At 12:30 a.m. today, a rapid screeching awakened me. I fumbled for my glasses, the small blue flashlight at my bedside, and the little black box clipped to my nightgown. Through groggy, glazed eyes I saw it: A "1" where there had once been a zero. Event recorded. I reached for the phone, punched the 800 number, and imparted this news to the reassuring voice at the other end of the line. I performed the reporting procedure, bolstered by my husband's gentle touch on my arm. Then I hung up the phone.
In the last few weeks, I've answered a slew of questions about my medical history. I'm not sure why I've had to repeat myself, over and over, to techs and doctors whose computer systems merge with one another. Perhaps, like the sly prosecutor or the clever psychologist, they strive to see if my answers change. But that disembodied voice wanted only to comfort me. A rapid heartbeat for 4.7 seconds provides good information, just what your doctor wants to know, he told me. But nothing about which to feel immediate alarm. The soft cadences of his voice take me back more than three decades, to a waiting room outside of a surgery theatre in North St. Louis County.
A huddle of Corleys stand or sit in small groups. My mother rises, paces, plunks herself back down onto a square vinyl cushion which releases a sharp puff of air with the impact of her body. A couple of brothers stand together in the corner, murmuring in tones too low for me to follow. My boyfriend of the year leans against a wall somewhat apart from them, not accepted, not expecting to be.
We sit vigil for my father, on whom a cardiac surgeon works, pulling veins from his legs to create bypasses buried in his chest.
I gaze out a broad window, eyes not seeing the parking lot or the tops of neighborhood trees. I've come from Kansas City, where I'm due to start my first semester of law school. I've been there since May, starting a job that would pay for the first year's expenses, getting situated in an apartment two blocks from the hookers' favorite stroll, trying to decide what to do about the boyfriend. I feel mild resentment at being called home.
I shift from foot to foot. I close my eyes, and let the indistinguishable mutterings of my brothers and sisters wash around me. I prepare to mourn, in case the surgery fails. I do not know if I can. I am twenty-five, and I have yet to forgive my father for his awful sins. That won't come for another five years or more. At this juncture, I cannot summon any sorrow from my belly.
A door swings open. A doctor joins us, wiping his hands on his scrubs, pushing a smile to his weary face. He's fine, he tells my mother. Your husband's a fighter. And funny. My mother stands. Her children move closer, our foreheads pinched, our eyes narrowed. Neither relief nor disappointment floods us. I experience just some vague emptiness. What do you mean, 'funny', my mother asks. The doctor shakes his head. When he woke in Recovery, he asked the nurse how many bypasses he got. 'Seven,' she told him. The doctor chuckles. 'What's the record for one surgery?', your husband asked. 'Nine', the nurse said. Your husband laid there for a moment, then replied, 'Wheel me back in, I want three more.'
A wave of something close to amusement ripples through the room. My mother laughs, then, and drops the tightness of her shoulders, and the gaggle of her children present follow suit. I study her face; I realize she would have mourned him, despite everything he has done to her. I do not know, standing beside her small, tired body in that brightly lit waiting room, if she would have mourned my father alone. And I will never know, as she will die five years later, and he not for another six after that.
The doctor is thanked, his hand shaken, and he tells us we can see our father, two by two. My oldest brother goes first, with my mother, and the rest of us pour ourselves more cups of bad coffee, in little styrofoam cups, and sit down to think our various thoughts, which we do not share.
The tech who did a cardiogram on me yesterday told me that some of the problems for which all the tests searched could be hereditary. Did someone in your family have a heart condition, she asks. I think a moment. My father, I admit. But I have my mother's heart. She spares me a small glance, but doesn't ask me what I mean.
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