I first saw my baby’s heart beat—a flicker on a black and white screen—and I thought, “It’s alive.” That’s how it works. If your heart is beating, you’re alive. That’s all there is to it.
In the years that followed, sometimes my husband and I felt barely alive–shuttling kids to and fro, battling over homework, keeping people fed and clothed, doing the job, tumbling in and out of bed. The kids, though, they lived. They railed against injustices. They laughed until they cried. They wrestled each other until the pattern of the playroom carpet was imprinted on their scraped knees. They kept secrets and made confessions. They were surprised and amazed, and surprising and amazing.
Our younger son in particular was a force of nature. Granddad would get worn out and ask, “Where’s the off switch?” There would be tickling, peeking under a tiny striped shirt. “Is it here? It’s gotta be here somewhere! Is this the off switch?”
That whirlwind of a little boy has become the kind of 14-year-old you look at and think, “Who does he think he is walking around like that with those dimples and those pecs?” He’s strong and fit, but we have good insurance, and doctors hate being sued, so we are at the cardiologist. He is getting his blood pressure taken again, “just to see.” He is having an EKG, “just to see.” He is having a sonogram, “just to see.”
We are in a dark room, and there on the screen–in shocking color this time–I see his beating heart. The blood is whooshing in and out. The valves are opening and closing—they look like tiny flags waving, little tissues fluttering in the breeze. Looking at this powerful force of a boy, it’s hard to believe that’s all there is to it.
A few days earlier, we had made our annual visit to my grandmother in a nursing home. This year she recognized me, but gave a little wave indicating she couldn’t be bothered to place my husband. After catching up on family gossip in the community room (at least some of which was true), we wheeled her to her semi-private room. Her roommate was in bed, hospital-gowned and slack-jawed, a veil of a woman. We brought my grandmother some ice water and said our goodbyes, deflecting her too-casual suggestions that we take her to lunch, or downstairs, or to the elevator, as kindly as we could, but without really finding the off switch.
After the sonogram, the doctor is saying my boy’s heart is perfect. I silently nod and agree. He’s the best hugger (both full frontal and stealth hand squeeze) our family has to offer this world and the first to notice someone in need of that skill set. He competes with everything he has, but will not crush his opponent. He is tender and strong in the way the best boys his age can be—the way you wish the best men would be.
I know that’s not what the doctor means. He means the organ is pumping as it should. But I don’t want to think about a tiny flapping tissue inside this boy, or my grandmother’s roommate, or me. That can’t be all there is to it. It can’t be.