THE PATHWAYS OF THE HUMAN HEART
Mother and I were never close. It wasn’t until I applied to nursing school at the age of 34 that she began to treat me differently. I was now the child she talked about, the one she admired and fussed over. It was as if the love she had withheld for so many years came rushing through — all because of the words, “I’m going to become a nurse.”
During the prerequisite phase, English 1 and 2, algebra, and biology, Mother slowly began to accept me. She voiced her opinions like daggers flying in the dark and vacillated between like and doubt. She wondered if my taking classes wasn’t a substitute for mere boredom, or worse, some kind of deep deception — a cover-up for some unmentionable deed. Though she never revealed her specific fears, she hinted at them with her comments. “Why now? I don’t understand why you never went to college when all your friends did. All of a sudden you want education. I’m glad, but puzzled,” she’d say.
I understood her distrust of my actions. I wasn’t always honest with her about my life and how I lived it. I blamed her for any hardships, never focusing on the real culprit — myself. There were years I spent on self-satisfaction: having babies and keeping a solid distance from my mother, not wanting interference, commitments, or advice. For years, Mother and I inflicted pain on each other that turned into bitterness, then regret.
I first noticed the change in our relationship when I started my clinicals and began using medical terminology such as aphasia, ectopy, auscultate, and arrythmias. We discussed medical conditions, like high cholesterol, strokes, and hepatitis C. I’d study the definitions in the pages of Taber’s Cyclopedic Dictionary , and then recite my findings to her in language she’d understand. I explained how people with elevated blood levels of cholesterol have an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease. I taught her terms like LDLs and HDLs and showed her pictures of eyes so jaundiced they glowed.
Mother had lots of questions about her gas problem, why Father’s cholesterol level was always high, or how she might avoid hot flashes and the coarse brown hairs that grew on the bottom of her chin. I researched her inquiries and provided her with the best answers I could. Mother relied upon me for some kind of proof, a validation of my knowledge about health and the workings of the human body.
I no longer heard the usual sermons: “When are you going to do something with your life,” or “You’ll never amount to anything without education.” Her words were now glowing expressions of admiration that I inhaled in small, even breaths into every cell of my body. They circulated through my bloodstream, replenishing the deficiency — a critical lab value.
Mother bragged to her friends about her only daughter. “She’s finally finishing college. She’s going to become a nurse.” I wallowed in her tribute, praise I seldom heard growing up.
That’s when we first began to bond and let go of our angry feelings. We lived 1,500 miles apart — she in Chicago and I in Phoenix.
Mother visited during spring break. I remember us sitting at my kitchen table, surrounded by thickly bound nursing books, discussing the human heart. I recited much of what I had learned during the previous semester. She’d hold onto each word as if she had to know everything about the heart: the tricuspid and aortic valves and the pulmonary artery. She tried to memorize the chambers, atria, and ventricles, the route of oxygenation, and how valves opened and closed. She’d stare at diagrams with red- and blue-colored arrows labeling the blood flow of pumping hearts. Then she’d trace the pathway of the human heart with her pencil and repeat the lesson for the day.
During each visit, Mother insisted we wash all the china in my kitchen. She liked to wash dishes that sat on a shelf for any length of time. It annoyed me when I was in my 20s, but as I approached my 36th birthday, it became more of a tradition, a time to talk about our lives and dreams for the future.
“Look at the cracks on the edge of this plate,” she’d say. “You should throw out the ones with frayed edges, the ones that are no longer perfect.”
I examined the plate and placed my forefinger on the rim where the china had chipped. “It’s not jagged or sharp. These dishes are old and fragile,” I replied. “I’m keeping them.”
That’s when Mother told me about her friend Betty and how her son had put his mother in a rest home after she suffered a stroke. Mother said that most children don’t want to take care of their parents when they’re old and weakened. I told her not to worry. I hugged her, looked into her eyes, and said, “I’ll never let you down.”
I wanted to be there for Mother as she aged, something I thought I had botched up in my younger years. When I left home at 18, I thought I’d live forever. My travels took me to the West Coast, far from rules, commitments, and family. Away from my motherweeping and my father’s worried heart. I thought I’d have plenty of time for my parents when I got older.
Two months before I graduated nursing school, Mother was hit by a speeding car. While I studied Nursing the Critically Ill Adult, her body was thrown 30 feet in the air. She broke her neck in three places and died instantly. I thought about her heart, the valves no longer opening or closing, and the atria and ventricles filling with fluid. I imagined the paramedics feeling for a pulse, shaking their heads, then telling my father his wife was dead.
I had always pictured Mother at my graduation, walking up on the stage, pinning me, then whispering in my ear, “I’ve always loved you,” as she handed me a bouquet of roses. “You made something out of your life. I’m so proud of you.”
On the day of my ceremony, I did hear those words — though not directly from her. My father walked up with flowers. He started to cry and told me, “Mother’s here with you and smiling. She was so proud of your goal to become a nurse. Somehow, she always knew.”
I see Mother’s image all the time. She is lying in a bed, side rails up, tired and frail, with deepening lines that frame her delicate face. She’s connected to a machine that’s secured on a tall metal pole. It ticks like a clock while it runs intravenous fluids through her body. She wears a gray gown with teal flowers, unsnapped on either side, with black, white, and red wires leading to a monitor that traces the activity of her heart. I answer her questions about the different rhythms and we talk about the machines that orchestrate the songs in her room — and what it all means. She tells me her heart feels swollen. I bend over to stroke her arm from shoulder to wrist. I feel the faintness of her pulse.
She flickers like a faulty overhead light with a hesitant wave of her hand. I rub her forehead and moisten her mouth. As her eyes fix on mine, I cup her cheek in my hand and comb her hair with the part just the way she likes it. I tell her everything will be all right whether it will or won’t. Her labored breathing continues. I begin to breathe with her, as if all we shared in our lives manifested in our duet. I whisper, “Let go, it’s all right ." But mostly it was just our breaths, a quieting down, until only the sweetest, faintest expressions of breath remained — our way of saying goodbye.