One evening last week Whit and I sat in companionable silence in the family room. He was building a LEGO and I was working. “Mummy?” At his voice I looked up from my laptop.
“Yes?” He was perched on the side of the low train table, LEGO pieces in one hand and the other held to his chest.
“I can feel my heart beating.”
“Cool, Whit.” Why did you suddenly think of this? The inner workings of Whit’s mind and heart will always be a mystery to me. Which reminds me, daily, of the vast and essential unknowability of even those we love best.
After a long moment of silence, during which I watched him sit, holding his hand over his heart, he spoke again. “It feels amazing, Mummy.”
Why yes, Whit. It is amazing.
The next morning was Whit’s seven year doctor’s appointment. He sat on the doctor’s examination table in just his jeans, his white chest looking impossibly tiny and incomprehensibly grown-up at the same time. The doctor pressed his stethoscope to Whit’s back. He asked him to turn his head this way and that. He kept listening. Time stretched uncomfortably. I glanced at Matt, my anxiety mounting. What was he hearing? What was he listening for? Whit looked over his shoulder at the doctor, sensing, too, that this was taking an awfully long time. “Whit, turn this way,” the doctor’s voice was stern, his face limned with concentration.
I chewed a nail and watched, feeling my own heart skittering in my chest. Was last night’s comment a harbinger of this, a prompt by the universe to appreciate the amazement of our hearts beating, of this most taken-for-granted and yet outrageous gift? I could feel my breath speeding up and I began to awful-ize. He needs open heart surgery. I should have paid attention last night, put down my computer, pressed my hand to his chest, noticed the extraordinary beauty of his ordinary heartbeat. I should have done that years ago.
“Okay,” the doctor cleared his throat and pulled the stethoscope out of his ears. “He’s fine.” I exhaled, but only part way. “But you can hear the whooshing of the blood in his aorta. It’s something we see rarely in kids, and I kept asking him to turn his head to test if it was that or not. I wish my med student was here right now; this is rare and it’s cool to hear.”
“But it’s really just normal, and not an issue?”
“Yes, really. Promise. It’s just a detail. It’s interesting, and unusual. His blood just flows close to the surface, your kid.” I exhaled the rest of the way and helped Whit pull on his shirt.
After a few more minutes, we walked back to the car. I thought of a quote I’ve always related to, which I just tweeted recently, by Alan Gurganus: “Her life stayed closer to the skin than most people’s.” I let go of Whit’s hand and held my fingers against his back. Thump, thump, thump. His small heart rabbited against my hand. It is amazing, mummy. Calamity is always so close. We walk the line between ordinary and catastrophe every moment. Thump, thump, thump. Close to the surface.
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