Waves of sound beat against the shores of the heart, returning as echoes transformed into electrical signals, and then, an image. A wand in the hands of a technician does all this.
My grandfather eats an entire chicken in one sitting, slowly, meticulously, his thick right pinky slightly raised, carving off pieces until a delicate white bone basket lies before him. He sits big and round, a clean-shaven Santa who spent a week’s salary during the Depression on a wooden table and chairs playset for his only daughter. Over buttered pound cake and anisette my mother asks, “What did the doctor tell you?” He says, “The doctors don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s nothing wrong with my heart.” There are no images for us to inspect; patients don’t receive pictures to share with loved ones: no baby will come from this. Pop turns out to be right, but what none of us know is that his life will be ended by the shaky hands of a newly minted surgeon who severs the nerves to his bladder, unleashing an infection that consumes him faster than all other mortal threats.
During my mother’s echocardiogram, we watch her heart tremble like a white plum suspended against a black sky. The betablockers and ablation—a cauterizing she refers to as “sheesh-kabab”—have failed to stop her atrial flutters. I recite her own stories about Pop back to her as starry distraction. She likes the one about the nurse he picked up in his cab who showed him a picture of a diseased lung so gruesome he quit his Camels cold turkey. After, we wait in the hospital’s chilled basement for Transport. She shivers on the gurney, but I cannot touch her because my own hands are too frozen. I ask a nurse for a blanket, and he scurries away into the thin blue light long enough for me to begin cursing every indifferent medical soul I have ever met. He returns carrying a heated coverlet. “I put it in the oven,” he explains, swaddling my mother in warmth. When Transport finally arrives, I lag behind, and spotting the nurse, pat my palm against my chest over and over, neither waving nor drowning, but lifting the curse.
Tess the lab tech squirts cold jelly on to my chest, then monitors the screen as she skates the wand across. She tells me she is from the Philippines, asks me what I do for a living, offers morsels to distract a shaking English professor: “We have 1000 islands, but even though we speak different dialects, we all understand English.”
“It’s a crazy language,” I say, feeling all of me being turned inside out so that even the lighthouse of my profession doesn’t make sense.
“When I lived in Texas, they called it a purse. But here everybody calls it a ‘pocketbook.’ In the Philippines a pocket book is, well, a little book.” She presses down on the transducer and says, “We need to slice your heart in different ways.”
Tess images my left ventricle, which resembles an extended white chicken foot desperate to stamp out a jittery cigarette. She turns a knob so we can hear the sounds of my plum. Galoshes on the chicken walking in sticky mud.
She sends me upstairs where I am fitted with an itchy Holter that transforms me into an ancient mariner with round blue electrodes attached to my rib cage, activated to record every lapse of my heart for 24 hours. Someone hands me a pocket book with lined pages that instructs me to note activities that might stress my heart: stair climbing, bowel movements, lifting. They do not include “Grief.” I go home and fill the book with detailed observations.
When I return the Holter, no one asks for my monograph.
My heart turns out to be only a little leaky, but it can’t find its proper rhythm, and as a result beats ten thousand extra times every day. “We can try betablockers or ablation,” the doctor says. I stare at the tassels on his loafers, fighting to imagine them as something other than serpents’ tongues. “What about diet and exercise?” I ask. He looks at me as if I’m a trout tap-dancing on land. “Okay,” he agrees, “but you’ll need to return in six months for a follow-up echo.”
I leave, determined, remembering my grandfather’s laugh, my mother’s consoling voice, willing them to drown out the sound of a chicken, scratching at mud.
© Lisa Lebduska
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Lisa’s interview]