…”3″…paper ball goes up…and a hand reaches out…
Sometimes you just get lucky.
There I was, talking with my primary care physician (who’s specialty is cardiology) when the strangest thing came up in our conversation. I must have made some joke about Valentine’s Day coming up and how I sometimes feel this pressure to obey The Hallmark Brigade and buy at least roses or chocolates for my wife and send out cards for family and friends. I have been able to make custom temporary tattoos for the classmates of my son and daughter, each individualized, bearing their friend’s names in a heart or a lightening bolt or a smiley face that will be pressed, dampened and stuck to little arms and hands on February 14th…and February 15th…and pretty much the next week. The tattoo can be a little tough to remove — but the top epidermal layer of skin regenerates in two to three weeks (“Happy Valentine’s Day, and now, grow some new skin so you have somewhere fresh to stick the shamrock in March.”)
“Well, you’re not the only one who’s not a big fan of…” and this, my doctor whispered, “Valentine’s Day.”
“Not your favorite either, huh?” I said, feeling as if he and I briefly bonded and the next stop would be a golf course…
“No. Mr. Heart.”
“Yes. He hates it too.”
“Kind of an ironic name for him to–”
“No. He is a heart. He’s in my office.”
The good doctor must have noticed me looking as if he just told me that I was with child and that I better start thinking about an obstetrician.
“He’s in my office. In a cooler. Part of a study. Columbia. Hush-Hush. Shouldn’t have said anything.”
The doctor was correct. Because, while I had seen some evidence of talking organs in some health education films in middle school (“Lungs: We Blow” or “You and Your Bones” (narrated by Maurice the Mandible) and everyone’s favorite: “I’m Getting Hair in New Places” featuring the Follicles from Down Under Ragtime Band) I had never actually spoken to an organ (none that I will confess to in this story.) He was right, he should not have said anything…so I pressed on.
“I suppose you shouldn’t have.”
“Best we just don’t tell anyone. Columbia would be a little upset if they found out I told anyone.”
“I suppose they would.”
We stared at each other for a moment in the silence. He knew what my “supposes” meant. I was as deft at intonation as he was at finding the knee reflex below the patella. This time, I struck and he jerked.
“Okay. Don’t even say it. I’m just going to not go into my office, which is unlocked, for the next seven minutes. I will not go in there for seven minutes. After seven minutes, I will go back into my office. Do you understand?”
Quickly I walked down the hallway to his office, pushed open the door and closed it. A couch. A skeleton. Books. Several Diplomas. A cloudy fish tank. Pictures of his children. Framed Certificates of Recognition. Three models of a plastic heart. And behind the desk, in a dark corner, an unassuming blue Igloo cooler. Nearing the corner, I accidentally kicked the desk chair which was on rollers, sending it into the side of the cooler.
“Hey, Doc. That you?” a muffled voice called out.
The cooler shook.
“DOC! I SAID IS THAT YOU?”
I went over to the cooler and held both sides in an attempt to calm this agitated voice. Time ticking away, I pushed the two buttons on the handle at the same time — a movement every tailgater, picnic aficionado and fisherman can do as second nature — and clicked the cover open. Inside, nestled in a cradle of dry ice I stared down at Mr. A. Heart. Trying to grasp the absurdity and improbability of meeting and communicating with a human heart, the day before Valentine’s Day, in the office of my primary care physician/cardiologist was just too overwhelming. Five minutes is what I had, and instead of going into the details of our introductions, and boring you with the explanations of how he was able to talk, the science of it all, the implications of organs being able to communicate, the awkwardness of keeping him cool and viable with the cooler open — I’ll just cut to my actual interview that deals with the day that we celebrate on February 14th.
ALN: So, Mr. A. Heart…
HEART: Arnold’s Heart. I’m Jimmy Arnold’s Heart. Jimmy owns a carting service in Fairfield County. Jimmy don’t eat too good. So I ended up here.
ALN: Is Jimmy Arnold dead?
HEART: No. Machine. They got him plugged in like a toaster until they do this revolutionary thing with me. Some sort of “Heart Bath” procedure.
ALN: Is it dangerous?
HEART: I’m a Heart, I don’t really think much. Leave that to Mr. Know-It-All upstairs.
ALN: Your brain.
HEART: Whoa, whoa, whoa — he ain’t my brain. I don’t work for nobody. INvoluntary, got that? I do my thing, he does his. Big lump of grey mush. Yappin’ at me all the time. The nerve endings are sick of him too. Did you know that the spinal cord and the cerebellum were planning a coup?
ALN: I’m sorry to hear that. Well, changing subjects, I’m short on time, but the doctor and I were talking about Valentine’s Day and…
HEART: Biggest misrepresentation of who us hearts really are. A bunch of crap.
ALN: That’s what I was saying, because…
HEART: They use this “likeness” of me, all symmetrical and red or pink, curvy top, pointy bottom. Smooth as silk.
ALN: You find it unflattering.
HEART: Unflattering? Hey, you lookin’ at me? I got veins all over, I’m bloody, I got this aorta sticking out of my head, vena cavas one feeling superior — the other, not so much…I mean…I’m a freaking muscle.
ALN: A pump.
HEART: Thank you. A Pump. A powerful one at that. Got these four chambers…
ALN: Like a cow’s stomach.
HEART: I should slap you with my mitral valve. “Like a cow’s stomach” he says. I’ve got CHAMBERS, buddy. I pump lifeblood! Without me — good luck. A cow’s stomach is a sack for holding chewed up grass. Got those udders that freak me out. Sicko cow goin’ around getting tugged. Used. They’re all getting used!
ALN: About Valentine’s Day…
HEART: Look, they want you to believe that I hold all this stuff: goodness, tenderness, devotion, happiness…that sort of stuff. Some people think I can have a black heart, a heart of hate, a cold heart…yada, yada, yada. You know what’s inside of me? Blood. That’s it, pal. Red and Blue. It ain’t puppy dog tails and rainbows. Sorry.
ALN: None of that exists inside of you?
HEART: Crack a biology book once in a while.
ALN: I’m not big on the whole Valentine’s Day thing either, but surely there’s something to all of this tradition and celebration?
HEART: Two words, my friend. Lub. Dub.
And with that…the office door opened. I snapped shut the cooler and turned to face my doctor who was in his best 5th grade pageant performance mode.
“Oh, my goodness…you are in my office. How odd.”
“Doctor…why is he so…” I was speechless, just staring down at the cooler.
“He’s been on an unhealthy diet. Was agitated. Dealt with more than his fair share of stents. A lot is asked of him. This is the first time he’s had time away from Mr. Arnold. A heart doesn’t have much time to think. When it gets a chance…well, there’s a lot to think about.”
The doctor could see that I was troubled. He came over to me, took me by my arm and walked me to his door.
“Look, don’t let the rantings of some random heart being used for a top secret medical procedure that will change the face of medicine and put us on a threshold of immortality bother you. Just go home and treat your heart well. Thirty minutes of cardio a day — at least. You’ll be happy. Your heart will be happy — and you can just chalk this up as ‘just one of those days’.”
Walking down the street, I began to think of my wife, and I wondered if I should tell her about this conversation I had with Mr. A. Heart. It really wasn’t what I thought it would be. I kind of felt that I fed into his cynicism and fueled his bad attitude towards Valentine’s Day. After all, what’s so bad about taking a day to highlight the romance of things. It’s pretty clear that life moves faster and faster with each day. Things often get unnoticed. Overlooked. Forgotten. Soon, I found myself quickening my pace and I thought about how she and I brought our kids into our life and how by knowing her, brought her family into my life and by her knowing me, brought my family into hers. Together we brought all of our friends into each other’s lives. As she and I grow, so does this body of people that surrounds us. It is a network. A flow. A circulation system of the highest regard, one that propels love to all areas emanating from us, from our center. So, when somebody says “You are my heart” maybe it’s not as sappy as it sounds. Maybe, just maybe, that’s where the symmetry of the Hallmark Heart comes from. That’s why when a heart gets “broken” the whole community depending on it gets shaken.
Blood, guts, tissue…yep that’s a heart. It may not be the one that gets plastered all over the place in mid-February. It isn’t the one that has “20% Off” sales in its honor. The heart can be a muscular pump or a red curvy cut-out.
But as I race home, my heartbeat quickens at the thought of opening that door, and chocolates, roses, a card, a kiss, a hug…whatever form it takes, I’ll wish her a “Happy Valentine’s Day” and know that my greatest gift is the fact that I’m saying this to her.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.