Start here, on a weekend morning on the northern California coast, where tule elk graze in ocean fog and orange poppies wave in salty air. Through the hazy green hills of Point Reyes, a path slopes down to the Pacific Ocean. It is this trail my husband and I follow, our jackets pulled tight against the early March wind.
I round a turn, and in my line of sight appears the water, glossy as stained glass. I wait for Dean to catch up. When he is beside me, I touch his face and ask, Are you having trouble breathing? Feeling any chest pain? Questions of body and of mind. He shakes his head. No. The answers I know by looking. His face is glowing, not gray.
Reaching the beach, we sit on a curved piece of sea-smoothed cypress and watch the waves. I forgot how sea foam scatters over sand. I forgot about sandpipers. We are both quiet, not asking one another, Where should we go for dinner? Neither of us exclaiming, I’m so happy to get away from work this week! Those forward ways of planning and believing our lives will be similar by evening are rhythms that may never be reclaimed. I can only count through the past with confidence.
This is our first trip out of Texas in nearly two years. The last time we saw the ocean was years ago, at Cape Cod. The May water was freezing, but Dean dove right in, emerging as though from a saltwater baptism. Cleansed. Granted a reprieve. That afternoon, there was only a small scar on his chest. He still had the heart he was born with then.
Congestive: referring to a heart too weak to pump blood through the body. Fluids slow down, pool up, accumulate in those places—organs, tissues—they normally pass right through. The system becomes bogged down in itself.
Failure: meaning the inability to perform what was once a common function. The inefficient work of a diseased heart. The end of relationships.
Interstitial: the spaces between and what fills them. When did I first encounter this word? Maybe in an anatomy class I took in college. Since then I discovered it does not apply only to the matter—and matters—of the body. Living is an interstitial event as we appear in birth and alter form, through life and into death. Loves, marriages, divorces, illnesses. Memories. Cities.
This beach is an interstitial environment, existing between land and sea. What if I could take a sheet of tracing paper and outline our figures, the shape of this ocean, and the reach of a sunrise long past? Stacking these thin pages, I could discover what edges fall between edges, into the interstices of history and memory.
Dean is a poet and a teacher. A man who had a heart transplant. Who loved long runs, beer, red meat. Who fell in love. As with any life, these desires and roles, his form, can be traced, grouped into the life of his person over time. I am a person—a writer, a photographer, a woman in love—sitting beside him on this battered driftwood, pulling words up from ground, down from air, from birds moving between the two, trying to make sense of this all.
We met six years ago, at the height of a humid North Carolina summer. It was the first residency of my graduate poetry-writing program, and over those ten days, we exchanged maybe three words. But at a party the night before, with cheap beers in hand, we started talking about writing, running, and my divorce, and found we could not stop. Alarmed—he was a professor, I was a student—my friends tried to pull me away. His colleagues, shaking their heads, attempted to distract him.
I was aware of his wedding ring, but I cannot say it gave me pause. As the party ended, we slipped away and walked through the dark, wooded campus. In the early morning, among singing cicadas, we kissed. A line from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” flashed through my mind: You do not have to be good. It was not so much an excuse for my behavior as an accompaniment.
A year passed. Back at school, we met again. I was in the final lap of my divorce. He was still married. You’re taller than I remember, I said, accidentally walking out of my flip-flops. Grinning, he muttered something about my toe ring. In the sunlight, I saw his eyes were not brown, as I had thought, but a fluctuating mix of limestone green and blue.
Weeks later, when both of us were back at our respective homes, the first letter arrived. Living with a boyfriend outside the Catskills in upstate New York, I took the small envelope into the bathroom to read in privacy. Dean’s print was fierce and blocky, like a series of small, linked explosions over the page. The word heart was on the paper, but not failure. Should I respond? Faintly, I heard the Greek chorus of my friends, warning me away.
But I craved an escape. In addition to the stresses of divorce and graduate school, I juggled jobs as a Pilates instructor, a freelance writer, and a temp writer in New York City. The man I lived with had revealed himself to be an unmotivated alcoholic, heavy on promises but light on deliveries. Dean’s letter was a tractor beam, pulling me towards a place of passion and danger, but also of quiet and safety.
I wrote back, saying certainly these letters could be between any woman and any man. Romantic, but striving to be realistic. No subject was off-limits, and Dean was honest about his health problems. He was diagnosed in his forties with idiopathic cardiomyopathy, and in the years since, his condition had remained fairly stable. He wrote books of poetry. Taught creative writing in Iowa. Lived in California with his wife. Remembering his morning runs in North Carolina, I wondered if these reports of his heart were tortured exaggerations, or medical truths.
In the next six months, one thing became clear: neither of us excelled at having affairs. Although over a thousand miles usually separated us, and we craved physical closeness, it was the emotional distance—and detachment—we found impossible to maintain. During a heated phone call that winter, Dean said, exasperated, “I can’t give you anything else.” But I was not begging him to leave his marriage, or to meet up for a week in Maui. What I wanted was something he could not manage to do himself: to stop wanting our conversation to continue.
I tried to move on. He tried to stay married. Something always pushed us together—or we let it draw us closer. A text about a February lunar eclipse. An emailed picture of a newborn giraffe. Our elemental need to write one another and to hear back.
Two years after we first met, Dean moved to Austin for a position as professor of creative writing at the University of Texas. I left a proofreading job in North Carolina and joined him. Though he was only separated from his wife, life was just different enough for me to believe living together would work. Graduate school was over. I was an ex-wife, and single. Dean no longer wore his wedding ring.
But though he looked healthy, over the next months his energy faded. A failing heart, I soon learned, takes its pain to many places. Symptoms unfamiliar to me—a constant, dry cough, stomach cramping, shortness of breath—indicated the heart he had coaxed along was starting to fail. His buoyant, skinny-legged stride I loved to watch from my desk window where I worked, as he left to teach class or returned from writing at the café, began to slow and shorten. Our romance intertwined with his whirlwind decline, as if we were trying to take off while preparing to crash land.
So there we were, far from being any woman and any man. I was a thirty-four-year-old unemployed poet and writer. He was a fifty-three-year-old poet and professor still married to another woman who lived two thousand miles away. We were both living in an unfamiliar city, without strong support systems. Suddenly, we were not going to poetry readings, but to heart failure clinics.
Swimming one morning, I grasped that no matter how much I helped, Dean was getting sicker. That he was married to someone who did not want to do the chores of caretaking—driving him to work because he could no longer manage the walk, taking notes as the doctors and their tests revealed the same undeniable results—but still wanted the marriage. That while he was in love with me, he also loved his wife. That I was about to be dumped by a man who was desperate to return to the life he knew before his literal and figurative hearts unraveled.
Time passed and we lived apart—ineffectually—for a couple months. A defibrillator was installed in his chest, to shock his heart with the force of a mule’s kick if it suddenly stopped beating. For six months, he reclaimed some energy, and his divorce resumed. Time passed. We were back together, but he could no longer run with me. Walking across campus, he stopped to rest more frequently. Like the body, love gets weary. Unable to find full-time work in Austin, and tired of filling a wife’s role as girlfriend, a part of me was pulling away. Despite my worry for him, the next fall I would move to Massachusetts for a job and graduate school. Leaving always gave me a measure of security. I loved, I tended, I left. Idiopathic. Meaning: with no known cause.
Children run through the shallow surf. Does time pass? The phrase posits the idea that we remain static while time tumbles forward, the action of passing requiring a pass-ee. A duality. We cannot pass ourselves on the highway. We cannot pass ourselves a bowl of cereal.
Yet, passing can occur within a solitary body. Twice in less than five months, during two open-heart surgeries, Dean was hooked to a bypass machine. It circled his blood through his body while a heart pump was installed; and again, when the pump was removed over four months later and his original heart was taken out and the donor’s sewn into place. Passing can involve states in the string of life bypassing death bypassing life.
Riding the waves are black birds, each with a single white spot on their bills. Coots. I saw them for the first time when my first husband and I moved to Monterey, California, from Cambridge, Massachusetts. I saw them again, last summer, as I sculled on Lady Bird Lake. Me cutting over the water, sweat and sunscreen burning my eyes. Pulling the oars, dropping the oars. Passing no one as I tried not to consider other versions, wondering had Dean’s heart failure been diagnosed at the start of our relationship if we would have had time to fall out of love.
Collecting information about the heart’s function can be like mapping the deep sea floor and pinning the waves to paper. Before I left for Massachusetts that fall, I drove Dean to the Cooley Heart Transplant center in Houston for a second opinion. Which was, truthfully, closer to a tenth opinion. A refrain of what we already knew.
Reviewing the results of Dean’s latest echocardiogram, the doctor did not look up as he said, in a gentle Texas drawl, “Things could carry on for a while like this, but then there will most likely be a steep decline.” He drew a line in the air with his index finger, and it fell at an angle with the words steep decline. Then phrases like heart pump and bridge to transplant and heart transplant shot out into the air.
Like that office, hearts have no windows. I stared at the shelves crammed with the doctor’s collection of rare books, and at a muted television running a video of him working as a young medic, years ago, in Vietnam. Suddenly I remembered a quote from an essay on illness by Roberto Bolaño, written as he neared the end of his life: When people are about to die, all they want to do is fuck. True, our sex life had not suffered. Why didn’t someone map that? I glanced at the screen again, just as the camera zoomed in on a nurse’s rear end. The doctor, embarrassed, said something about the cameraman’s taste in women. Dean just looked down at his hands.
Back on the East Coast, I escaped his cough; the doctor’s appointments; the clinging, heavy ceiling that settles over households of illness. I was out of earshot of the arguments with his estranged wife. Busy with my jobs as managing editor of a literary magazine and as a graduate student, most of my time was spent in a tiny, dusty, un-air-conditioned office as I tried to pull my first issue together.
One afternoon, Dean called. Since he taught during the day, we usually talked in the evenings. Outside the office windows, orange and yellow leaves shifted in the October breeze as he said the doctors were admitting him to Seton Hospital, in Austin. He told me not to worry in a voice growing thinner with every word. Looking at the dust on the windowsills, I hoped Whitman had even the slightest clue when he wrote nothing collapses. Whether we were together or apart, he would still have congestive heart failure. How close did I need to be?
When we had broken up the year before, his wife had visited. When I moved back into the house, her pumice stone was in the shower, as though she might return at any time. I waited a month before I threw it away. This is another woman’s. It is here. Now it is not. Events gathered in a stack of tracing paper. How wide the space between Dean is here and Dean is not here? How can we know what will come to mean the most to us, until we do?
In two days, I drove back to Texas, with our dog. Pouring a cup of coffee at the nurses’ station one afternoon, I read a news clipping pinned to the bulletin board. It was the obituary of a man who waited over a year for a heart before succumbing to kidney failure.
I knew Dean’s heart was too expanded and weakened to snap back into shape. That Dean might qualify for a place on the heart transplant waiting list. That he might die before this could happen. I thought of friends I knew with sick partners, with dying parents, with chronically ill children. Everyone goes through these times, I constantly reminded myself, hoping that particular truth would diminish my fears, if only in that it made grief—and the need for bravery—less foreign.
After ten days in the hospital, Dean stabilized enough to be released home. He was now officially waiting for a transplant. As was the case for every patient in this situation, in an unpredictable range of time, his name would move up the list as his heart continued to fail. That was if things went well. No one—no doctor, no nurse—knew when a match might materialize because acceptable donors would not appear in order.
Within the next days, Dean’s divorce was granted. Immediately, we applied for a marriage license and petitioned to have the 72-hour waiting period rescinded. Cell-phone pictures from that warm fall afternoon show our faces blurry and bluish in the hallway lights of the Austin courthouse. The dark-haired judge closed his eyes and swayed as he read. I wore a cream-colored corduroy dress patterned with deer. Dean taught class later that day.
The first time I married, at twenty-five, the phrase in sickness and in health was spoken in theory. Every possible choice existed, it seemed, and all of them had positive endings. With Dean, I was deep in a different type of not-knowing. Not just in terms of our inability to predict the outcome of these days, but also in living among human beings, many of whom did not understand the body’s limitations. When friends inquired, politely mystified—Why did you pick today?—I felt unable to explain it was simply because now we could legally be married and Dean was still physically able to walk from the car and into the courthouse. Finally I saw the wisdom of drive-through wedding chapels.
In the week afterward, there were more midnight trips to the emergency room, when Dean’s lungs became so congested he could barely breathe. There was the port put into his arm, with a line connecting to a small pump, so he could continuously receive an intravenous medication that kept his heart beating. There were visits from the home health nurses to change the dressing and give us more supplies.
Some people said to me: You are brave. Some people surely thought: You are a fool. Was I brave? Was I a fool? Was there a demonstrable difference? I thought of Hemingway’s stories and of the impulse to read his work as brave because the tears and blame are kept from the page. As if bravery ever meant omission. I thought of our vows. Of how in sickness precedes in health. Of how being frightened did not mean I had to turn away.
Less than ten days later came the steep decline. During those hours in the intensive care unit, I felt there were two of me, separate but partially overlapping. Internal, interstitial distances both shrinking and expanding. This extra self observed the cardiac physician’s assistant blocking my view of my husband in his hospital bed. Watched her take my elbow and walk me to the nurses’ station so I could sign my name to various directives, indicating how far the doctors should go, if there was no time to ask. When Dean’s room cleared I sat again in a chair beside his bed, trying not to count the monitors, catheters, IV lines and other endless unnamed tubes disappearing into his bruised body. My brain could not imagine how one piece of time would link up with the next.
I did not have to wonder long. The PA came back into the room and crouched down beside my chair.
“Nice boots,” she said. A gift from Dean: cowboy with turquoise stitching. I liked them for their sharp strike against the hospital floors.
She said, “If things continue to proceed in this fashion, Dean will not make it through the night.”
For all my rational observations, my brain had not equated decline with dying.
A few moments later, one of the surgeons came in and said Dean’s kidneys and liver were failing. What I heard was flailing.
Dean himself was past hearing. As if on cue, the molecules in the room began to disperse, taking a little color, a bit of matter, with them. The barriers to his departure were rupturing, like the membrane of an expiring cell.
Start with surprises. It was a scene very unlike the one where he and I stood that July evening on a rainy, rhododendron-ringed patio. Far away from metal bedrails, disinfectant, and shrieking bells. Surrounded by our friends, not by worried nurses and cautious doctors.
“Falling in love is like falling through a trapdoor,” a professor said during a lecture that day. She had paused. “And so is falling out of love.”
I was thirty-two. The previous spring, I left my husband of seven years. At that point, I could not have explained, exactly, why I left, other than to say I was unhappy. Who says, “I’ve put eleven years into this relationship and I’ve chosen to fall out of love”? Who says, “I’ve decided to fall in love”?
Trapdoors give, and you can drop through. You can also push them up, from the inside. For many years, I fell, in or out. It was what I did, what led me where I went. A trapdoor opened, and Dean and I were in love. A trapdoor opened, and Dean needed a heart transplant.
Then another trapdoor opened, and another, and now I sit beside my husband and look over the ocean again, the air pushed across our faces by the motion of the waves. We are no longer counting an unknown number of days for a call that may or may not come. Right now I want to press my hand into his so that my body passes into his. Instead of stopping there, I want to intertwine with particles of sand, of salt, of water, around, above, below, and behind us. Nothing, and everything, collapsed.
Until that night, we knew nothing about BIVAD heart pumps. Because both sides of Dean’s heart were irreversibly failing. He was losing consciousness and could not wait for a new heart. Due to low rates of organ donation, in the game of transplants, a patient must be sick enough to inarguably need a new organ, but not so sick that the chances of survival are slight. Surgically connecting him to a biventricular assist device was his only chance at staying alive, if he survived the operation. It would temporarily perform the work his heart could not.
Bulky and unwieldy, the pump was a machine of metal and plastic sewn to tissue. Four tubes, quarter-sized in diameter, would be inserted into Dean’s heart. They would exit through holes—open wounds, really—in his abdomen, and would lead to two pumps in clear, hard plastic cases about the size of slightly flattened baseballs. From the bottom of each ran pairs of pneumatic and electrical lines, four feet in length, to the forty-pound computer driver powering the device. Old Reliable, one of the nurses called it.
Once he recovered from the open-heart procedure, he would again be placed on the transplant waiting list. He would go home, on this machine that plugged into an electrical socket at night and ran off large batteries during the day. He could not be left alone. If the pump gave out, he would die if someone were not on hand to switch him to the back-up machine, or in an extreme case, to attach hand pumps to manually move blood through his body.
Keeping expectations in check, the surgeon told me, “This procedure is mainly a salvage operation.” Meaning: a last-ditch effort.
As the doctor spoke, I thought, Lupine. California poppies. I thought of one morning in Monterey, driving to the hospice offices where I volunteered and seeing cars pulled over and people standing in a green field awash in a sea of vivid purple-blue. It was my first spring in California. I had never seen lupine. I was twenty-five, and I did not stop.
Around midnight, I was allowed to see Dean. The nurses, serious and unsmiling, buzzed around the bed. My first thought was: He looks like the inside of a package from Amazon.com. Covered in a puffy green blanket, only his face, extremely swollen and shiny, was visible. His hand, pale and unusual like something from the deepest ocean washed up on land, was the single part of him I could touch.
My second thought was a line of William Carlos Williams’s: “The pure products of America / go crazy.” Imagination created poetry, and it created the BIVAD. Was this crazy in a good way or a bad way? Was it worth it, this way of waiting for a heart? One of the nursing assistants walked in, and her eyes grew round when she looked at the scene. “Freaky,” she whispered. The pumps popped like snapping fingers, the force of the machine slightly shaking his body.
When I spoke sentences of uncertain relief, the words hung in the air like half-deflated balloons. It would be days before Dean could hear me telling him over and over what had happened, gently and simply, so that he could slowly come to understand. It would be days before I could crawl in bed with him, loop my arm lightly over his stomach, and feel the surge of the pump moving us both.
Once we stood at this same beach, before I went to Massachusetts, back when Dean was still managing to manage his illness. Outline those selves; lay them over our selves, now. Suddenly, we are not the same people we were. The interstices feel wide.
As Dean is adjusting to his new heart—which at times seems like a Prius with the engine of a Dodge Charger—we are both adjusting to second marriages and new physicalities. The immunosuppressant drugs he must take, to prevent his body from rejecting the heart, cause many side effects: fatigue, frequent migraines, and anemia. Others, more serious—kidney failure, cancer—dash in and out of my mind. Though those are illnesses many face, for different reasons.
Suddenly we always know too much. When he looks at the ocean as though from a different angle, a greater distance, I cannot ask him to explain.
Memory can allow for a gentler reinterpretation of the facts, as a brain moving on from traumatic events wants to soften the edges. To believe it was not so bad, after all. Some histories, however, refuse soothing.
There is an expectation that when a loved one arrives home from the hospital, it will be a celebration. That there will be no confusion over the changes in one’s body (I was not like this when I last sat on my couch) and no frantic realizations when the caregiver understands there will be no nurse coming on shift at 7:00 pm (Dean is here, and sick, all the time).
After a month in the hospital, Dean coming home on heart pumps did not mean Let’s throw a big party! It meant the cat hid under the bed and the dog hunkered under the dining room table, her tail wagging in low sweeps. It was impossible to ignore the wheels of the cart rolling heavily over the wood floors, or to tune out the groan and beep of the batteries winding down. The click-clock sound of the pumps was everywhere Dean went.
The world of making plans disappeared as our lives grew around strange routines. Twice a day, I performed the “flash test”: using a flashlight to check for blood clots forming in the pumps. Every afternoon—eventually, every morning as well—I washed up in our small bathroom, donned a sterile gown, laid out supplies, and changed the dressings where the pumps entered his body. In our living room towered a stack of boxes from the wound care company, containing more medical supplies than most healthcare facilities in the world will see in a month.
As medically intended, the pumps gave Dean a temporary stay, a bridge, a way to wait for a transplant. The quality of his life did improve, in some fashion—he could take short walks, he was not coughing and out of breath, he had energy to write.
But the taxing physical and psychological weight of the BIVAD was always too much to bear. A temperamental Band-Aid, it said: Maybe I’ll help you, and maybe I’ll add to the list of worries you and your wife fold and unfold in your hands. It gave him constant pain, anemia, and a serious blood infection. But he had no other way through.
It is lonely to be ill and to care for someone so ill. Neither can be put aside or checked off. Outside of the heart clinic, our support network was a tight loop. I grew savagely impatient with those who said, I didn’t know he was sick or How seriously should we take this? We had just a handful of friends and family who called or visited and sat with Dean and walked with me, who listened as I cried under the pale yellow light of the street lamps.
Take care of yourself, people said. Yes, but how? There was no place in the world to stand in and forget. Any moment, the phone could ring with the news that a heart had arrived, a call we desired but feared, as it would initiate another life-threatening operation. Days passed, accumulating into months. I realized I no longer looked at myself in the mirror.
I was tired of noticing so many other things. Of gauging blood on dressings. Of watching Dean’s careful dance around the machine, making sure the pneumatic and electrical lines did not twist up. Of people gawking as we walked slowly through the grocery store, the BIVAD pushed in front of him or trailing behind. Of knowing that his wait for a heart might last more than a year.
During those months, I daydreamed of lives I left behind, outside of the dry sear of Texas. I missed the winter in Northampton, starting when friends packed up the last of my things to mail back to Austin. I mourned the loss of sitting on the scuffed leather couch with the dog and watching snow fall outside, the steam radiators whistling. Time had passed. I could not be twenty-five again.
As in my first marriage, there were many late nights with my own quiet tears in the bathroom, our dog whining in the hall outside the door. This time, I was not crying out of confusion or from fear over a fading love. My questions were not “Why?” or “How?” I knew those answers. Tumbling through my tears, what I heard my voice saying was, “Please.” Begging in the face of the fact that every body in the world is finite. That each alteration—a fence falling apart, a divorce, or heart failure—happens for a reason. We are not always privy to where the string of events began, to what caused that first nail to come loose in the plank.
Many of my friends were learning the lessons of staying by becoming parents. As always, I was out of step. I thought of the miscarriage I had at twenty-one. How, after all the losses and near-losses of the last years, wanting a child would be an understandable response. How I could not bear the guilt if we passed along a heart defect. There was once a life where I could pack a few things, grab the dog, and go. There was a life where I could say, “Someday I’ll have five kids.” I misplaced those lives. I missed daydreaming about the future and trapdoors that firmly locked. Others looked ahead with a freedom I envied.
Oh, just to get away. Because we always had to be within two hours of the hospital, in case a heart arrived, the best we managed while Dean was on the pump was a short drive into the Texas Hill Country. The machine plugged into the cigarette lighter, clacking away. Dean sitting in the back seat, so that in case of an accident, the air bag did not damage the surgery site, his heart, or the pump. The air conditioner rattling in our ears as we drove out under a piercing blue sky.
Sitting on the beach here, I think about how our dedication to one another, and our connection to our work, helped push us through those months. For Dean, writing was both habit and distraction, a focus on something other than his body. For me, it was a compulsion. I knew that if he died, I would need the solace of writing and photography. While he lived, my work was a way to demarcate the space between us, to say, “I know you are sick and I will take care of you.” To say, as caregivers must, “This is me, here.”
After nearly five months of waiting, a new heart arrived for Dean when a healthy, generous young man with similar blood chemistry died as an organ donor. The call did not shock us awake in the middle of the night as we expected, but came around 10:30 on a Thursday morning. I want to say we had some amazing epiphany during the ten-minute drive to the hospital, but living with a machine like the BIVAD makes a heart transplant a relief, despite the dangers of the operation and challenges of recovery.
“Are you scared?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Dean replied. “Are you?”
I never answered. He was the one going into this new space. This yearned-for door opened because someone unexpectedly died. Even more could be lost in the next hours. There was no celebration, just muted, taut anticipation.
I thought of the cardiac PA who told me Dean was dying the previous winter. How I once saw her bringing ten bright red, heart-shaped balloons into the ICU. I thought of another young woman, an inpatient, meditatively walking a hospital corridor one evening as I left to go home and sleep while Dean remained on the cardiac unit. Eventually, memories accumulate and swirl together, refusing organization along a specific timeline. A glance, an explosive connection, or a kiss that brings on a divorce. Decisions to stay or go. A diagnosis dictating a body’s abrupt end, slow decline, or unexpected recovery. Trapdoors flying open or sticking shut. Operations that fail or succeed. In memory, they happen all at once.
In many ways, the months after the transplant are as blurry as the time of waiting for the transplant. Now we are no longer paused, but living what happens, as people sometimes can.
Driving back from the beach, I notice a giant rock formation, gray and heavy against the green hills. “That looks like a fist,” I say.
“I think it’s called the Hand of God,” Dean says.
An adult heart is close to the size of two fists. From here, I can’t tell whether this landmark is pressing down from the sky, or pushing up from the earth. Outline both versions. Layered together, they are what is, and what is not.
Six summers have passed since our first kiss. At times, I wonder if my actions were, in that tally-keeping sense, good or bad. What I find is that I no longer believe in or. I must live by and, the one word allowing me to be giving and faulted at the same time. Slowly, I make peace with the dissonance of possessing both the innate selfishness I used to justify having an affair, and the compassion that gave me the strength to stay and care. In the world as it is, Dean’s heart failure and path to transplantation cannot exist separately from our affair, his divorce, and our marriage. As Mary Oliver’s poem goes on to say, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Remaining with Dean, what memories have I traced? A finger sketching a heart’s decline in the air. A man sewn into a machine, who now writes and teaches with a heart born in another’s body. A woman who loved, tended, left, and returned. I gather my histories in the pet hair on my sweater, in gulls calling from coasts both west and east, and in black-and-white birds riding the waves. In the shape of Dean’s hand over mine.
Start here: love is impossible to explain. An assault on body and spirit, heart transplantation is also a matter difficult to unravel. It aims, ultimately, to be restorative. Sometimes the terms of continuance can be born, as the perils of falling in love can, and the world will open again, though on a different landscape on another night, into a new pattern of rain. In health and illness, our lives are forever a series of outlines—of interstices in time—both collecting and rushing past.
Listen to Laurie read her essay:
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.