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January 25th, 2014 - Jacqueline Doyle

 

I didn’t expect to inaugurate the new year with a week in the hospital for my heart. Until January 2024 my heart was just a literary trope, not a body part in need of repair.

 

Was it about five years ago that my husband took me to the Mercy Center in Burlingame and we had our chakras read? Sort of woo-woo for me, but hey, we live in California. A pleasant woman with short-cropped gray hair raised a crystal on a string over different parts of my body. Swinging the crystal back and forth slowly, she exclaimed with great surprise that she’d never seen a heart chakra that was so open. When I was hospitalized a couple of weeks ago and diagnosed with heart problems, I thought about the chakra reading. Has my heart been behaving strangely for a while? Probably there’s no connection.

 

January 2024. An acupuncturist sent me to the ER. Also slightly woo-woo for me. I’d seen her twice for excruciating back pain and sciatica. An elderly lady with a black wig slightly askew, she spoke so quickly, her English was so limited, and her Chinese accent so heavy that I understood maybe a third of what she was telling me. In our first two meetings she’d been extremely bossy, lecturing me on bone broth (“beef tenders” is what I heard, and though I kept asking, I had no idea what they were), on dressing warmly (she insisted on two layers of sweatpants), on the limitations of Western medicine, and on the Chinese herbs I should be taking. When she said before our third meeting that my pulse was too low to treat me (32 bpm), I didn’t understand her at first. We were sitting in her consulting room, surrounded by boxes and suitcases and piles of clothes and at least ten artificial flower arrangements (she had just cleared out the back rooms for painting). “You go to the ER right now,” she said, and I wasn’t sure how seriously to take her orders. But my husband took me to the ER, and we spent nine hours there, before being released with a diagnosis of bradycardia, persistent low heart rate. At the follow-up appointment the next day, my GP did yet another of many EKGs, sent me back to the ER in an ambulance, and they checked me into the hospital for a week. Diagnosis: atrial fibrillation and flutter. Greatly increased chances of stroke and heart attack and blood clots. I still haven’t accommodated myself to the diagnosis and how I should live now. The first treatment—electric shocks to my heart—didn’t work. I’m on a blood thinner. Next up will be an operation where they burn the interior of my heart to create scars. Everything seems like a metaphor for something I can’t quite grasp.

 

But on January 25, 2014 my heart was fine. I didn’t know yet that a medication I’d been taking for years had badly damaged my kidneys, I still had my gall bladder, I didn’t feel particularly old, more concerned with my parents’ mortality than my own.



A photo from December 2013 in the very disorganized file on my computer desktop reminds me that my husband and I were in New York City for Christmas, reveling in the first snow we’d seen in years. I stuck out my tongue to taste the snowflakes. The slippery sidewalks and soft powdery clumps brought back grad school in upstate New York, where we fell in love. The only other photo I find reminds me that I attended my first AWP in February 2014, in Seattle, and that I was in a reading, but I can’t remember for what magazine (Under the Gum Tree maybe) or what I read. I’d forgotten until now how touched I was to see some of my creative writing students in the audience. I search my university files for winter 2014 and discover that I was teaching three classes; a creative nonfiction workshop, a literary survey on American women’s literature, and a seminar on twentieth-century American drama.

 

I was writing, producing creative nonfiction and flash fiction after years of doing literary scholarship, and I’m amazed at how prolific I was. It felt like a gift, how the inspiration flowed. The writing group I’d joined in San Francisco took me out of academia into a brand new place—freer, more fun. That year I published essays on the caregiver who swindled my mother, my mother’s dementia, her death, my parents’ marriage, my aunt’s life and suicide, among others. I’d started publishing the flash that would become my chapbook The Missing Girl. I was also planting the seeds for my current work-in-progress, The Lunatics’ Ball.

 

January 25, 2014 is a Saturday, so I am probably working on a flash or an essay. Probably also reading for my classes, jotting notes in the margins of Death of a Salesman or Sula, though I’ve taught both of them many times. Perhaps I’m looking over the reading journals from my creative nonfiction students, maybe their first exercise—on “perhapsing” the details they can’t fully remember. They find the concept of “perhapsing” and speculation easier to wrap their heads around after we talk about the examples from Maxine Hong Kingston in Lisa Knopp’s craft essay in Brevity, and essays like Kelly Carlisle’s “Physical Evidence” in the Touchstone Anthology. During class this week they worked in groups on “perhapsing” with family photographs, getting to know each other, getting to know the possibilities of the genre. The resulting exercises are some of my favorites of the semester.

 

It's a Saturday, so our son probably took the BART home from San Francisco with a bag of laundry he’s now washing and drying. The Maytag is churning and clanking, the dryer is tumbling, the dishwasher is humming. He’s probably out in his room behind the detached garage on his laptop, my husband is working in his study, I might be working in mine, overcrowded with books and folders and papers, but probably I’m on the couch in what we call our sitting room—a converted porch at the front of our small house surrounded on three sides by large windows. Let me guess that it’s raining today, silvering the branches of the two enormous fir trees in the front yard. Mist obscures the foothills in the distance. The house feels particularly snug and cozy. My heart swells. I’m enjoying my work and being surrounded by family.

 

It's raining now, January 2024. I’m still surrounded by family but I’m no longer teaching. Instead I work part-time as the creative nonfiction editor at an online literary magazine, fulfilling work that I never anticipated. I’m still in the same bimonthly writing group in San Francisco (who imagined we’d be going strong for over ten years?), but we switched to Zoom during the pandemic. Our members have scattered. We’ll remain online.

 

Our son worked in San Francisco for seven years before going to Scotland for a graduate degree in environmental science last year. He’s leaving tomorrow for Borneo, where he’s landed a good job. He plans to stay there indefinitely. We’ll Skype often, of course, but it’s so far away to visit. Is my heart misfiring because it’s broken? We’ve been through the empty nest before—a number of times—but this one seems the hardest.

 

My heart flutters like a trapped bird. I become anxious and nauseous, and it feels like my heart’s in my throat. None of the similes are adequate to the muscular organ, bloody and literal, that I’ve paid so little attention to until now. My heart thumps under my hand on my chest. Fast and then slow, barely detectable, and then fast again, throbbing. I check my pulse reading on the Fitbit my son gave me. Check it again a few minutes later and keep checking it because it’s alarmingly high. Should I take the med that lowers my heartbeat? Or is it about to plunge on its own? Will I end up in the ER again? It’s difficult to swallow. I wonder where I’ll be a decade from now. Whether I’ll be here at all.


 



Jacqueline Doyle’s creative nonfiction has appeared in EPOCH, Fourth Genre, and The Gettysburg Review, and has been awarded nine Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. Her flash fiction chapbook The Missing Girl is available from Black Lawrence Press. She lives in Castro Valley, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her online at jacquelinedoyle.com and on twitter @doylejacq


Jacqueline would love for you to learn more about the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

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