Lit/South Awards 2022 Nonfiction Competition – Second Place
Tracy Rothschild Lynch
When Organ Becomes Metaphor
“I walked through a volcanic cave once,” a young woman in my writing group says. Cady is in a bubble-gum pink fluffy robe, hair parted down the middle. I’d likely spot sleep-wrinkles on her cheeks if I looked hard enough. Over Zoom, she describes the cave’s warren-like walls and smooth passageways. It’s immediately a phenomenon I want to explore for myself. I scrawl a quick reminder to Google “volcanic caves,” which I’ll likely do one night at 2:33 a.m. when I’m not sleeping. I’ll do an image search, so I can wind myself into one, stroll blindly into a surprise on screen and then maybe even slumber.
Cady is new to my writing group. She’s 26—just about the age of my daughter, K, yet she awakens at her west-coast 8:00 a.m. on Saturdays to be a part of our fledgling crew. She makes and shares observations freely, and her vocal drifting and here’s-what-I-was-thinking-next observations fascinate me. Her mind keeps in perfect time with her searching eyes. Sometimes I envy the way she thinks. I want that—to see unfolding life from eyes 25 years younger than my own. A thought igniting the next, and the next.
Such wishes are, of course, futile. Instead I listen hard when she talks, attempt to follow her electric pace. Cady is telling us about the volcanic cave and I am lost in my own imagination about my future maiden voyage to one when she says, “I want to write an essay about a volcanic heart.” This stops my revelry. Something in the way she goes on to describe the complexity of this literary heart tells me she knows of its caverns already. She’s poked her fingers into its porous walls, she’s trudged her way through rushing blood as it flows like lava.
Just about my daughter’s age, I think again and pay closer attention.
Weeks later, I fantasize about that volcanic heart. I’m thinking about the heart a lot these days. A trope that is cobbling together my own daily narrative, dream-like. Figuratively, symbolically. Tangibly, watching as the flat part of my wrist jumps beside a narrow blue vein. Curiously, wondering what the hell is going on with my daughter.
I’m thinking about extremes. Grief and loss and what is internal and what is external and how you can smile while you’re breaking inside. The seen and the unseen, the hard and the not-so-hard (because does anything feel easy right now? I don’t know). At fifty-one I’m thinking a lot, too much, probably. “You’re in your head too much,” I tell myself, or my head tells myself, especially when the thinking takes over the doing in my life.
These days I’ve been doing less and thinking more. I feel as though I’m armchair parenting—watching from my comfy seat, popcorn bowl nestling in my lap—as my two daughters stroll into their twenties. Something’s different, though, unfamiliar. They proceed into future moments not with carefree, celebratory strides like ones I once took, but with positively everything in the world weighty in their crossbody bags.
My mind’s on medical stuff, too. Oxytocin: the hormone of security. Dopamine: chemical candy. Cortisol: dictating whether to flee or fight. I’m thinking of an article I once read detailing how the heart can change shape due to loss or grief. Another about how our brains can translate extreme emotional pain directly into physical pains. “My heart hurts,” someone says when grieving. “I feel it right here, and it’s making me sick,” I said recently, lightly punching my chest, after my perfect dog left my world, when I was crying so hard I thought I would throw up. Grief can increase inflammation throughout the body, turning suffering systemic, making illnesses already plaguing a body worse, bringing about more pain, which begets more heartache.
I’m thinking of the beta blockers they gave my older daughter, K, recently when her heart was racing, when she couldn’t catch a breath, when I watched as her pupils dilated in fear. Beta blockers, the drug of choice by a doctor who had never before met my daughter, the daughter who felt like she was dying of a broken heart.
I’m thinking of loneliness. Of cavernous microscopic apartments. Of cognitive cobwebs that hinder vocalization. Of a recent Harvard Gazette article: “Young adults may be particularly susceptible” to loneliness “because they are often transitioning from their inherited families to their chosen families.” I’m remembering my inherited family on couches, eating pizza in the den, watching The Bachelorette, ignorant of the possibility of traversing caverns or caves alone.
Reclined in the driver’s seat, thinking through the sunroof, I’m waiting in the parking lot. I’m waiting out here even though my daughter is inside the emergency room because I’m worried about COVID and the five chronic illnesses that seem to kick my ass no matter how hard I try to ignore them; I’m worried about how my body would handle the insanity that a (waning but nonetheless) global pandemic would surely wreak on little old me. But all of that feels selfish to think when my daughter’s inside without me, so I recline and consider.
For now, the front seat is a refuge. I’m double-vaccinated so I should be brave (braver) and go inside. K is 21 and an adult and a child all at once. She is in her last month of college—a Manhattan-based arts college, one that shines with windows and exhales fine art and poems and mannequins. Now K is now dealing with this bullshit: an overcrowded small-hospital emergency room and POTS, a goofy acronym for a shitty syndrome that is literally keeping her from being upright, figuratively keeping her from living her early-twenties-dream-life on the blossom-dotted New York spring streets.
Postural tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, is twisting and porous, like Cady’s volcanic caves. It’s confusing. It’s frustrating. The heart struggles to keep time with poorly circulating blood, blood that pools in the feet, making standing not just difficult, but brutal. The heart flips itself into overdrive and pumps pumps pumps, never catching up with itself. Symptoms are often debilitating: dizziness, confusion, palpitations, sensitivity to heat. Exhaustion paints the days; depression creeps into the nights. Challenging to stand, to walk, to be.
It’s hard to see K like this. It’s hard to know how to be a mother who helps. I’m not trained for this, I think. I’m not patient/smart/loving/driven/strong enough.
I imagine what she’s doing at this moment. Slouching in a hard, plastic chair. Breathing deeply to slow her heart’s unslowable beats. Two chairs between her and patients on either side, who I imagine are also slouching and perhaps hacking COVID droplets all over my girl. Yet here I recline, frenzied into a state of immobility, willing rhythm to my own heart rate. My daughter’s is currently 145, not as high as it’s been in the past few weeks, but still. I can’t imagine having to walk to the kitchen to make breakfast at a rate of 145, much less manage the four floors to her walk-up closet-sized apartment in her adoptive city. That’s why she’s now here with me in Richmond; that’s why I flew across an ocean from London to be at home with her.
It’s hard to see her struggling to walk or talk or sit. It’s hard on me. But, Jesus, here I am being selfish again, thinking about how hard this is on me, the mother, the one who is supposed to do hard things. I chastise myself as the clouds doggie-paddle past the sunroof in the blue pool of spring sky.
Last night she called me to the hallway that separates our bedrooms. “Something is really wrong,” she said, urgency and panic in her eyes. “Something is really not right,” she said this morning in the same hallway, and she laid her flat palm against her heart. Sometimes when I look at her hands I swear I can still see the little toddler dimples beneath each knuckle. When she was three and dressed her dolls with cautious precision, the dimples would fold in on themselves and then out again. In. Out. In. Out.
“Is it still somersaulting?” I ask, using the verb of a child not because I’m still picturing her knuckles (which I am), but because that’s how K described last night’s chest irregularities. I am force-feeding maternal calm instead of freaking the fuck out because it’s my daughter and I see residue of last night’s fear caked in the corners of her eyes.
I remember that feeling. When my heart was somersaulting. For months. Each (male) doctor had told me I was fine, that my heart was healthy, that it was likely “just” anxiety. Then, whoopsie daisy, cardiac arrest once twice three times in a day equaled my first helicopter ride, a weeklong stint in the cardiac ICU, and a souvenir pacemaker.
Now I will those thoughts away, affording no parallelism between me and K. I was 45 then. In front of me last night was a 21-year-old girl. This morning, she is one day closer to 22 but seems more like a child than ever. With her fingers splayed, she appears to hold her heart inside of her, to slow its riotous trickery with pressure. A vital organ should not be this disruptive in a daughter, I think angrily. I take a breath. It is audible, and makes me sound more dramatic than I should be. I make a mental note to do better.
“No, not somersaulting,” she says, the wordsmith in her searching for better accuracy. “It feels like my heart isn’t there.” I look up from the dimpled knuckles on her sports-bra’ed chest and into her eyes. They are blue, the color of faded denim. Not the machine-made, white-washed kind, but the well-worn kind, denim you can just tell has been beloved by an owner who considers it not just wardrobe-essential but life-loyal.
“It’s like it’s not there,” she repeats.
I have come to the U.S. from my sunlit fourth-floor flat in London to help take care of my K, she and I coexisting for the first time in four years in our house. A suburban home in which two people—a man and a woman—and two children—girls who bounced and played Barbies and performed nightly after-dinner skits—grew roots and became a family. With its tennis courts and swimming pools and carefully designed walking trails, our neighborhood is a contrast to our city lives, hers and mine, for sure. K, the daughter with the beloved-denim irises, normally lives in NoLIta. But “normally” isn’t quite right. She’s only been there two years, 1.5 of which she spent inside attending university online like so many and trying to stay safe in a world turned on its head. K is trying to make a life for herself in that city, one people all over the world associate with vibrancy, with noise and passion and endless avenues of bodegas and possibilities. She knows she is lucky to be in a city of buzzing life and moving art and transcendent beauty across every alley. But she says it makes her sad to be there. I’m confused by this.
No one is outside, she says. It’s quiet. It’s weird. She knows it’s because of COVID but she can’t imagine the city as it would be, used to be, should be. In the autumn of her junior year, she transferred to her artsy university known for the quality of the creators who head classrooms, classrooms K’s only seen in person for a handful of months. She spent six months falling in love with in-person literary discussions and with the streets of New York, the city that gifted her the chance to gab with strangers on a warm August evening in Washington Square Park over sidewalk chalking, see Harry Styles perform on Rockefeller Plaza, obsess over the gooey, cheesy goodness of the renowned pizza down the block. Then, like city dwellers everywhere, she planted herself and her tender roots in the corner of her 360-square-foot apartment to learn how to socialize through a screen. Staring at the brick wall outside her window, straining to change the scenery through TikTok and masked strolls, and finding ways to laugh with her roommate whenever possible. She is not alone in this but she is lonely in this.
Last night she and I watched a DVD of my wedding reception. Onscreen, my typically reserved husband shimmied across the dance floor with his non-gray hair, and K marveled at his youth and his prowess. She laughed out loud at her uncle freestyling on the dance floor, and she smiled each time she saw me, The Bride, flitter on and off the screen. You look beautiful, she said, eyes shining my way from the chair beside me. It was good to see her smile in fits and starts; to see the weight of a pandemic and physical and emotional burden lift from her for a moment. I remembered once again the tiny human she was way back when, back when we took her toddling through a petting farm, for instance: anxious, unsure, but then, as a white bunny tail hopped away, as a lamb whispered meehhh, utterly charmed. Smiling in fits and starts.
K will graduate in four weeks, one month from today, from this morning when she told me she was scared, when tears pooled, when she splayed her fingers and tried to explain the dark fog filling her. From when I couldn’t help her in the hallway. From now, when she is currently slumping in a hard emergency-room chair without me.
Her graduation will be, of course, virtual.
Last night, I worried. In bed, I stared at the ceiling and stewed.
K feels like her heart isn’t there. I worry about blood vessels and atria and brain oxygen, but I worry too about that dark fog. “She feels like her heart isn’t there,” I say to no one. Maybe it’s because her first-real-boyfriend-ever took it from her, just two months ago, back during the endless slushy, snow-melting days of dark New York March. He kindly but excruciatingly said he didn’t know why he was breaking up with her, that he needed to work on himself. K told me that he was so sincere she couldn’t even be mad at him. Still can’t be. “We both cried,” she told me back then over FaceTime between sobs.
It’s one of those no-communication breakups so here she is now in our Virginia home across the gulfing hallway feeling like her heart is not there. Mere minutes ago, I had watched as she stood unsteady in our hallway, feeling as though she doesn’t have a heart, one that is not beating 145 beats per minute and not working to pump her blood all the way down to her toes, and not trying to feel something, anything, again.
Of course it’s not there, I want to wake her and say to her and wrap her into my chest and let her sleep between my shoulders. I want to hold her and use divine, imaginary healing powers to fix all that’s wrong in her body. Sort of the way an orangutan premasticates food for its young, using innate maternal instinct to nourish and replenish an offspring aching from hunger. Staring at the ceiling, I imagine the reverse. I want to suck all that’s wrong out of her body and spit it out. Find a toilet and regurgitate all the bullshit. Then I want to hold her and clean up all of her insides with a vacuum or antibacterial wipes, deep down, polishing, leaving each organ sparkling clean and utterly pain-free. I’d say fuck the environment and the water treatment facilities—I’d toss the wipes and flush all the torment I’d sucked out, down and swirling away.
My hands are tingling, she’d said.
Something’s wrong, she’d said.
This morning, as we drove to the hospital, I instead regurgitate a lifetime of feminist mothering into K’s ears. I know first-hand what busy medical scenes often mean: dismissal. Use your voice, I say. Make them hear you, take you seriously. (It’s this exit here.) If they don’t listen, try again. (I’ll drop her off out front.) Make yourself heard—be heard. I want to repeat myself fifty, a hundred times, but I will be a nag and she will listen less and less and besides she can’t even feel her damn heart. So I pull up in front of the hospital and tell her to text me if she needs me, that I’ll turn on my international roaming but for now I plan to wait outside for a bit.
“You’re important,” I say, which makes no sense at that moment because it was never in question. “You will be fine.” She makes an I’m-not-so-sure face and shuts the door, while I divine her to be fine and pull away to go search for a spot.
In the car now, alone, I juggle my need to be with her and my need to stay alive. (Selfish, I worry again.) I reassure myself: I’m overreacting. It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I repeat this as I absently open a package from Old Navy, one we found on our porch on the way to the driveway. The new spring floral top in my hands seems utterly absurd to me right now. The dark jeans I ordered look enormous because I am now a middle-aged woman with back rolls and a widening ass. I feel fleshy pouches against my sweatpants right at this moment. I feel, too, my heart against the shirt I’m wearing. My heart beating rhythmically, beautifully, thanks to the tiny machine implanted in my upper right chest wall.
K is inside. Alone. My disgust at my own parking-lot reticence bubbles. What kind of mother would not sit double-masked in an emergency room? The new dark jeans rest on my lap, and the color of the chambray shirt I’m wearing is bright against them. It is exactly the color of my daughter’s eyes and I think, Fuck it, I’m going in. COVID be damned.
Before I open the car door I squeeze out another prayer. I look through the sunroof at God and the thick layers of cloud between me and Him. I pray that my own (selfish? frantic? indestructible?) insides will morph magically into the power that my daughter needs. I pray they will find her heart in there. I pray they will listen to her voice. That they will fix her. That she will return to New York and walk up to Washington Square Park and draw with chalk again and make friends with strangers who want to feel their hearts, too.
It’s raining now. Just spitting, as my mother used to say. To get to the entrance, I walk through the spit and past the hospital helicopter pad, when I have no choice but to give a mental nod to my own helicopter ride and to my heart and how it now exquisitely beats in my chest.
Days later I am on my meditation cushion, attempting to ignore the pain in my right hip that yelps whenever I sit on the floor these days. K is upstairs, asleep, heart still beating too fast but now absolutely reminding her that it is there. She had an adverse reaction to the beta blockers; off them now, she’s healing herself with exercise, with a cardiac reconditioning program my cousin shared with us. This way feels more natural, and we like that.
My legs are crossed and my hips are elevated and before I know it the meditation session has started and wow. It’s easier to get into the moment than I thought it’d be. I thought I’d be stuck in my pandemic head, brainwaves that feel treadmill-trapped running fervently and breaking a sweat but not going anyplace at all. But I’m present in a way that I can attribute to my breath or perhaps to the color of the sky, that bright Virginia-spring-morning blue not yet faded to white by the weight of summer’s humidity.
The past few days I know my daughter has been feeling a bit better. I can see it in the way she moves through the family room that raised her, shuffling comfortably; wrapping the tan quilted blanket around her legs while she adjusts herself on the sofa, laptop on lap, where it belongs. She is smiling more, placing fingers on her heart less. But this is only days later, handfuls of hours removed from the six-hour ER visit, so I don’t get ahead of myself. She’s sleeping and needs her sleep so I plug in my headphones just in time to hear my meditation leader’s deep, throaty voice welcome us to this time, to this space, to this loving group that is just for us.
Outside the large window to my right, a crepe myrtle tree brushes its small leaves lightly against the screens. We planted the tree too close to the house and should probably deal with that one day, but for now, I simply settle into the comfort of my leader’s voice and let my body feel supported by the earth beneath me as he tells me to do. The new green leaves brush and make a tshsht tshsht sound. I close my eyes. I absorb the voice of my leader, Eduardo. When he tells us to become strong, solid mountains I become one. I breathe into the space and take in the air around me. I let a waterfall rush down my mountain body and still the trees tshsht tshshttshsht. A bird lands on the screen and pecks against the glass while the waterfall cleanses my organs and softens my skin.
The pecking bird is Edgar. K named him after Poe, although he’s more frisky than ravenesque, and he visits us a lot lately. Edgar flits from branch to branch on the very same trees we planted too close to our home and pecks on our windows as if to say howdy. Eduardo guides me back to my own trees. My mountain trees, the ones that dot my horizon as I imagine the morning mist draping across my shoulders, are strong and tall. They blow with a breeze that grows louder, wooshing while springtime shushes the sound of morning lawn mowing. I can hear it all.
Eduardo guides me toward the inside of my chest. Feel your heart space, he instructs. This is my favorite part. The time when I feel my sternum open, when everything seems possible and that all answers are inside of me. It’s peace I cherish. I feel stronger and sit up straighter and let my spine reach all the way upward, like a pine, through the ceiling and into the cloudless blue sky.
You can give this love away, Eduardo nudges me. I picture K. I imagine her heart space beneath her strong ribs and between her expanding lungs that rise and fall with morning sleep. As I let the water flow down and away, purifying everything in its path, the thought rushes to me: her heart is there.
When I am finished, when we have said our goodbyes through tiny Zoom frames, I sit in my favorite chair and close my eyes. It’s okay to rest, just for a minute. To not chastise myself for the cracks in my mothering that spread from much deeper faults. The waters still rush over me, it seems, and thoughts follow, bobbing in the flow. I see them as they pass. Hard and easy, heavy and light. There is internal pain, external pain; there is loss, there is love. Heaviness will press on me no matter how hard lightness tugs at it. It’s tiring, my eyelids tell me, but it is okay. Edgar taps and my daughter sleeps and lungs everywhere rise and fall.
Between them all a muscle drums.
Nonfiction judge Stephanie Elizondo Griest writes: This is a really breathtaking account of what it means to be a mother in the time of COVID. And to really walk to the ends of the earth for a daughter who is suffering. It is an essay, braiding many strands, about grief, about the heart, about loss, and about how women are not really trusted in the medical field to tell the truth of their own bodies, and what it means to advocate. This essay has perfect transitions; I was really impressed with how one segment segued into the next into the next into the next, all of the many, many threads. This is an essayist who’s like an expert weaver braiding the strands really tightly and neatly throughout. I love how it ends. “It’s okay to rest, just for a minute. To not chastise myself for the cracks in my mothering that spread from much deeper faults.” Ultimately, it’s an essay in forgiveness, beautifully spun.