I drape myself over my mother’s bed and study the parts of the heart. The aorta—its road snaking through the body. How it shyly peeks up from the ventricle. Oh, and the ventricles. Chambers. The heart pumps music. I press my face into the pillow. A thought: If I stopped breathing.
My mother lies next to me, trying to soothe my nerves over a test. Her hair is so dark brown, you could call it black. My heart once mumbled under hers, bird-small, fluttering like eyelashes.
I put my hand over my chest to feel the drumming inside. And I put my hand on my mother’s chest. Tell more about the heart, she says. Teach me.
* * *
Chopin’s sister puts his heart in a jar of alcohol and steals away to Poland with it. Imagine: dropping it in the cognac, smuggling it over the veins of borders. The jar grows warm from being against her skin. She might whisper to it. She might hum to it. Who can say what else she carries with her, inside her?
To hold a heart is lonely work, but she perseveres, because her brother wanted so badly for that piece of him to go home. And go home it does, though it bounces around—a relative or two’s dusty shelves, a music-loving Nazi’s collection of gifts from the war. But it goes home eventually, sealed up in a pillar of stone in a church in a city in a country in a world where such things can happen.
* * *
I cry while listening to one of Chopin’s etudes in my car, weaving in and out of traffic. The notes—the notes—they gather themselves up, huddle, spill forth, weep with me.
I think of my mother’s pacemaker, how it failed her too-big heart, her too-big body. Metal, like a locket. Hot, like blood. Couldn’t keep the tempo. We buried her near a tree with roots like roads. Her headstone, hard and pink. I can’t remember what outfit she’s wearing. Whenever I dream of her, I ask her this: Okay? I sprout awake before she can answer.
The shape of sorrow—a bud, a fist, waiting to expand, to become part of the rhythm of being. Something to slip in your pocket. Something to carry away.
Image: “Untitled (Tarot Card, Heart Suit)” by Earle M. Pilgrim. Courtesy of the Earle M. Pilgrim Estate. By permission via Wikimedia Commons. O:JA&L encourages its readership to support the mission of the Lily and Earle M. Pilgrim Art Foundation.