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My Mother's Mostly
Beautiful Heart

By Reeva Hunter Mandelbaum, SPSBE '85 (MS)

Photo Illustration by
Stephanie Dalton
Overall, she has a mostly beautiful heart" is what Paul — a cardiologist and colleague of my brother's — says as we quietly stare at the beating organ on the computer screen. We're waiting for other images, the not-so-beautiful parts, from the cath lab after her emergency angioplasty.

"Her beautiful heart," my father repeats. He leans against the wall, massaging his head. "That's why I married her. That's what I saw from the first."

My mother always tells their love story as a fairy tale: He was gorgeous, but into her petite, black-haired, green-eyed friend. The friend left, and they talked all night. And he kissed her. And her toes lit up and the bells went off. That was it. They were married in six weeks, 56 years ago.

I wonder if that's what my father is remembering. How one night, one kiss, became life.

A few minutes later the slides upload. In one, the artery's a thread in two places; in the other, it looks normal. "Ninety percent blockage," "the stent worked," "no clots for now."

"Tick. Tick. Tick," my brother says slowly, pointing to the breaches. He's in civilian clothes, a green Nike jacket, not his usual white one when he walks these halls.

My father blinks behind his giant glasses. The lenses magnify the glimpses of primal fear I see, but most would miss. At 80, he's still handsome, one of those stoic, solid-as-a-rock guys.

He's half of AlandFlorence: one word.

His being here and she being there makes him feel out of control, isolates him. I walk over and stand close. He's not used to being his own name in public. He's witnessed this plenty, though. Their gang of friends is dwindling quickly. They're the lone holdouts where one or the other isn't dead or incapacitated — but they've closed ranks, conspired not to let us all know how hard it is.

"After the last funeral," my mother mentioned matter-of-factly just the other day, "the book club had to merge with the film club and we alternate months."

We just came from the waiting room. I brought turkey sandwiches, chicken soup, and pineapple. It's a family trait, I think, this quixotic, quasi-mystical belief that the marriage of will and wholesome food can in some way beat back the forces of time, illness, and human loss.

My father says he isn't hungry.

"You have to eat," I say, like an order, handing him half.

Now it's almost midnight. She's getting unhooked and we'll make a pilgrimage with her gurney across the low-lit buildings to the ICU.

My mother is groggy but OK. I stay and my brother takes my father home.

In the morning I bring my mother a bagel and egg-white omelet, and she's ravenous. A good sign. I tell her something about a rabbi I study with, and all that I've learned. She asks if I have talked to him about her.

"I was wondering because, you know, we've had some very difficult periods." She wants to hear that she's right and I'm wrong. It doesn't quite matter about what, just in principle. But there's something below that. I think she wants me to say what's on my mind even if she doesn't like it, in case something bad happens.

I keep my response general and light. I say that she's done great with her life, and in the area of things that went south between us, I think more about how I hope she knows that I will do my best to understand her wants, and to protect her if she can't protect herself. Although edited for complexity, this is the truth.

I get home and my boyfriend, Stuart, checks in on his cell. I tell him I just came from the hospital, say that this is the thing about love — mortality, the sense that love is filled with a thousand risks of loss.

But he's on his way to work. There's road noise and wild winds on the 101, and it's hard to hear. He doesn't do well with deep conversations on the fly.

He responds with his marathon runner's optimism: "She's strong, looks 65 — of course she'll pull through." Then he tells me: "Just so you know, I bought two bottles of the Coppola your brother likes for Friday night," he says, referring to an upcoming family dinner.

When we hang up, I think about Stuart. The one I get to love. And I know even though he's smart and handsome, it's his beautiful heart — that's why I've chosen him.

By noon, my father calls, sounds like himself again. The enzymes are great, there's no damage to the heart muscles. They've unhooked her.

"Mommy took a walk," he says, the relief palpable.

Later that night in the ICU, the monitors are blinking everywhere. She's trying to nap but can't.

I swear to myself that I won't reveal a recent conversation with Stuart, but I have a deep-down fear I might not get a chance to — that she'll die without knowing that he loves me, enough to tell his brother that I'm The One.The free-floating anxiety borders on a superstition I've harbored — that she's been waiting all this time for me to find someone to love again, and now that I have, she's going to vanish suddenly.

So I say it fast. "Stuart talked about engagement rings. Don't say anything to anyone, we're not engaged yet. Period."

"Please God," she says, waving her hand to scatter the air.

My father is snoring in the chair, exhausted from everything.

"He is such a good husband," she says, "the things he has done for me this year." From the wince in her face, I know they're not pretty things.

I'm remembering a conversation I had with my parents at a restaurant some time back. We're talking about soul mates. It's life before Stuart. I'm dating and it's very weird and hard and dispiriting. "Maybe it's not so good to be with your soul mate," I say. "Maybe it's better to have more of an earthy, functional connection. Like you and Daddy. Maybe it's the secret."

"I always thought of your father as my soul mate," she says. The words surprise me. I don't think of my parents suited to each other on that level.

"I don't know. I always thought you two were more pragmatic than that — a function of pure will mixed with passion."

"Yes, I know," she says, going back to her hamburger. "That's what you thought."

Now I see her studying the IV in her arm, more like a professional than a patient. She's a retired nurse, she's never been sick like this before. "I was so scared last night," she says. I hold her hand. "The doctors told me the possibilities and I let Daddy and Bert make the decision. But more scared for Daddy."

My mother's vulnerability is unsettling. It's hard to suddenly be vulnerable when you've spent a lifetime cultivating indomitability.

The ICU nurse with striking blue, empathetic eyes comes in to explain the morbid possibilities of ulcer-causing meds, traveling clots, and other unknowns and insults of being sick. She does it with wit and a resigned Zen joy.

"She buried two husbands," my mother says as we watch her exit into the hall.

My mother has, inimitably, and quite expectedly, turned the room into her social command center.

Besides being a celebrity — the mother of a surgeon on staff there — she's elicited the life stories of all the nurses, doctors, and patients in every room. What she doesn't learn for fact, she surmises. She's already critiqued the woman next door who screamed all night, and inferred that, because he's a teenager, the young boy across the hall overdosed on drugs.

I keep passing the boy's father in the elevator and hall. He doesn't see me. He's in a state of perplexed anguish. I think I've seen him before in line for coffee at Peet's. I can tell that life has not prepared him for this.

How could it? My mother is a year shy of 80, and I'm baffled, feel catapulted into a surreal airspace. Still, my mother's conclusion irritates me in old, familiar ways.

"Ma, how do you know it was drugs? You know nothing about him."

"What else would it be?" she says.

When I return later, she's on the edge of the bed, glasses on, reading magazines and watching the History Channel — a muted documentary about Charles Lindbergh and the Nazis. She expounds on her whacky theory about the kidnapping. I don't really want to hear it, but instead of getting annoyed I veer her onto another subject.

The doctor said she might be able to go home tomorrow.

The Nurse of Profound Empathy comes in. "When it comes to hearts, repaired doesn't mean fixed. It means you do the best you can with what the situation is," she says, looking at me.

I help my mother freshen up before I go. I take a wet cloth and wipe her face. Her hair is unmovable — the 110 proof spray she uses daily is working fine. I put a little plum lipstick on her with my pinky, and I take some baby powder and she raises her arms like wings, childlike. I notice how nicely her nails are rounded and polished with pearl white, how smooth shaven her underarms are, and how kempt she is.

I never look at her this close.

"You look so pretty — look at you, after all that happened. You know Stuart said you look 65."

"He did?" she says, flattered, her brown eyes glittering like a girl's.

"Please God," she whispers again, looking out the window. She is not thinking about looking young, her pain, or this ordeal.

It's Friday night, 48 hours and an epoch since my mother was rushed to the hospital.

We're at my brother's house — a noisy, happy place of dogs and children and clinking glasses of wine.

Now she is here with us, doing well.

Stuart and I are sitting on the piano bench and Sunny, the old patriarch golden lab comes and — ignoring me and everyone else — sits at Stuart's feet, anointing him as family.

Ava and Jordan, my youngest niece and nephew, are trying to corral a loud, unruly family into the shadows in order to surprise their little cousin, who's about to walk through the door.

Stuart is familiar and watchful. Now we hold hands like a contract, not tentative like a wish. He told me the day before that I am his everything. He went for a run and came in and told me he now knows what love is.

"I'm a 'we' now," he says and wraps me in his arms.

Talia walks in and the lights flash on and everyone shouts surprise.

I'm watching my mother.

She is standing off by herself. She doesn't carry a tune well but is belting the song, her cheeks bright pink. She is oddly makeup-less. It's something I have never ever seen in public. Her skin looks luminous, glowy. She is smiling and singing and lifting her knees and waving her arms full tilt like she's marching in a parade.

A few nights later we're sitting around the dinner table, and my parents are giddy like teenagers.

Stuart once reflected on his hopes for us. "We know what it is to be alone. And what it means when you find someone who cares and shares your love." What he means is that he never wants us to get sloppy, or disinterested, or to be mean, to forget how grateful we are to have each other.

We've never bickered, but we will. We'll get mad about stupid stuff, we'll feel lonely, we'll see that we're human, for better or worse. Even so, it will be OK.

To everything there is a season, and my parents have had many. Really bad ones, really good ones. Happy, loving ones, ones filled with anger and frustration.

The sum is more than the parts.

And at that moment we don't have an inkling that in a few days she'll be rushed back into the ER and spend two dangerous weeks in the ICU, much worse, much harder — "stuck in a very serious medical conundrum," as one doctor puts it. And then recover beautifully, even doing Pilates and walking a mile with her physical therapist.

For now, though, they are laughing about their dinner: salad, grilled chicken, pasta. "This is what we eat every night," my father tells me, again laughing, rubbing my mother's cheek, looking in her eyes. He is saying, this is who we are, how we live.

AlandFlorence. One word.

This simple meal anchors the universe. We talk about Stuart. They adore him.

We'll be married in October.

And I am happy and I am scared.

And I know love — above all — makes us very brave.

Reeva Hunter Mandelbaum, vice president of story research at John Wells Productions, is finishing her first novel, The Lost Songs of the Cowboy, Jakob Boaz.

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