May 27, 2011 § 22 Comments

My heart.

Yesterday, I had to take Gus to a cardiologist. That is such a strange sentence to write. It’s like saying I drove by a tornado. Or, I flew over an earthquake and watched the ground shake. Gus was fine – I knew he was fine – but still.

But still. The phrase that is itself a heartbeat.

Yesterday, driving to the hospital, parking in the huge underground garage, taking an elevator to the lobby and another to the fourth floor made me realize how close I live to disaster. How ridiculously easy it is to get there. At Gus’ last well-child visit, the nurse practitioner heard a faint murmur. “It’s probably nothing,” she said. “But I would like to rule everything out.” If you take one look at Gus, at his muscled calves, pink cheeks, and round belly, you know he can’t possibly have anything wrong with his heart. But still, every time I reminded myself of that, I thought about those eighteen-year old basketball players, those young athletes who collapsed after a lay-up, their autopsies revealing a hole in the wall of their hearts. A leaky valve. An aneurysm. But still. But still.

The thing about being me is that I often don’t know what I am feeling. I try, I really do. I ask myself what is going on, whether I am angry or sad or afraid. I try to tap into sensation, but usually what I get is just a sense of numbness. A single phrase: I’m fine. It’s only later, when I notice that I have eaten three brownies or that I can’t seem to get out of the car, do I suspect that something might be up.

Yesterday, when I looked in the mirror, I realized that I dressed up for the doctor’s appointment. Huh, I thought. That’s funny. Instead of my usual cargo pants and tee shirt, I pulled on a pair of Ann Taylor khakis, a sleeveless shirt, and open-toed shoes. I’m fine, I told myself, as I tottered on my heels down the quiet hallway to the cardiologist’s office. Everything is just fine.

When Dr. Hougan walked into the waiting room at two minutes past ten, a starched white coat over his dress shirt and tie, I let out my breath. There are some people who have such a calm about them, you can practically breathe it in, like perfume. My husband is like that and so is my yoga teacher. I think it’s why I am doing my yoga teacher training with Rolf Gates because he has it too. Those people. Those calm people. They walk into the room and it’s like: Finally. The grown-ups have arrived.

Dr. Hougan sat down in one of those miniature chairs designed for children, ran a hand through his silver hair, and hunched over a chart. While Gus played with a pristine set of Thomas trains, Dr. Hougan asked me some questions. After accurately guessing Gus’ height and weight he spent the next five minutes playing trains with him. “Come on,” he said, rising slowly and holding out his index finger to Gus. “Let’s go watch a movie.” To my surprise, Gus put his hand in his and walked beside him back to the exam room.

The doctor put an ancient Thomas the Tank Engine VHS tape into a small TV hanging over the exam table. “I love this one,” he told me, looking up at the TV. “Ringo Starr is narrating. Did you know that?” He laid a soft blanket on the exam table and I sat down with Gus and removed his tee shirt. The doctor turned on a sonogram machine and explained that he was going to look at Gus’ heart. Gus laid back and looked at me, his eyes wide. “I not stared Mommy,” he told me. “This not starey for me.” My own heart broke in half. But still. But still.

While the doctor deftly moved the ultrasound wand and Gus stared up at his movie, I was looking at the inside of my son’s heart. I watched my baby’s blood fill and empty paper-thin rooms made of tissue. I have been reading some of Joseph Chilton Pearce’s work lately, skipping around, but taking it in. He is known for his work in trying to reform education and he often talks of early bonding and creativity in children. He’s a writer, but in the 90’s he became interested in neurocardiology, or the effect of the heart on the human brain. He was fascinated by the fact that in embryos, the first thing to form is a neural crest, from which develops the cardiovascular, cranial, and vagus nervous systems. Heart. Mind. Will. All three from a single origin. Pearce calls the heart “compassionate mind” and believes it has an equal impact on our thoughts as the thalamus and prefrontal cortex.

In a 1999 interview, Pearce said, “The great challenge of the coming ages of humanity would be, in effect, to allow the heart to teach us to think in a new way.” If there is Heart, Mind, and Will, I am all Mind and Will. I can figure something out. I can even figure everything out and get it done right. But allow my heart to teach me something? 

When my mom was visiting last week, she asked me what my heart’s desire was. “To be a good mom,” I said. “I mean, like a really good mom.” It was the first thing that popped into my mind, and it’s true. But still. There might be something more that I am not allowing myself. There might be something I really want to do. What is my heart’s deepest desire, I wonder as I watch Gus’ heart. Oh, I’m too old now, I think and shake my head. I have kids.

But still. But still.

“This is the mitral valve,” Dr. Hougan told me as I watched a pair of butterfly wings flutter open and closed on the monitor.  It was like watching a plywood gate hold back the ocean. I remembered how Oliver’s heart looked on the ultrasound when I was only five weeks pregnant with him. It was a pulsating puddle of light, a magic drop of beating water. But this. This was magnificent.

“It’s amazing that all of this happens without us thinking about it,” I said as I watched. I wasn’t quite sure I even spoke out loud until the doctor nodded emphatically. “I know,” he said. “It’s beautiful. Of course the neurologists always say that the heart is dependent on the brain, but I say, without the heart, there would be no brain.”

The doctor removed his wand from Gus’ chest and wiped off the gel.  “I am happy to tell you that Gus has an innocent murmur. There’s nothing wrong here and I will never have to see you again.” He smiled at me.

“Thank you,” I said, taking his hand. See, I told myself. Everything is fine.

Leaving, we made the journey in reverse. We tottered through the carpeted hallway. We took an elevator down. I bought Gus a toy school bus in the gift shop. We took the elevator further down into the hot garage. I bucked Gus up in his seat and drove away from the hospital feeling a sense of profound relief. Everything is fine, I kept saying silently. We avoided disaster. We pressed our backs against the hallways, like spies, while catastrophe continued on.

I should feel great, I thought, but there was my own heart, beating like crazy in my chest. But still. But still.


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§ 22 Responses to Heart

  • Kerri Warner says:

    Pamela, thank you for sharing this – so glad your Gus is ok. I had a similar scare with my now two year old son and likewise, averted the “but still / what if” other possible reality. Seems that it’s the experiences that have the ability to completely alter the course of our lives that leave my emotions trailing the “it’s all ok” reality – I just can’t shift emotional gears that readily. And how wonderful for you to experience true alignment between profession and practice: seems like you got a true “heart doctor” just when you needed one most! Warmest, Kerri

  • ayearoflivingwisely says:

    Glad to hear all is well with Gus! What a cutie pie 🙂
    And congrats on doing your yoga teacher training. I’m envious!
    Also, what is it about brownies and stress? LOL! I was the same till I had to give up dairy. I need to find a non-dairy recipe…

  • Kate says:

    that was beautiful. ah, the grownups… the arrival of the calm… the still. and the ‘but still’. really, well done.

  • Beth Paquette says:

    Pamela, this was so touching. I feel the same way sometimes. Especially when we had to take Katie to a specialist when we were in Jacksonville. I am glad Gus is well.

  • Alana says:

    This took my breath away on so many levels. Your writing is luminous. And, beautiful woman, you are heart too. It is so clear from here. Keep listening, the answers will come.

  • Claudia says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story (along with all your others). You are a beautiful writer, and your strong and sensitive heart shines through.

  • Ari says:

    So glad that your son is fine. If somebody asks me what is my heart’s desire, I would have the same answer as yours.

  • Christa says:

    Once again, you have rendered me pretty darn speechless, Pamela.

    I am a big fan of Pearce, Gus, this doctor, and especially, you.

    Your heart, my dear friend, is so deep and so tuned in to what is good ib this life. Thanks for letting us share it’s insights.

  • Dee says:

    Beautifully written. Your truth touches me and resonates with me. Thank you. Please keep writing.

  • Alecia says:

    I am so glad everything is okay. We had to do a CT scan of our daughter when she was 6 months old and it was so scary not knowing she was okay! I love your description of the calm people as adults!

  • Kathy says:

    There is no pain comparable to the pain a mother feels for her child. I do believe, however, that you have achieved your heart’s desire…as Gus looked at you and said, “This not stary for me,” he was looking at you as the calm grown-up to whom he looks for comfort. You are a good mother.

  • Lindsey says:

    Oh, beautiful. Pam, every word you write pierces me. Seriously. This makes me think of the ways – small, but real – that my father-in-law seems changed after his heart transplant. In part I think it’s that he lived when he thought he was going to die. Of course. But it’s also something about what you (and Pearce) talk about … the heart is a real part of who we are. I find that notion amazing. xoxo

  • Juanita says:

    Again, such a beautifully written piece. You have a real talent. Bravo.

    I am so thrilled to hear that your little man is well.

  • Christine says:

    I held my breath while I read this entire post. And I sucked it in a bit deeper when Gus said he wasn’t “stared.”

    I only just exhaled. My oldest was born with a murmur. They say it’s common and corrects itself. And it did. But still.

    Your writing is nothing short of exquisite.

  • What a staggering post about what was surely a staggering experience. I love the details (the open-toed shoes, the pristine Thomas trains) and the overall mood, both of which so perfectly convey the painful, joyful responsibility of being a parent.

    (And there’s something about the phrase “innocent murmur” that catches in my throat.)

  • Crystal Jones says:

    What an exhale that must have been! I was glad to get to the end of your post, as my heart was beating pretty fast too. I am happy to hear that Mr. Gus is fine. 🙂

  • denise says:

    I just hopped over from Twitter (and so glad I did). This post will be with me for the rest of the evening. Your description and layering of your thoughts and events is just beautiful.

    And you’re right–it’s not WILL disaster come, but when. This is such an alarming thought for me that I want to press my back against the hallway with you, and let catastrophe pass by.

    Thank you for your words.

  • Anne says:

    I followed your link from twitter. I’m so glad that your son is well. I’ve been there, watching a test happening, thinking all manner of things while dreading and needing an answer. You describe it so well. Will be following your blog.

  • Your writing is so beautiful – a plywood door holding back the ocean. Wow. Loved that line. And as a mom who has been to an insane amount of doctor’s appointments with my son, I am glad “everything is fine.”

  • I could feel a knot in my gut reading this.

    “Innocent murmur.”

    Probably the two most beautiful words you’ve heard in a long time.

  • Holly Cotton says:

    Pam, I love reading your blog-you are such a beautiful writer-my favorite so far is “Stay” as it reminded me so much of my struggle. Rolf Gates is also one of my favorite writers and teachers; I have been lucky enough to take a few workshops with him-I am sure your training is wonderful. I also write and am a Yoga teacher in Severna Park, Maryland not too far away from you! I thought you might enjoy this poem I wrote called “Heartbeat” I wrote about my daughter Annabelle when she was a toddler.


    In the dawn of my awakening
    I reach over
    and put my hand
    over the soft skin of her small chest
    over her tiny heart

    I feel it beat with strength, with rhythmic determination
    that same tiny heart that beat inside my belly not so long ago
    that beats faster while she pedals her two-wheeler
    that same growing heart
    that closes a little more with each life lesson learned

    Eckhart Tolle tells us to be quiet, to be still
    to open to the extraordinary moments, that define presence
    that life really is beyond our senses, beyond our consciousness
    and that she and I, you and I
    are really one

    So be quiet, be still –
    listen and feel the beating of her heart,
    my heart, your own heart
    the pulse of the universe
    and the voice of God

    -Holly Brook Cotton 7/24/08

  • […] on Gus’ neck and feel the lump there, the beautifully benign node. I remember the way my own heart beat a year ago when I took Gus to the pediatric cardiologist to check out his heart murmur. I remember the way I […]

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