Story of the Month: Heart Conditions

Bob needed a new heart.  It sounded so simple, Libby thought, as if a healthy heart were something that could be mail-ordered from L.L. Bean, or found in some expensive speciality shop in New York City, or perhaps in a more straightforward place, like their local hardware store in Wilmington.  Actually, it was simple in a way.   Now that Bob was on the list, all they could do was wait.  Of course, Bob had to stay alive in the meanwhile, but that, too, was more passive than active, more a matter of what he couldn’t do than of what he could.  Like not go into the office full-time.  Not eat heavily.  Not be in smoky rooms.  Not make love.

“I’m for bed,” she said one night as they sat watching the late edition news, which was winding down with a story about deer management by the Brandywine Valley Archery Club.  She wasn’t interested, and she could see he was only half-listening to it, but when she stood up, he stayed put, not even glancing at her.  

Before Bob’s heart had begun to fail, it would have be nothing to note if one of them had retired before the other.  But he’d wobbled on the stairs several times in the previous week, so she’d taken to walking up beside or behind him at bedtime.  She never asked if he wanted her there, and he never protested that he didn’t, though she suspected it embarrassed him to be so blatantly treated like an old man.  In fact, it embarrassed her.  They were both nearing 40, not 80.  She shouldn’t have to be doing this.  They shouldn’t have to be doing this.  

The bedtime accompaniment up the stairs was an arrangement that had been made without discussion, like many other shifts in this altered life — that she brought the groceries in from the car, that the boy across the street mowed their lawn, that she lifted the children when they fell or needed help out of a tree or on to a high place, that he took longer to do almost everything, from putting on his socks to walking to the mailbox.

“Good night, then,” he said cheerfully, his gaze still fixed on the television, now showing an ad for a heartburn medication. 

It was close enough to a directive.  Hiding her hesitation, she went upstairs without him.

Next morning he was still on the sofa, head angled crookedly on a small, stiff throw pillow, knees bent to accommodate his long legs, his torso hunched under the tattered old blanket the children used to build indoor forts.  He was so awkwardly postured, reason told her he wasn’t dead, but she felt a sudden, fleeting stab of terror nonetheless.  She called his name loudly from the staircase and was both relieved and annoyed when he sat up and mumbled “Morning.”

That night after the late news, Libby opened the sofa bed and put sheets on it and brought his favorite pillow down from their bed.  And just like that, another new arrangement was born.

“This thing is so lumpy,” she said as she opened it on the third night.  “We ought to get a new one.” 

“It’s fine,” Bob said.  “I’m fine with it.”

Libby’s heart was strong, but her life was as circumscribed as Bob’s by his restrictions.  To help him feel less an invalid, she ate what he ate, she pretended to enjoy taking the children out every day during his afternoon nap, and she never let him see or hear her cry, reserving her tearful collapses for a remote corner of the Christiana Mall parking lot.  She felt she had to hold herself together not only to boost Bob’s spirits, but also to keep the children’s lives as normal as possible, to save them from being sucked into the terrible vortex of the waiting.  Gloria five and Oliver only three, both found it hard to wait for anything, and they naturally assumed on some primal, unexamined level that their parents were immortal.  How could they afford not to?  They’d even evolved a kind of game around Bob’s heart.

“When Daddy gets his heart,” one of them would say, “he’ll push us so high on the swings until our feet can touch the trees.”

“Yeah, and he can do blast-offs again and again,” the other would add.

A blast-off consisted of Bob straightening his arms to push a swing high over his head as he dashed forward underneath it, giving the child in the swing a thrilling jolt.  It was a feat beyond Libby’s strength, and, truth be told, beyond her nerve. 

Oliver and Gloria had a list of things Daddy would do when he got his heart.  They never doubted he would, just as they’d never doubt the arrival of Christmas or Halloween or their birthdays.  However distant those events might be, the children didn’t tire of planning what would happen then.  A plan became part of the anticipated occasion, a source, on its own, of pleasure. 

Libby, unencumbered with, or unblessed by, the children’s naiveté, couldn’t trust in the future, let alone plan for it.  She shied away, too, from considering too closely the shape of their lives in the present, because whenever she let herself peer beyond the fear and worry, other more unsuitable emotions reared up, ugly, uncharitable emotions like anger and self-pity and a boredom so deep it bordered on resentment.  And it wasn’t just the situation that courted these troublesome feelings — not only the random unfairness of Bob’s faulty heart, which he’d had since birth; nor the disorienting uncertainty of the future; nor the extra household responsibilities she’d had to shoulder.  It was Bob himself, his unfailing good humor, which had risen, or in her opinion, sunk, to the level of virtue.  To think that way felt shameful.  Maybe even a jinx.  To say it aloud would be a contradiction to everyone else.

“Bob has such a positive attitude,” a friend marveled.  “It’s inspiring.”  

“You’d never know he had a care in the world,” another commented.

“You’re lucky he’s not a belly-acher like his father was,” Bob’s mother told her.  “Even when he was a baby, Bobby was easy.  Never fussed when you laid him down.  Like a loaf of bread he was.”

Libby nodded grateful agreement to all the remarks and bromides.  She modestly shrugged off any praise of her own bravery and devotion.  Gratitude and modesty seemed to be what people expected, at least on the surface, and staying on the surface seemed to be what Bob expected.  Or what he needed.

He didn’t complain about the limits on his activities.  He didn’t pine for steak or fried foods or cheese or beer.  He didn’t seem to miss the pick-up basketball games he used to play on Sundays, nor the occasional joint with a friend, nor the indefinite postponement of vacations because he had to be on hand at a moment’s notice when a suitable heart appeared.  Like the children, he always said when, never if.  

But Libby had begun, in stray, unleashed moments, to wonder about the if.  What shape might her life take if Bob didn’t get a heart in time?  The children, of course, were a constant and would demand more from her than they did now, as inconceivable as that was.  But otherwise?  When could she respectably take a lover?  How would she find one?  When would she want to?  She missed sex now.  She missed having sex with Bob.  Though that specific longing was waning as the weeks wore on and he made no mention of missing her in that way.  He’d become monk-like, not just in his apparently easy embrace of celibacy, but in his quiet self-regulation and his placid acceptance of it.  He smiled, but he never laughed with extravagance.  He sometimes let out a deep sigh, but he never cried or moaned or even shook his head in disbelief or despair.  He held his temper.  He was philosophical about things that used to get a rise out of him, like flat tires, or bounced checks, or the children’s occasional cruelties to each other.  He made no comments on Libby’s bursts of irritability, nor on the times her attention drifted away.  He took no notice of all the ways she shielded him from everyday annoyances and necessities.  

“Thanks,” he’d say when she brought him tea and the morning paper, or some such ordinary service, but there was never any mention of the out-of-the-ordinary, or even that ordinary now was different.  It was his way, perhaps, of believing it was temporary, by not giving it any fuel or air, like you’d smother a campfire.

Libby wanted it to end.  All of it.  Not Bob, of course.  It wasn’t that bad yet.  She didn’t want Bob to end.  But in her darkest moments, she felt that he had already ended, or their marriage had, or, certainly, how they used to be, and she had begun to doubt that the mere miracle of a new heart would mend things.  Did Bob know mending was needed?  Did he feel doubt?  Was he so invested in keeping himself alive that he couldn’t see her suffering, her sacrifices?  Did he see and just not care?  Did he not dare to spend the energy to care?  To ask him any of that would feel like betrayal.  Later, she told herself.  They’d have a long talk later, when he was safe.  But even then, to say look at what I did for you, look at what I had to bear in silence, wouldn’t that be, even then, petty of her?  Wasn’t his ordeal the greater one?  It was certainly the more visible one.  The one friends and family could rally around with unambiguous sympathy.  He was the victim, not her.  His was the main burden.  Hers was a corollary.  No one would ever see her in the starring role.  Least of all Bob.  He was too immersed in studying his own lines.     

On Father’s Day, still no heart in sight, and Bob now not working at all because he’d gotten weaker, Libby planned an outing a short drive away, to a state park with old farm meadows and stands of trees and a creek suitable for canoeing.  But there was no mention of canoeing today.  Their canoe was in the garage providing a home for spiders.  They had always gone somewhere outdoorsy on Father’s Day, and Libby wanted to keep the tradition for the children’s sake.  Bob had agreed, despite the fact that leaving the house tired him.  Libby didn’t voice the other reason for the outing, that of manufacturing family memories for the children if Bob didn’t get the heart in time.  He must have known.  Though she wasn’t sure any more what he let himself think about.

They went early, the children delighted by the novel idea of a breakfast picnic.  Bob’s energy was best in the mornings.  The picnic area was deserted except for a woman and a teenaged boy twisting crepe paper streamers around tree trunks to reserve a group of tables, perhaps for a party that afternoon.  When they were done, the woman drove off in a dented station wagon, leaving the boy to guard their claim.  He lay down on his back on top of one of the tables and put his baseball cap over his face.  

Libby wished she could do the same, climb up on their table and rely on someone else to take care of things.  Instead, she began setting out the plates and cups and flatware she’d brought from home.  She cut up a banana and stirred half the pieces into each of two vanilla yogurt cups.  She peeled the hard-boiled eggs, separating out Oliver’s “egg balls” from the whites for Gloria.  She unwrapped the Pop-Tarts to let them dry out.  Gloria had toasted them at the last minute and folded aluminum foil around them inexpertly but tightly enough to close in their heat and cause condensation.  Bob’s decidedly un-breakfast consisted of tuna without mayonnaise on hard rye crackers and a green salad dressed only in lemon juice.  That’d be her fare, too.  There was a thermos of pink lemonade and another of filtered water.  Brownies for the children’s dessert.  They’d helped make them last night while Bob watched seated at the kitchen table.  The evening’s entertainment.

Satisfied that nothing had been forgotten, Libby repacked the food to keep it away from the blue jays and squirrels and strolled several yards to where the children were wading in a shallow side stream that fed into the creek.  Bob was leaning up against a broad tree trunk on the raised bank.  Libby sat down, leaving a wide space of hummocky grass between them.  In the past, he’d have sidled over to make room for her against the trunk.  In the past, she had to admit, she’d have sat close enough to lay her head on his shoulder.  She forced herself away from these thoughts to a happier focus on the children at play.  But just at that moment, the Hallmark card air of the scene dissolved in a chorus of wails as Oliver vigorously splashed Gloria, and she responded by dumping a fistful of wet sand and pebbles on his head.

“Come on, you two,” Libby called, beginning to stand, but Bob waved at her to stay put.

“Let’s build a dam,” he said to the children with exaggerated enthusiasm.  He heaved forward as if to get up, then leaned back again.

“Ollie got me wet!” Gloria whined.

“It was an accident,” Oliver protested.

“Was not.”

“Was, too.”

“Was not!”

“Oliver, you be in charge of the stones, and Gloria, you get the mortar,” Bob said, ignoring their Sisyphean debate.

“What’s mortar?’’  Gloria asked, both children turning interested faces toward their father.

“Sand, mud, little pebbles.  That was mortar you put on your brother’s head.”

“It was?”

“Sure.  Think you can find some more?”

Both children began moving purposefully up and down the small stream carrying stones and mortar to the place Bob had pointed to as the dam’s site.  Daddy to the rescue, Libby thought.  He’d been so much more tolerant of the children’s fractiousness since his heart began to fail.  Wiser, even.  He took their little melodramas as seriously as they did, and so he was able to help them to solutions, or, short of that, to let them know, really know, that what they felt or wanted or feared was real, that he considered it important and legitimate.  Where was his insight and empathy when it came to her?  Did he not see her plight, her tender scalp gritty with metaphorical sand?    

Libby returned to the picnic table and sat down.  She watched two large ravens pecking in the dirt underneath a nearby table.  Another raven stood on the table top surveying the park, its black feathers gleaming in the sunshine as if they’d been oiled, its thick black beak making it look dangerous and confident.  At one point, it cocked its head and turned one scrutinizing black eye in her direction.  What did it see?  What did a mind like that make of what it saw?  When the ravens under the table emerged and flew off, the lordly one on top of the table spread its wings and took flight, too.  Libby felt ridiculously abandoned.

“Mommy, Mommy,” called Gloria.  “Come see our dam!”

Libby went obediently to inspect their structure.  Sure enough, the crude barrier was resisting the push of the slow-flowing rivulet and had created a pool where Oliver was busy floating leaves.

“I made the mortar,” Gloria announced proudly.

“I brought the rocks,” Oliver added, not to be outdone.  

“And what did Daddy do?” Libby teased.

Gloria’s reply came promptly.  “Nothing.”

“Hey!” Bob protested.

“He just sat,” Oliver said, for once agreeing with his sister.  “We did it by ourselves.”

“I was the overseer,” Bob said.

“What’s a overseer?” Gloria asked.

“Well, he does just sit quite a bit, but he watches everything, and he notices everything.”

“Did you see my mortar?”

“I did.  I’d say you’re a mortar expert.”

“And did you see my rocks?”

“Yes, Ollie, I did.  And I could tell they were good, strong rocks.”

“And what about my boats?”  

“Those are just leaves,” Gloria said scornfully.

“They float.  They’re boats,” Bob declared.

Gloria considered a moment whether or not it was worth continuing her argument.  Then she squatted beside her brother, and ignoring her skirt trailing in the water, she gently pushed one leaf boat with her fingertip so that it entered a small eddy and began to spin.  Oliver followed suit with another leaf.  

Bob looked away from the bent heads of the children to Libby.

“Thank you,” he said.

Gloria twisted around and followed her father’s line of vision.

“Mommy didn’t help,” she said, with a five-year-old’s rigid sense of fairness.

“Mommy helps me,” Bob said.

“Is she a overseer, too?”

“More than that.  She’s the dam.”  

A cracked dam, Libby thought, making a wry face at Bob.  He smiled softly and held out his hand.  She took it and sat down close beside him.  A cracked dam might leak, but it could hold.   


1 Comment

  1. good that you retrieved and reworked this. An insightful exploration with sweetness and suspense. Nice.


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