El Corazon

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, July 24, 2007 |

A few weeks ago I bought the kid a couple packs of Loteria cards, and she quickly became obsessed with El Corazon ("The Heart"). She asks me to draw hearts when we we're out chalking the sidewalks, and when I draw a nice figurative valentine-style heart she throws down her chalk and stamps her feet until I draw a realistic veiny and ventricled blue-and-red lump with severed aortic arches and pulmonary veins and auricles sticking out of blue atriums and she isn't really happy until I draw some drops of blood squirting out, like the beating heart Mola Ram pulled out of the ribcage of that poor turbaned Thugee in Temple of Doom. I do sometimes suspect my child has the morbid tendencies of an old Aztec priest. "Heart," she finally says---quite satisfied---before asking me to draw a red-nosed drunkard and a topless mermaid.

Truthfully, I think it's that she only gets freaked out by things when we expose her to our own prejudices; this is why I pinch Wood extra hard when we're at the meat counter of the Mexican grocery store and she starts gagging at the piles of spotted cow's tongues and beef hearts. But the other day Juniper asked me to show her a movie about a heart, so I clicked on youtube and searched for "heart," first coming up with only this one, but then finding this one and this one. I watched the first with horror, and the latter two with the creeping sense of doom I get whenever I see someone else's insides. This is what I have been avoiding all these years, since 9th-grade science, this reminder of that weird glistening universe that exists within us all, that pulsating network of wet alien tubes and tanks and tissues. The surgeons were chatting above the gaping chest cavity, the very definition of nonchalance, and Juniper watched, entranced, but not the least bit grossed out or frightened. I tried not to wince or turn away. Why should she be scared of this? I asked myself. What is it that makes us frightened of what's under our skin, if not the grim reality that our souls are tethered to dirt by those crude mechanics? "Does Juney have a heart like that?" she finally asks me, blissfully ignorant of mortality.

"Of course she does," I answer. "But Juney has a very strong heart. It's the size of her hand," I say, and wrap her little fist inside my own, squeezing it over and over against her own chest. "It sounds just like this: pu-dum, pu-dum, pu-dum." I try to picture it inside her, strong and fast and young.

She laughs and puts her ear to my chest and listens. "I can hear your heart, too, dada," she says.
A few weeks earlier I sat in a doctor's office at Henry Ford Hospital for my Wood-mandated 30th-year physical, trying to figure out whether the paper robe left the front or the back open when the doctor walked in. I hadn't seen one in a decade. He showed me how to put the robe on, slipped the stethoscope onto my back, my chest. "Your heart and lungs sound great," he said, and later: "You are in perfect health." I felt relieved, but walked out through the cardiovascular ward looking at the faces of those with less optimistic prognoses. As you are now so once were we, they said. Out on Grand Boulevard, I looked at all those bodies moving around, all those hearts nestled somewhere inside cages of bone among slithering viscera.

We use a "white noise machine" in Juniper's room when she sleeps. It allowed us to sneeze and speak above a whisper in that tiny apartment we shared in San Francisco. She still uses it, and one of the ways I can tell she is up from her nap is when she changes it from "Yosemite Falls" to its "Heartbeat" setting, a muted constant thumping. "This is the sound of when Juney was in Mama's belly," she says when I open the door to her room. She is repeating something I'm sure her mother told her, still it reminds me that the heart's rhythm has a wombish comfort, just as the flickering rhythm on an ultrasound or the pattering of a heart monitor comforts those trying to usher new life into the world. "Does Wendell have a heart?"

"Yes. Everything alive does. Even bugs. I think. Wendell's heart is very fast."

They say pets are useful for teaching children about empathy and death. Someday Wendell's heart will stop and she will wonder why. As will mine.

There was a time or two in our eleven years when Wood and I broke things off. Once when she left for a year in China we tried it, and to say it broke my heart is not quite right. I remember running a lot then. I used to sprint up this long stretch of hill in the Arb trying to get my heart to burst, but I could not run hard or fast enough. At the top of the hill I would double over, sometimes collapse to my knees, picturing my heart at its brink inside my chest, yet somehow stronger now. The other time we broke up I was so despondent I went to see a counselor, a former professor of mine who talked to me about why seventeenth-century ascetic artists painted Jesus with his heart outside his chest. He said that it symbolized not only his great love for humanity, but his immense vulnerability, especially in those depictions of him nailed to the cross with his arms outstretched, his heart completely exposed, lance-pierced, but still burning with love. Vulnerability, he said, has its own sort of power. It allows you to love even when you have every reason not to, to keep your heart on fire even when you have every excuse to let it go cold.

"Does Juney have a strong heart?" she asks me almost every day. I tell her it is a very strong heart. Sometimes her silly questions send me spinning, thinking not only of that tiny mortal organ inside her chest, El Corazon, but her figurative heart, the heart of pop songs and bad teenage poetry, the one that will lead her through life's greatest joys and disappointments. I felt so helpless knowing that as sure as it has its own separate rhythm, there will come a day that it will suffer, and there will be nothing for me to do but hold her bigger fist in my hand again and squeeze it, and if she'll listen I'll tell her how strong it still is, that it is never really torn or broken, but merely wounded and exposed, and that even in that state of terrible vulnerability, the most important thing to do is not let it grow cold.