A few years ago a lifelong minor heart glitch spiraled out of control. I didn’t tell anyone until a couple hours before the surgery to fix it, so as not to worry them, and I took a Lyft to the hospital. But just before the procedure, as the surgical team was pushing the gurney into the OR, I put my hand on the arm of the nearest blue-masked nurse. Please take good care of me, I said. I don’t want to die.
Everyone’s eyes filled with surprise and concern and they all bent over me. Of course we will. We’ll take good, good care of you. And then I was under the lights and then I was floating away and then I was waking up to the surgeon, standing at the end of the bed with his arms crossed, grinning. Do you remember telling us to stop setting your heart on fire? he asked.
I didn’t. But that whole day came washing back over me when I read this poem below. The kindness of the nurses and doctors. The wondrousness of a world in which a heart can be precisely burned in multiple places and emerge stronger. The openheartedness of an unknown person who, long before their own death, chose to save another’s life with their own body. The knowledge that we get just one heart, and whether we’re conscious of it or not, it’s always on fire.
February 14, by Kim Addonizio
This is a valentine for the surgeons
ligating the portal veins and hepatic artery,
placing vascular clamps on the vena cava
as my brother receives a new liver.
And a valentine for each nurse;
though I don’t know how many there are
leaning over him in their gauze masks,
I’m sure I have enough—as many hearts
as it takes, as much embarrassing sentiment
as anyone needs. One heart
for the sutures, one for the instruments
I don’t know the names of,
and the monitors and lights,
and the gloves slippery with his blood
as the long hours pass,
as a T-tube is placed to drain the bile.
And one heart for the donor,
who never met my brother
but who understood the body as gift
and did not want to bury or burn that gift.
For that man, I can’t imagine how
one heart could suffice. But I offer it.
While my brother lies sedated,
opened from sternum to groin,
I think of a dead man, being remembered
by others in their sorrow, and I offer him
these words of praise and gratitude,
oh beloved whom we did not know.
For more information on Kim Addonizio, please check out her website.