Heartbeats and Heartbreak

My dad’s heart is about to stop beating. Any minute now, a surgeon will make an incision down the middle of his chest, dividing his breastbone in two, and whilst they replace his narrowed heart valve with that of a pig’s, his own heart will cease to beat for an hour.

An hour.

Sixty minutes when my dad’s body will rely on a heart and lung bypass machine, his own heart still and beat-less.

As a writer, I am always writing about hearts: they are forever thudding, beating or racing with fear, hurting, breaking or flooding with love. And yet, as I sit here in the hospital canteen waiting for the operation to be over, I realise that I do not really know what a heart is.

According to the (very useful) hospital leaflet they gave us, a heart is a pump that is designed to beat spontaneously and regularly throughout our lives. Our hearts beat 60-90 times each minute, a 100,000 times each day and 42 million times each year.

Yet in Western society, the heart is so much more than a biological pump. In our culture, it is the essence of who we are, the repository of all our dreams and desires, our hurts and regrets. Our heart is who we are, the core of our being. So when they stop my dad’s heart, what exactly are they stopping? What will be lost in those missed 5,900 beats? During that pause, where is the 75-year-old man who was once a wood-loving boy; where will the love and grief he bears for my mum actually go?

Hospital re-opens the wound of widowhood, salted by the ghost of visitors past. If my mum was still with us, she would have nagged dad to pack his bag weeks ago, bought crisp new pyjamas, packed plenty of cold drinks and drawn up a list of all his medicines to hand to the staff. She would have given the doctors more information than they needed, and joked with the nurses to keep her husband for as long as they liked. My mum would have been there before he went into theatre, there when he woke up and there for him at home: ‘in sickness and in health’. But what happens when death has parted you, leaving you sick and alone?

My brothers and I are poor substitutes for a wife of 47 years. One of us is always here, but we tip toe awkwardly around the perverse role reversal, unwilling to concede that our father – our once mighty father – is now frail and weak. And whilst we can help and cajole him, any overt nagging or telling crosses the parental borders that my dad still polices.

The operation should take about four hours, so I will soon know whether it has been a success: whether his heart is once more beating, with no complications. I am looking forward to the relief I will feel when it is over, but I doubt it will shift this deep sense of melancholia that weighs upon me now, the longing to curl up somewhere and weep. For I know that even a new heart valve will not ‘fix’ my dad.

Before going into theatre, the doctors asked him some questions:

‘When does your heart hurt?’

‘When I walk up hills’ (All the time, all the time).

‘When does it stop?

‘When I rest.’ (Never).

The operation should relieve the chest pain and breathlessness, but it will not end the loneliness; it will not bring his wife back. And with each beat of his renewed heart, the clock will continue to tick. Time is passing, and age will weary him. Today is a reminder of that brutal fact.

For as the black-bearded giant of my youth grows thinner and smaller, my own boys are growing taller and stronger. One is already inching over me, the youngest about to start secondary school. I am but months away from mornings of buses, blazers and hurried goodbyes. The thought that one day, my own sons will be negotiating their diaries over the bed where I lie, white-haired, thin-legged and unaccountably quiet, makes my own heart salt-sore with grief.

And if I am honest with myself, it is this thought that feeds my tears: the knowledge that even if all goes well, we will have delayed but not defeated Death. With the help of the doctors and nurses, we have done some artful dodging, but He will be back. For as Shakespeare once wrote, ‘The worst is Death, and death will have his day’.

Postscript

My dad’s operation went well, and thanks to the NHS and the incredibly skilled and caring staff, he will be home in the next two days.

The heart will break, but broken, live on.’ Lord Byron.

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