The muscle was beautiful. Someone had carefully outlined the red bundles in black pen, a self-contained world like a little fist. Lest the viewer think this was just any old muscle, the artist had used an electric blue pen to show the veins creeping through each ventricle like vines.
Carla and I lounged on the grass, flipping through the handbook’s laminated pages, occasionally reading aloud the procedure’s descriptions. In the background, the hospital rose blindingly white in the summer sun. Our bikes lay on their sides nearby like two lovers spooning. I wondered if my sister would go on from here to study medicine. We had both felt relieved by the surgeon’s gentle handshake, his long, tapered fingers.
Carla’s fingers were tiny, as if she could reach inside Dad’s arteries barehanded—as the first surgeons did on the battlefield, reaching around in the dark continent of the chest to extract tiny slivers of shrapnel. Closed-heart surgery sometimes requires a surgeon to push one finger into a blocked arterial vein to enlarge it. Thick arteries connect four chambers where blue blood enters the heart and red, oxygenated blood flows back into the body.
When I first saw my dad naked, I was shocked, not by nakedness itself, but by the yeti-like amount of hair. Black and springy, it curled over two-thirds of his body, collecting in the drainage sumps of armpits and crotch. His chest was broad and slightly freckled, wide shoulders balancing a slight potbelly. I noticed how big his feet looked padding around our peacock carpet at the ends of two almost ladylike legs. My grandmother has the same legs, made for walking miles on end, long calves and thin knees, thighs that could hang off the high bar in a Polish circus.
I’d seen his penis once before by accident, squished into a black and white Xerox in a literary journal he and my mom published in the ‘80s: New Blood: The Naked Issue. I recoiled in the damp shed with a burning blush, mortified at the thought of being caught looking.
Dad was a bigger man then, able to swoop me up in his arms and throw me screaming into the air. My blonde hair would cover my eyes and I’d let myself ooze into the feeling of flying, coming down like a wet noodle. Always, always, he caught me. His hands were soft, an artist’s palms free of the calluses he’d have acquired at a blue-collar job. He would smooth the hair out of my eyes and then lift me up again, putting me on his shoulders and parading under the high eaves of our house as I tried to run my fingers through the cobwebs.
My own body seemed to change every day. I was a seedling and then a weed. I ached all the time from growth spurts that felt like being stretched in two directions and yet, I was boneless as a minnow. I prided myself on being able to wriggle out of any wrestling move by going limp. “Head lock!” Dad would yell as he barreled toward me, tucking my head under his arm “Noogie!” When I escaped, Dad would claim it was cheating, that no one could wrestle a wet noodle. Carla would laugh at my hair electrified to a point. “Now me! Now me!” and up in the air she went. When Dad disappeared to his studio, we practiced doing headbutts with our palms on our foreheads, shouting “Head butt!” Sometimes we missed but we are both thick-headed. We decided one day we’d become the Flying Wojczuks, a traveling circus and band beating our pots and pans with Mom playing flute like a wood sprite and Dad in his old football helmet being shot from a cannon.
The Spirit and La Roux is what “Uncle” Joel called my mom and dad. Joel and Dad met during a Brooklyn Tech performance of The Wizard of Oz. Dad was coveting Joel’s Cowardly Lion but was stuck being a Tin Man in search of a heart.
The Stoics were the first to describe the heart as the seat of the human soul. Although this remains unproven, heartbreak can feel like a physical pain, an elephant standing on your chest. The cells of the heart are governed by syncytium, an electrical stimulation that spreads from one cell to the other, allowing them to beat as one.
In the waiting room, I sat with my mom, sister and Aunt Ann as the first hour of Dad’s quadruple bypass started. I was learning that hospitals have many antechambers, waiting rooms for prep and ICU and a larger waiting room for recovery. Families like the one sitting next to us waiting for the news about their mother who had been in a motorcycle accident might never make it to the last room, but right then, we were all in the same circle of hell.
The other family had spread out across the vinyl couches and plastic table, crinkling bags of Oreos and Lay’s potato chips and releasing wind from Sprite bottles in a hiss. Everything in the room was wipeable, including our laminated guide to heart surgery and the cold linoleum floor. A practical but brutal anticipation of body fluids.
My little family was quiet, listening to the ebb and flow of the other family’s cell phones. We were waiting for the surgeon to come tell us; they’d assured us they would come tell us when Dad stopped breathing and the heart-lung machine was breathing for him. The machine would also circulate his blood. The heart-lung machine was a revolutionary technology, the handbook said, developed in 1955 at the Mayo Clinic to allow surgeons to work on an unmoving heart.
Before the christening of the uneuphemistic heart-lung machine, surgeons tried unsuccessfully to find a reliable way to slow the heart enough to operate. Observing that the heart beats slower at very low temperatures, therefore pumping less blood, surgeons tried using hypothermia during operations. Post-op patients would quickly be submerged in a warm water bath to get their blood flowing again. The problem with this method was that it only gave surgeons a short window in which to operate, and there was the added risk a patient could die of cold. Then, for a brief period, doctors tried a technique called “controlled cross-circulation” in which the patient was hooked up to a family member who took over circulating their blood while the surgeons split open his breastbone.
We were allowed to see Dad one last time before he went into surgery. He lay on a rolling bed in an antechamber where a grey-faced doctor was shaving his chest with a dry razor. Tiny moles stood out on his ribs and a few grey hairs curled on his pale sternum. His chest reminded me of a chicken.
I thought of family dinners, tearing through the bird’s breastbone, cracking ribs out of their vital alignment. “Save the bones for Henry Jones,” was Dad’s chicken phrase, “‘cause Henry don’t eat no meat.” I fucking hate chicken. I thought of cold, dead meat under my fingertips and held my breath, bringing my fist up to my forehead to knock on wood.
Dad was raised Jewish. Although we celebrated both Channukah and Christmas, I prayed to my own private deities. I promised that I’d leave a gift for the fairies in a tulip flower if only the Care Bears would come. I would flip the light switch on and off five times before entering a room, letting God know I was coming so he or she could dispel the evil spirits. If I drank three bubbles’ worth of water from our water cooler, always stepped on an even number of flagstones up our front walk, saved butterflies and other small bugs from being eaten by ants, God wouldn’t let my family die.
The doctor wiped Dad’s chest with an alcohol pad and attached electrodes to the sterile surface. It was the first time I’d seen Dad’s naked chest in years. It had sunken in around the ribs. I wanted to put my hands over his sternum, reach inside his body, and electrify his heart into a gold, whirring instrument. I wanted to dismantle my own body, promised anything to make this image of a fragile old man disappear. At the same time, I wanted to escape, save him the embarrassment of being afraid in front of his daughter. “Do you need a mild tranquilizer to calm you down?” asked the doctor. Dad said “no” and my aunt said “yes”.
Three hours later, the nurse came in to let us know that Dad had been on the heart-lung machine for an hour. Whether she waited so long to tell us out of kindness or apathy, it was a relief to know things were going smoothly. She explained that the machine was breathing for him and that his heart had been bathed in a saline solution until it cooled and stopped. Carla and I knew the surgeons had broken his breastbone in half and exposed the pericardium, a frictionless sac that allows the heart to beat freely and acts as its first layer of protection.
When I was a teenager, my dad chased a Peeping Tom down our street with a baseball bat. The next day, curtains went up on all the windows, mismatched and made of everything from a towel to an old baby blanket. That night, I lay in bed staring at the sliver of darkness between the blanket and window thinking an eyeball could rest there. I remembered how often I’d been masturbating recently, rigid and willing my body to fall apart. I held my breath as I did it, watching pinpricks of light explode behind my eyes and then fade into a constellation of stars.
I’d learned to hold my breath at baseball games with my dad. He would buy overpriced hot dogs with everything and try to keep me occupied, tallying runs on the scorecard. By the bottom of the fifth, utterly bored, I tried to hold my breath while I watched the clock. If I can do it for a whole minute, I thought, God will let the Zephyrs win.
That night, I held my breath until I thought I would die. My body went Gumby, arms and legs stretching into infinity. I imagined a man climbing in my window and holding my neck as he raped me, snapping my neck at the very end. I thought of this over and over until I came shuddering and ashamed. That night, I dreamed a robber broke in and threatened to kill my family. I pounded him to death with a baseball bat, sheer berserker rage compensating for being skinny and a girl.
Girlbody betrayed me. In one summer I grew four inches and got tits. Girls made fun of me for not wearing a bra, and at soccer practice, I couldn’t run without them bouncing painfully. I walked as though someone had removed a beam inside me. Dad and I got into screaming fights, hurling our arms at each other. Whether I had become too caustic to touch or he was uncomfortable with my glandular problem, I don’t know. But it wasn’t until college that he touched me as easily as when I was a child.
“Maybe I need to open my heart,” Dad joked before going into surgery. His chest lay open for six hours while the surgeons took veins from his legs, cut through the pericardium, and bypassed four blocked arteries. The “What to Expect During Heart Surgery” booklet was simpler to read than a car manual, illustrated with precise, bloodless lines. It is a routine procedure with a success rate almost as good as the Pill. But when the head and feet are covered and the clamps spread wide, the body resembles nothing so much as a car engine held together by swear words and prayers.
“MI9&M+A !H;MI% *A%J&I% !B-J%F*1&M /G-G+A %I3&J-I. !C: G9 *I7H9 !G;
.%I!I$I. “MA(I,A/I% &M”I9I! “&J 1A8I”E*. 1A8I”E*. (C-&M-E*. (C-&M-E*.
#MI-&M* &A*I$&M3H -E5A1F* ,E2MF! ,A”&J$G+I : G!E. *E5MI;F(H !G(I$ /F%G.
!&J *E2MI;F. !G(I$ /F%G. !E* !G5A: H9 -A%E;A8H*MF. &A-H3C/&J$ -A5I1G*+I
.!C5E*-&M : I3I% !G(I;
.”MI9&M+A !H;MI% *A%J&I% 9&J5F! ,I- “MI: I9 &M/H5A-E*! -H3C:J&J;
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who formed the human body with
wisdom and placed within it a miraculous combination of openings and organs. It is evident and known before Your honored throne, that if only one of them should be opened or blocked at the wrong time, it would be impossible to exist and stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, the healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.
– ASHER YATZAR, A JEWISH PRAYER
Munich, Germany 1950. Mendel Wojczuk exited synagogue with his young wife, Sarah. He was ten years older than her but still a handsome young man with dark hair and eyes and a tall, thin frame. Sarah came to Munich after the war because it was the place where Jews from Vilna went to find each other. Mendel grew up in a small town near Vilna but the two had never met. Now they had a young daughter they named Ann and were saving money for tickets so their second child could be born in America. Leaving synagogue that Saturday, Mendel must have felt a pain much like heartbreak.
A human heart starts to beat approximately 21 days after conception. Around the same time that my grandfather died of a massive coronary, my father’s heart started beating. Few Jewish children have their father’s names. There are rarely Juniors and Seniors because according to Jewish law you cannot name a child after someone still living. So it was my father who inherited his father’s name and with it, his heart.
“It’s over. He’s doing fine,” Dad’s surgeon said. “I wish I’d had a video camera. He was a model patient.” For the first time since getting the call about Dad’s heart I started to cry. The surgeon looked confused.
“But it’s over,” he said. “Why are you crying now?”
“She was waiting for it to be over,” Mom said.
When the surgeon let us into the ICU, he warned us that Dad probably wouldn’t remember anything we said.
“He also has a tube in his throat, which can be very painful. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to talk and I want to warn you that the tube can be shocking to see.”
We stood around Dad’s bedside and I started stroking his forehead. It was the only place I could touch him that wasn’t covered in tubes or bandages. I stroked the same spot over and over until Dad jerked his head at me.
“It doesn’t feel good,” Mom said. Somehow she could interpret his mannerisms when the rest of us couldn’t.
“Sorry, sorry,” I mumbled, pulling away. Dad held on to my hand and squeezed.
“He wants to look at you,” Mom said.
I looked into his face. His lips were chapped and there was an ugly yellow bruise starting to show around the tube stuck in his throat. But his eyes were bright blue and he stared at me without blinking, his eyes starting to water. I’d seen that look before. He’d been looking at me that way my whole life, and for the first time, I wanted desperately to have kids of my own, to look at them with that much love. I hoped they’d have his eyes and not his name.