the doctor floats, distant and tinned. A few moments later, I see it: my baby’s heart, tiny as a mouse’s eye, a drop of dew, a BB bullet—and beating. Onscreen the valves of her heart flutter, flower petals beneath deep water. It sings its own song, like a secret passed behind cupped hands. In my ears there is a rushing, a swirling, the cresting of a wave over and over again, the crashing and catching of my breath.
She remains an elusive child. I often catch her hiding in plain sight.
Hospital. They tell you how bad it will hurt, this business of separation. So far, I only know of one way to mother, and that is to rev my heart’s engine, burn the beats faster. Feed her from myself, inside myself, give and give and give. But she outgrows my capacity with her ravenous needs. I need to relinquish her to the sustenance of her own heart. I know, but I don’t want to let her go.
So one part of me contracts nearly every minute for 10 hours. My muscles scream for air. My heart slams and sends blood, but there’s too much, I’m sending too much, and there’s no way to relieve it. The vessels leak, shriek, burst. Instead of thinning and dilating, I swell, blood rushing in so that my cervix won’t—can’t—spiral open. Take a key and lock her up lock her up lock her up. I’m ferocious and unyielding, my body a pulled knot, a clenched fist. The truth is that—left on my own in this state—I’d die, she’d die, before I could give her up.
I’m drowning; I’m crashing. I’m underwater, underwater, and all the voices are muffled except for my own screaming.
Still when I fight to the surface between contractions, I can only gasp to ask about her heart, her heart, her beating heart.
“It’s strong,” they say. “It’s strong.”
Heart Murmur: Beneath My Palms
She’s a year old, but I still rock her to sleep each night. She is my youngest, and there are things I can’t let go of. The need to press her electric chest against my own. I breathe the sweet shampoo scent of her neck; the smell fills my lungs, where my blood picks it up and carries it into my heart.
Motherhood made my heart larger: Of this, they don’t typically tell you the accompanying complications. That when the doors of your heart dilate (to accommodate), afterward you cannot make them fully close. The blood flows into the chamber, the valve cannot shut, the blood rushes backward. The blood and the scent of baby shampoo stays in your heart; we call it a murmur. We mean: It holds on, and it will not let go.
Her blonde head nuzzles on my chest. I shut my teeth and open my lips. I imitate the noise I heard in the doctor’s office, that secret sound only she and I know from memory, the song of her own beating heart. My baby squirms and turns and can’t seem to settle. I put a hand on her back and paint circles with my palm. Finally she reaches one hand, pulls at my neckline until she finds my skin. With one hand pressed against my heart, she promptly drops to sleep.
Skipped Beat: Breath Catching
Four days have passed. Today she won’t let me rock her down. She puts both hands against my chest, arches her back, throws back her head—and with both hands, pushes me away.
“Tell me all your secrets,” I murmur. So greedy. Motherhood has made me ravenous. I’ve been with her all day, watched her wobbly arabesques across the living room, read her stories that made her giggle, wrapped her in teary hugs when a finger was pinched. She wants both of my eyes fixed on her all the time; she wants me to cling hard to every word she speaks. My heart stretches wider, burns through its beats, gives and gives and gives.
Still my heart is hungry, made to empty—then to fill. The harder it works, the more it needs to be fed. Without enough oxygen, the outpouring heart will seize in vise-like pain, an enormous weight settled onto the breast. The more I give, the more I want. I want every impression, the feelings she can decipher and those she can’t, I want her last sleepy thoughts before she drifts into sleep, and when she wakes I want the details of her dreams. I want to crawl on hands and knees inside her heart and let the rushing of blood knock me to my knees.
Her eyes are closed, her lips slightly parted, her breath coming in peaceful waves.
At dawn’s golden-grey light, a daughter whispers, “Mama, Mama. Mom.” I open my eyes. Her head is on the pillow, inches away, her apple blossom lips and her cheeks round as ripe peaches. I tug corners of twisted blankets and pull her under, draping an arm over her belly, burying my nose in her hair. I press my lips to her neck so I can feel her pulse, the patter of her heart.
She’ll never remember the time I supplied this beating by my own. Biology’s first trick is to make mother and child at first inseparable, one tethered to the other. At detection of this dependence, the mother’s heart slams and sends more blood. Blurring boundaries between us, cruel deception.
After she was born, inside my body there was a bruise from where she’d torn away. Inside, blood pooled. My oxygen circled, drained away. Nothing could staunch the wound. I’d rise from the bed and fall to my knees. It was weeks before I could stand and hold her at the same time. I’d lay in bed with her on my chest. Any time I lost contact with her skin, my heart would lurch.
She twists beneath the sheets, and her heel thuds against my hip.
“Mama,” she says, “let go of me, and I’ll hold on to you. We’re all tangled up.”
So I let go.
Cardiomyopathy: Beneath the Wave
I cannot follow them—not into the heart. No matter how tightly I hold their hands or how gently I stroke their hair or how swiftly I run when I hear them cry, I cannot drop to my knees and crawl after them. Nor can I keep them locked up tight inside my own heart, inside the raucous rooms where the force of beating bruises and oxygen drains away. Given a chance, I’d grip them there in iron, keep them forever safe and for myself, their armor and prison made one. I wish I could. Instead I wrench the rooms open and give them free passage, in and out as they please.
This is the sound of splitting, the gunshot-crack of cleaving. There are a dozen diagnoses and there is only one: broken heart, broken heart, irreparable broken heart.
I wait. Come back to me, my lips are blue; I’m made to empty and to fill.
Out of the heart of the whale they climb. I’m on my knees; I open my arms.
They half-run, half-fall into my embrace, and then I can close my arms around them. I wrap one hand around each ribcage and hold my breath. I can feel something kicking beneath my palms, a rushing, breath catching, a crashing, a secret passed, and again I’m breathless beneath the wave.
I feel a voice tickling my ear.
“It’s beating,” she whispers, and we hold on to the wonder.
Author’s Note: The word “fractal” comes from the Latin root “fract,” which means “broken.” A fractal is a never-ending pattern made from an ongoing feedback loop. I wanted the repeating themes of the essay to read like what is, for me, the feedback loop of mother-love: ferocity, giving, hunger, and–true to the essay’s name–heartbreak.
Read our Q&A with Beth Malone
About the Author: Beth Malone’s nature column, “The Wild Things,” appears in Literary Mama. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in a variety of regional and national magazines. Find more at http://www.bethmalonewrites.com
Artwork: Heart Fractal by ekamanganese
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