Issue No. 20 | Spring 2019
The echocardiogram operator told my dad he would have to lie down on the cot for his test. My dad looked up at me in alarm from his wheelchair; he hadn’t been able to lie down flat in a bed for several months, ever since the tumors in his right hip had caused problems walking, bending, and twisting. “Can my daughter stay and help me?” he asked, and she nodded. We eased him onto his side, propped up by cushions, and guided his legs—“Ow, watch the right one!”—until he was in place. With his shirt off, I could see how the chemo had eroded his formerly stocky physique into that of a much older, frail man.
As the sonogram wand waved over his chest, the darkened room filled with a loud sound in stereo: thwap, thwap, thwap, like the sound of galoshes tromping through molasses. Thwap, thwap, thwap flapped his heart valves in perfect synchronicity, opening and closing to send blood into his lungs and toes and brain. Watching the grainy upside-down images on the video monitor, valves waving back and forth like windshield wipers, I felt the first sense of palpable relief I’d had since my dad was first diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer the year before. At least his heart is strong. It will take some doing to stop this thoroughly reliable pumping apparatus. I asked him if he had any pain lying down. He shook his head. “I’m okay.”
I could make out both atria and ventricles. Watching those four chambers pulse in real time made me think of how we anthropomorphize the heart as the most romantic organ in the body. For hundreds of years, Renaissance poets and pop singers alike have localized the feeling of love in the heart. Yet here was empirical proof that this assumption is sorely misguided. The heart is the least fickle organ in our body; instead, it is a metronome, the timekeeper of our lives. It is probably the region of the body least affected by romance. Maybe when Romeo saw Juliet, perhaps the flutter he felt in his chest was shortness of breath from his lungs, or a flip in his stomach, or a constriction of muscles caused by anxiety. That familiar feeling of our hearts racing when we exercise or feel scared is simply our reliable old heart patiently speeding up to keep tempo with the unpredictable demands of our bodies.
Watching this impressive muscle’s impeccably consistent pumping, I felt a rush of hope about my father’s long-term survival. Then I thought that perhaps several centuries of poets, writers, and pop music stars should be ushered into this room and educated about the wonders of human anatomy. Maybe the marketing team behind Valentine’s Day should re-assign love to a different part of the body. We could exchange pituitary gland-shaped boxes of chocolates or recite odes to hormones controlled by the hypothalamus. I thought about the thwap, thwap, thwap inside of each of us, tapping out the seconds of however many more years each of us has left in our lives. Maybe we are stronger than we think.
Later that afternoon, my dad’s oncologist called to confirm that his heart function was normal. Awash in gratitude, I found myself thinking that there is nothing normal about our body’s most vital organ and its amazing commitment to rhythmic regularity. The rest of the day was a relief, providing a little breathing room. We are still where we think we are. No reason to panic yet. Thwap, thwap, thwap; onward, for now.
Kim Liao’s writing has appeared in Lit Hub, Catapult, The Rumpus, Salon, The Millions, River Teeth, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Another Chicago Magazine, Fringe, Brevity's Nonfiction Blog, Fourth River, and others. She received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Emerson College, and teaches writing at Catapult, Gotham Writers' Workshop, and at Baruch and City Tech colleges. She is currently revising a family memoir about the Taiwanese Independence Movement.