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Tho’ we said goodbye
When the moon was high
Does your heart beat for me?
Patsy Cline, 1963
When they brought her back they explained that her heart had been fitted with a transistor to help her body thrive on such small reserves of life.
It was, they implied, an untested implant.
It was, they admitted, an experimental approach.
They had taken old vacuum tubes out of the skip, dumped there when the in-house hospital radio was outsourced to Hospedia. The studio had been gutted to make room for more beds, each fitted with a touch screen interface at shoulder height. After half a century, the deep roll of radio waves in the corridors had stuttered into a lighthouse’s binary pulse.
I imagined the old thermionic valves out in the car park, awash with crushed glass, grit and the shadow of the skip, glistening like the jellied eggs of an octopus.[private]
When the junior cardiologist dived in and lifted them out, scribbles of wire filaments had jangled tunefully. He brought in a damaged unit as an example and he held out the heavy glass for us to look at.
As I watched Glen take the vacuum tube to his chest, weighing it in his hands, I thought of the female octopus who guards her eggs to the point of exhaustion. The first thing an octopus must see is the deflated body of its mother, her translucent skin like a plastic bag snagged in the net.
―As you can see, it’s not at all like today’s transistors (all solid state, light weight, discount-rate). No, these glass domes are enormous and delicate and as easy to break as they are difficult to repair.
The junior’s lanyard tangled in his hands as he gestured towards his chest. I imagined a spray of glass, of crystal splinters firing off like arrows. I nodded, wincing, and allowed myself to lean a little into the bed between us.
They were running an investigative programme, the surgeon explained. She continued to detail how the hospital had allowed a small team to perform a series of xenografts using thermionic valves to support the human heart in terminal cases.
The junior shifted forwards, holding his hands out like he was inviting us to step across the bed. His movement had interrupted his supervisor and he hurried to tell us that a xenograft was the term more usually employed for animal-to-human transplants, but that ‘xeno-’ could more broadly be applied to any non-human tissue being used to keep the heart pumping.
The surgeon nodded once, smiling briefly at her student before turning back to face us. She mirrored her junior’s movement, holding her hands out, palms facing one another, across the bed. The two of them looked, at first, like they were each trying to contain something I couldn’t see.
The idea was that they’d fit a transistor to our mother’s heart to amplify what was left of her, to help her, they suggested, power on. At the end of each sentence Glen and I nodded, as if we were initialling each page.
As she spoke and as we nodded, the surgeon’s hands floated further apart. They stood there as two fishermen, chest deep in water, convincing us of their greatest catch. Your love for your mother is this big, they seemed to say. We nodded, and at the same time, I heard Glen take a breath.
The human heart produces its own electrochemical impulses in the sinoatrial node, small and silent and just enough to keep the heart pumping at a steady pace. We nodded.
The experimental cardiologists wanted to see if they could strengthen the impulses. They didn’t want to make a pacemaker implant to regulate the heart. They were going to make a power plant of an implant. Sell her back to the grid to pay for her stay.
It was only fair.
It was our only option.
They asked if we were ready for them to wake her up and we nodded. Trying to speak, Glen and I looked at each other, but we were mouthing uselessly like fish drowning against the air.
We looked down and nodded into our chests.
Propped on a pillow, she patted her breastbone where weakened valves gasped glassy.
As we stood about her bed, the surgeon raised her hand and tapped a ceiling-mounted screen, saying that there was an internet-based service that she could tune into whenever she wished. Much clearer than the old radio they used to have onsite. She could listen to the morning show now if she wanted.
The surgeon was smiling, kindly―kind of. There’s nothing to worry about, she insisted.
As she turned to leave, I saw the surgeon’s smile fold into itself. A drawstring thought seemed to pull her mouth into a hard, fixed asterisk.
For a brief moment, I worried about the small print, about what had been left unsaid.
They left us to discuss the state of our mother’s heart. I looked at Glen, who was looking at the television with an absent stare. I tried to joke about living the life bionic before I too fell into Glen’s silence as we sat either side of her.
As the radio started to gargle out the first strains of an old love song, we sat and watched her body, trying to detect the strange change keeping time at her chest, underneath black stitches and raw skin. My mother’s skin. Her body seemed to be sinking; her hands so much smaller than I remembered them being.
Above the bed, Patsy Cline’s voice spilled out into the room.
―You know she recorded this song a month before she died, I said.
―I wonder if I still linger in your memory, our mother sang along, absently.
―She knew she was going to die, Glen. She made arrangements for friends to care for her children before the plane crash.
Glen held his hands out, motioning for a hug. Your love for your mother is this big, his hands seemed to say.
The Tuesday after the operation they came to adjust her glass heart valves. They increased the voltage, altered the current. I listened to the brutal tinkling of wire against glass from the visitor’s waiting room—the sound of her heart being prized apart.
Outside, I heaved my tears into a plastic cup. The consultant, the undertaker, the surgeon and now the junior cardiologist had all been able to touch our mother’s heart.
Glen made me another tea, pulling his jumper sleeve over his hand to avoid being burnt as the water drew an opaque line up the cup’s side. As he leant over, hand outstretched, he blinked slowly. I know, he gestured.
Over the next few days, her fragile body fell over and under the electronic waves amplified at her chest. I imagined her heart as a glass diving bell, my mother a champion diver.
Smiling, I held my breath for her.
She went under.
Glen was eating a sandwich when she sat up straight, three and a half days later. He spat a hunk of half-chewed tomato across the bed sheet in astonishment and called to me in that urgent, small voice I hadn’t heard since we were children. That panicked bleat of my name―‘Sarah! Sarah!’―that had once signalled a bloodied knee or a broken bike shuttled down the hospital corridor.
I arrived at the door to see him smiling broadly, laughing between the glistening parentheses of tears on his cheeks.
Our mother was sitting up in bed, complaining about a tomato on her bed sheet, about poor levels of hygiene in a hospital of all places.
― “Death Cannot Kill What Never Dies”. I blinked. I think that’s what Cline had written on her gravestone. Glen, already dialling dad, didn’t seem to hear.
As the days progressed, she grew in energy.
As I sat on the bed, pressing her hands and moving them a little to the beat of the music, I thought I saw her move her lips. As the song came to an end, I held her hands up in mine and she hummed a little past the final bars.
Your love for your mother is this big, my hands insisted.
Two hours later she said something. She shouted.
Glen turned off the radio. This hadn’t been a listed side-effect. She couldn’t seem to control the volume of her voice.
It had maximised in size and shape. In fact, her voice changed altogether.
By the fifth day, her voice seemed to grow out of her body. It commanded her throat as if a pair of monster lungs had been ventriloquized. She held her hands out, flapping her arms while she funnelled up a frantic sound. She shouted and crooned. She whistled and raced through words in a macaronic flurry, slipping from moribund to binary as easily as water spills from your hands.
We counted the days she’d been awake. We counted the days she’d been, at least officially, dead. They had assured us that brain damage would be a minimal risk.
When we reported her speech problem, the surgeon returned to hand over a document. She had printed off instructions for care of the electric bell jar, outlining the risks of having a vacuum for a heart, advice on how far we should expect it to take her.
The surgeon put forward her hands again.
―It’s crucial that at this point we have your permission to continue.
The surgeon nodded slowly when we insisted it was what we wanted but that we just wanted to know what―
―Your mother may well go on to enjoy an extended life but as we discussed, there is the risk that, should the valve shatter or the current power prove too great, your mother may begin to―shall we say―lose her focus? On herself, I mean. On her body.
She reminded us that the valve was obsolete and that no stockists kept spare parts. The glass was so fragile no doctor or engineer could fix a fracture.
―It will be as if she has died again, you understand.
――――(as if she has died again, you understand)
But we’d known from the beginning that if it were possible, we’d keep her alive on a machine.
Keeping a machine alive inside her seemed the next best thing.
It had to be.
Before her heart broke for the very last time, she wrote to us.
In a scratchy, cursive writing she wrote short, asemic poems on the window of a box by her bed.
The high regular notes of the monitor sang out across the ward, shrilly cursing each pitch and furrow of the needle, each gasping closure of her heart’s valves. As the doctors told us at the time how to listen to that suppressed, submarine sound of lubs and dubs murmuring from the depths of her heart, we listened closely.
We read every line on the monitor; attentive to anything she might tell us, any clue she might need something or be uncomfortable.
I measure the gaps in sound, nodding my head with each passing second. One day we know she will stop writing to us and the note will drop into a long, low line.
This is what they underlined for us.
We, the undersigned.
Glen and I are sure, and we hold our breath; waiting for her to take hers. As the pulses slow, time stretches out. We measure it.
Your love for your mother is this big, I hear Glen say.[/private]
About Holly Corfield Carr
Holly Corfield Carr is a writer and poet based in Bristol where she is writer-in-residence at Spike Island with support from Arts Council England. Her work is published in magazines, anthologies and artists' books as well as being produced for installation and performance across the UK. She received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2012.