Hole-Heartedly

Echocardiogram image from one of my childhood cardio check-ups. October 1996

Echocardiogram image from one of my heart check-ups. October 1996.

“Two are better than one . . . For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.”Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Mom and Dad learned about my broken heart when a doctor’s stethoscope picked up on the murmur pulsing in my newborn chest. After putting me through a round of EKGs, sonograms, and x-rays, a cardiologist at Primary Children’s declared the diagnosis:

A stenosis obstructs my aorta. An artery is AWOL. And in the tissue dividing the two chambers there’s a hole.

A hole in my heart.

My mind still can’t fully grasp that. My heart is missing pieces. The organ that’s supposed to keep me living, breathing, running, jumping, hiking, thinking, feeling, loving—it’s incomplete, defective. That’s not to say it can’t function. In fact, for the most part, my life has gone on as if nothing were wrong. Sure, there were all those check-ups with the cardiologist when I was growing up. I still remember the cold electrodes nurses plastered on my thorax, and the goopey gel they smeared on me for ultrasounds. I remember having to gulp down four ginormous pills before going to the dentist (even though no one bothered to explain to me exactly why I had to protect my heart from my teeth). I remember disbelieving the technicians as they swore the black-and-gray blob beating on the monitor—an image that, for the record, looked nothing like the shapes my teachers used to decorate their classrooms for Valentine’s Day—was what hearts actually look like in real life.

But I also remember the way Dr. Judd shrugged her shoulders at the end of each check-up as she explained to my parents, “The stenosis hasn’t grown, and the hole isn’t expanding. We’ll keep watching her though. See you next year.”

In the meantime I played defense on soccer teams, climbed the Wasatch Mountains, took folk dance classes, and even tried gymnastics at a summer camp. No symptoms. No hindrance. When I stopped getting taller Dr. Judd explained that there wasn’t much chance for the defects to worsen. And since I’d made it that far without problems, she said I was free to go—no return appointment.

Life went on. My heart kept pushing blood through my veins, getting oxygen to my brain as I ran 5K races, squeezing soft rhythms as I dreamed, thumping out quick excitement as I stood at the thresholds of those dreams coming true in reality.

But I guess at some point I picked up a nasty hubris as I realized that my broken heart kept beating on its own, no intervention, medicine, or observation necessary. If it works for physical defects, I reasoned, then that must be true for less concrete conditions too. So year by year I shaped a personality that reached toward an idealized concept of strength. I wanted to be tough enough to plough through sorrow, heartache, stress, and fear without a sign of cracks or breakage. I wanted to make it on my own, without leaning on or burdening or getting in the way of anybody else.

Turns out that kind of cocky strength can only carry me so far.

Once during an especially difficult spread of time I was sitting at my desk editing papers, clutching to my cardinal rules for coping with emotional distress: 1—keep busy, 2—keep to myself. By throwing my energy into school and work, I could neglect my aching heart and justify the disregard. And lest I fall into a spot of weakness, I preferred solitude so that no one would see my strong, unflappable façade melting away, exposing all the hurts and fears I’d worked so hard to keep concealed.

At some point, for some reason, one of my roommates walked in and struck up a conversation. I can’t quite remember how it all started, or what path it took, or how I let it get this far. But I do remember the wave of emotion that caught me by surprise, reminding me of everything that gnawed at my numbed feelings. Glancing up at the pictures on the shelf above my desk, I kept quiet for a moment and tried to swallow back the choke. When I opened my mouth to continue our conversation, though, something cracked—my will, my resolve, the shell I’d built around my heart to hide its breaking.

I pressed the fingertips of my left hand against my forehead as I clenched my eyes and felt hot tears rush out. I heard Megan kneel down, and soon she’d wrapped me in a hug, allowing me to sob against her shoulder.

As my body shook with uneven breaths, I chided myself for the breakdown. Oh come on—snap out of it! Megan’s got her own problems to deal with, and here you are, all selfish, making her help you with yours. Oh please. Just cut it out already.

To a certain extent, my line of thinking was not unfounded—Megan did have plenty to deal with on her own at that moment. In fact, our lives had been paralleling in some unpleasant ways, so I knew full well that her heart had pains, uncertainties, and fears enough to hash through on its own. I felt ashamed for demanding her support when she was hurting too.

But something kept me crying—almost as if against my will. It felt good to let it all stream out in sighs and sobs and sniffling. And instead of guilt for burdening a friend, my heart felt stillness seeping in to fill the gaps and breaks.

Megan waited as I had a good cry, then she listened as I finally peeled back a corner of the thick defense I’d draped over my feelings. I let my roommate see my heart. I pointed out its holes and flaws. Remarkably, she showed me hers, and we sat for a while talking out all the aches we’d amassed and held back as we’d each worked our way through despair.

By the end of the conversation our hearts were still just as broken as they’d been at the start—but with one important difference: There was someone who knew. There was someone who shared. There was one other heart that felt for and felt with.

It was a strength that depended on two shattered people uniting to bolster each other. And to access that strength, we each had to reveal the weak spots—the holes—that kept dragging us down.

Now, of course there are times when it’s best just to join in on soccer games, hikes, or races, pressing forward with life as if nothing were wrong. The earth keeps turning, the sun keeps rising, our hearts keep beating. Life goes on.

But there’s something special about the energy that comes when hearts expose their defects to each other. And every heart has defects. Everybody’s broken—that’s what happens when we live.

Sometimes life means breaking up or breaking down or both (and in that order). It means discovering the holes and missing pieces that we just can’t fill—the fragments of heart we’ve never had, or the parts we’ve lost through trial and disillusionment. Life’s the series of decisions we make as we find people we can share our incompletion with. It’s the steps we take to bind ourselves to friends, confidants, lovers, and families. It’s the hope that together we can compensate for all those bits of soul we lack.

Learning to live is learning to recognize that opening up will never happen naturally, but rather through a healthy humble desperation that stems from yearning both to love and to be loved. It’s the conscious tenacity that makes us choose to share our hearts—our broken-but-still-beating cores—although it might seem dangerous, unwelcome, and irrational to do so.

That’s what living’s all about.

And that’s where love steps in.

If we were whole, we wouldn’t need each other. If we were strong enough alone, we’d never need to learn to look for love, nor how to give it. So God lets us live with broken hearts to teach us to reach beyond ourselves—to teach us to accept that help when it finds us as well.

I guess it’s always been this way, even at the genesis of life.

In the Garden of Eden God saw the trees and fruits and animals, and He was pleased. He made a man to till the ground, to act as lord and master. He gave the man a body that was strong and solid and unbreakable in Paradise, where nothing could cause pain or death.

But God did not call Adam good—not yet. Instead, God caused the man to sleep through one last phase of the Creation. Then He snapped a rib from Adam’s side to make the heart just that much more exposed—to make a hole just large enough for someone to slip her heart inside and bind up the two beating lives.

God broke Adam, then gave him Eve and taught them to commit to love to make each other whole.