My Mother’s Mostly Beautiful Heart

“Overall, she has a mostly beautiful heart” is what the cardiologist, my brother’s friend, says as we quietly stare at the beating organ on the computer screen. We’re waiting for other images, the not-so-beautiful parts, from the lab after her emergency angioplasty.

“Her beautiful heart,” my father repeats, as though the doctor had answered the enigma he was pondering.

He leans against the wall, massaging his head: “That’s why I married her. That’s what I saw from the first.”

My mother always tells their love story as a fairy-tale: He was gorgeous but into her petite, black-haired, green-eyed friend. Eventually though, my mother sparked his interest. They talked all night. And he kissed her. And her toes lit up and the bells went off. That was it. They were married in six weeks, 56 years ago. I wonder if that’s what my father is remembering. How one night, one kiss, became life.

A few minutes later the slides upload. In one, the artery’s a thread in two places, in the other, it looks normal. He says it all fast and I only hear parts.

“Ninety percent blockage … the stent worked … no clots for now.”

“Tick. Tick. Tick,” my brother says slowly, pointing to the breeches.

He’s in civilian clothes, a green Nike jacket, not his usual white one when he walks these halls.

“Bad situation, blessed timing,” I say quickly.

My father blinks behind his giant glasses. The lenses magnify the glimpses of primal fear I see, but most would miss. At 80, he’s still handsome, one of those stoic, solid-as-a-rock guys.

He’s half of AlandFlorence: one word.

He being here and she being there makes him feel out of control, isolates him. I walk over and stand close. He’s not used to being his own name in public. He’s witnessed this plenty though: Their gang of friends is dwindling quickly, especially this year. They’re the lone holdouts where one or the other isn’t dead or incapacitated — but they’ve closed ranks, conspiring not to let us all know how hard it is, or what’s going on.

“After the last funeral,” my mother mentioned matter-of-factly just the other day, “the book club had to merge with the film club and we alternate months.”

We just came from the waiting room. I brought hand-carved turkey sandwiches, chicken soup and pineapple. It’s a family trait, I think, this quixotic, quasi-mystical belief that the marriage of will and wholesome food can in some way beat back the forces of time, illness, and human loss.

My father says he isn’t hungry.

“You have to eat,” I say, handing him half like an order. He eats slowly, not like him. He is shaky.

Now it’s almost midnight. She’s getting unhooked and we’ll make a pilgrimage with her gurney across the low-lit buildings to the ICU.

My mother is groggy, but OK. I stay and my brother takes my father home.

In the morning, I bring my mother a bagel and egg white omelet and she’s ravenous. A good sign.

I tell her something about a rabbi I study with, and all that I’ve learned.

She asks if I have talked to him about her: “I was wondering because, you know, we’ve had some very difficult periods.”

She wants to hear that the rabbi said she’s right and I’m wrong. It doesn’t quite matter about what, just in principle. But there’s something below that. I think she wants me to say what’s on my mind even if she doesn’t like it, in case something bad happens.

I keep my response general and light. I say that she’s done great with her life. As far as those things that went south between us, none of that matters, I tell her. I will do my best to understand her wants, and to protect her if she can’t protect herself.

Although edited for complexity, this is the truth.

I get home and my boyfriend, Stuart, checks in. I tell him I just came from the hospital, say that this is the thing about love — mortality, the sense that love is filled with 1,000 risks of loss.

But he’s on his way to work. There’s road noise and wild winds on the 101, and it’s hard to hear. He doesn’t do well with deep conversations on the fly.

He responds with his marathon runner’s optimism: “She’s strong, looks 65 — of course she’ll pull through.” Then he tells me: “Just so you know, I bought two bottles of the Coppola your brother likes for Friday night.”

When we hang up, I think about Stuart. The one I get to love. And I know even though he’s smart and handsome and other things I’m drawn to, it’s his beautiful heart — that’s why I’ve chosen him.

By noon, my father calls, sounds like himself again: The enzymes are great, there’s no actual damage to the heart muscles, they’ve unhooked her.

“Mommy took a walk,” he says, the relief palpable.

Later that night in the ICU, the monitors are blinking everywhere. She’s trying to nap but can’t.

I swore to myself that I wouldn’t reveal a recent conversation with Stuart, but I have a deep-down fear I might not get a chance to — that she’ll die without knowing that Stuart loves me, enough to tell his brother that I’m “The One.”

I’ve almost become superstitious that she’s been waiting all this time for me to find someone to love again, and now that I have, she’s going to vanish suddenly.

So I say it fast: “Stuart talked about engagement rings. Don’t say anything to anyone, we’re not engaged yet. Period.”

“Please God” she says, waving her hand to scatter the air and ward off the evil eye.

My father is snoring in the chair, exhausted from everything.

“He is such a good husband,” she says, “the things he has done for me this year.” From the wince in her face, I know they’re not pretty things.

I’m remembering a conversation I had with my parents at a restaurant some time back.

We were talking about soul mates. It was before Stuart. I was dating and it was weird and hard and dispiriting. I couldn’t seem to figure out how love or even dating worked.

“Maybe it’s not so good to be with your soul mate,” I said. “Maybe it’s better to have more of an earthy, functional connection. Like you and daddy. Maybe it’s the secret.”

My mother looked up: “I always thought of your father as my soul mate.”

The words surprised me. I did not think of my mother as soulful or deep. I didn’t think my parents suited to each other on that level.

“I always thought you two were more pragmatic than that — a function of pure will mixed with passion.”

“Yes, I know,” she said, going back to her hamburger, “that’s what you thought.”