Friday, November 24, 2006
The Happy Ending I Couldn't Imagine
When I was growing up, family members always told me that I "wore my heart on my sleeve," and cautioned me to stop doing that so I wouldn't get hurt. But I was never really able to stop doing it, even when I did get hurt. I've always expressed my emotions, sometimes in ways that make people uncomfortable. I'd make a lousy poker player! On the few occasions when I did manage to remove my heart from my sleeve, what replaced it was a concrete barrier about ten feet thick. Luckily, I figured out pretty quickly that this is no way to live. If I shielded myself from pain, I also lost my ability to feel joy.
Two years ago, I took a summer course at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley about writing life narratives. The teacher was a chaplain at a woman's prison, and she led us through a week-long process of identifying important personal symbols and images and then writing a fairy tale, using those elements, that would be a metaphorical representation of our own lives.
The symbol I came up with was the heart on the sleeve, and I wrote a story about a little girl named Cora (short for "corazon," Spanish for heart) who's born with her heart outside her chest, and who suffers greatly because of it. The teacher loved the story, and wanted me to finish it. My old therapist loved the story, and wanted me to finish it.
They wanted a happy ending. It wasn't coming.
I finally did finish the story, but it doesn't exactly have a conventional happy ending. This is the story -- called "Sorrel's Heart" -- that I wrote last April when I was gorked out on muscle relaxants after throwing my back out. It will be included in The Fate of Mice. It's very, very dark. My GTU instructor and my old therapist wouldn't be pleased.
Throughout this process, I thought the heart-outside-the-body thing was strictly a metaphor, physically impossible. The story's fantasy.
Except, as it turns out, it isn't fantasy. I learned from Doctor Anonymous this morning that there's a real medical condition, called ectopia cordis, in which babies are born with their hearts outside their bodies. This birth defect is extremely rare, and the children usually don't live more than 48 hours. Dr. A reports on the progress of Naseem Hasni, born on Halloween, who's currently undergoing corrective surgery for this condition, and he includes a video clip about a young man named Christopher Wall, born in 1975, who when the clip was filmed held the record for being the longest-lived ectopia cordis patient. (He was twenty-one then. I need to do research to find out if he's still alive.)
The clip's about eight minutes long. Don't watch it if you're extremely squeamish, and if you do watch it, make sure you have tissues handy. "Inspiring" doesn't even start to describe this story.
One of the things the story emphasizes is that because Chris has been shown so much love and compassion in his life, that's what he gives back to the world.
The happy ending was alive and well the whole time I was struggling with my story, and I didn't even know it.