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Summer Stories: ‘Pig Heart: A Love Story’

July 3, 2022 Updated Sun., July 3, 2022 at 1:11 p.m.

She was there when I awoke, smelling of Downy, fiddling with the heart-lung machine, cloaked in baggy blue scrubs, masked and wearing a surgical cap with a pattern of watermelon slices on a field of light blue.

When she saw my eyes were open, she bloomed.

“Good morning, sunshine!” she said.

Slivers of green and tan illuminated her warm brown eyes. I was back. I was back. I could have looked into those eyes forever.

 

 

I felt the same as before but for one thing: My anger – my longtime companion, my personal weather – had vanished. The first sign came when my nurse spilled some saline solution on me, plonking a dark, wet stain right over the spot where the muscles of my new heart were clenching and releasing with such thrilling steadiness. The fluid seeped into my bandages. A trickle curved ticklishly along a rib.

I took calm note of the widening stain. Where was the little flame of fury? Where the petty, pointless rage? I wasn’t even irritated.

The doctors were thrilled that the transplant had taken. They came in pairs, in threes, and looked at the monitors and listened to the new heart, and all but high-fived. I was doing great, they said. Doing great, every time.

I was, they would remind me, No. 2,431. Just one more medical miracle.

 

 

All I could see of her, really, were her eyes. I would watch them as they moved about – panning, focusing, tracking a line on my chart, following intently as she cleaned the beet-red incision on my livid chest. In the skin around her eyes, I could see fine, papery wrinkles and a few pale freckles. Neat brown eyebrows and delicate curls of lash. When she turned away, I spotted wispy hairs at her elegant nape, graceful curlicues escaping from her cap. She moved as if she were covered in padding or wearing a sub-zero suit. She called me sunshine every single day.

 

 

Time compressed and distorted. Sleep felt long and deep, as if I was submerging for days. Awakening, I was already exhausted. I wanted to talk to her, but I didn’t yet have the strength to talk, even after they took out the tubes.

What my surgeon had emphasized beforehand was that it was not a pig heart, per se, not like back in the 2020s, when the organ came directly from an animal, but a lab-grown descendant of a pig’s heart. The descendant heart of a sow named Buster, in fact, whose genes had been modified to allow its parts to join the human family.

“Same as a human heart in almost every way,” the surgeon said. “About 97% of the mass of a human heart.”

I lay there day after day, not impatient, not annoyed, not itching to argue, wondering about my missing 3%.

 

 

Sometime after I began awakening regularly – three or 10 or 37 days after I first opened my eyes – my voice returned. I asked my nurse her name.

“My name is Mona, sunshine.”

She was swabbing my incision. She didn’t ask my name and in the moment I didn’t consider that she already knew it.

I waited a minute, and then said, “My name is … Slim Shady.”

The skin around her eyes crinkled.

“Hey, Slim,” she said, a tinkle of laughter in the words.

After another minute, I asked, “Are you married?”

“I am.”

“Happy marriage?”

Her eyes turned grimly to mine.

“The rules apply either way,” she said.

 

 

Uncle Arleth, my business partner, visited. He was my third visitor, following my daughter, who stayed for 22 minutes and looked at her phone five times, and my brother, who brought papers from my ex-wife for me to sign and stayed for 17 minutes. Everyone had to be cloaked and covered up to keep my environment sterile. I took detached note of these visits, these insults against my person, but did not brood or stew.

I am a disliked person, I thought calmly.

“We gotta make a call,” Arleth said. “Due date is Tuesday.”

He pronounced it “Tuesdee.” Under the bleachy smell, I could detect notes of skunky manure, so I knew he’d come straight from the mink farm. We owed money we could not pay, and he wanted us to declare bankruptcy and salvage our financial futures in this fur-free age. I wanted to stick with it and refinance one more time. This had seemed important to me – urgently, furiously important – though I was having a hard time remembering why.

“Let’s give it one more crack,” I said.

“Sure, dummy. Why not ruin ourselves even more?”

“I’ll refinance.”

“You couldn’t buy a car without a co-signer.”

This was nearly true. My credit had dipped below average after years of gradual decline in the mink game. Last time we refinanced, Arleth had attached a unit of apartment buildings he owned as collateral.

“Let’s figure it out,” I said. “We’re partners.”

“Partners,” he scoffed. “You remember what you said to me before you came in here?”

“I do.”

I was so calm, is the thing.

“You said you wanted to gut me like a deer and string my guts through the mink cages.”

I had said this, though I could not now fathom why.

He said, “You told me it’d be good for their pelts.”

 

 

When I was on my previous heart, my ex-wife and I went snorkeling off a beach in Mexico, looking for sea turtles. My ex had said it would be cool, and I had said, “What would be cool about it?”

Then came the quiet that registered the joy I was subtracting from her life.

We paid a guy far too much to guide us, and I complained to my future ex until the moment I put the snorkel in my mouth, then continued complaining in my mind. We chased this guy around, paddling through the heaving water and sucking water into our snorkels, until he waved and pointed: Right here! Right here!

We put our faces down. I could hear my breath passing through the snorkel tube like a desert wind. The water was about as clear as a margarita. On the ocean below lay a large round brown shape like a manhole cover. Then the manhole cover began to rise, and I could hear the guide shouting – either Move! Or Don’t Move! – and there it was, a turtle, big as me, coming directly toward me. I began to flail, and the turtle rushed past in a storm of bubbles.

Back on the beach, I was ecstatic.

“About had a heart attack!” I shouted and laughed. My not-yet-ex nodded without looking at me. It was too late for shared enthusiasm.

The following year, we were divorced, and I had my first real heart attack.

 

 

One day, Mona didn’t call me sunshine. Her eyes looked overcast and weary. She kept stopping to rub her temples.

“You OK?” I asked.

“Just a headache.”

“I used to get such bad headaches. I would take two extra strength Tylenol and four ibuprofen, and all it would do was sort of … alter the headache.”

“I don’t take any of that.”

“Why not?”

Her eyes cut to me, and she paused, as if she was deciding something.

“I’m Christian Scientist,” she said. “A bit lapsed.”

“You’re what?”

“Never mind.”

“How is that even possible?”

“Never mind, I said.”

 

 

They came and told me I had five more days on the heart-lung box. I was doing great. All metrics positive. Ready to go into a special-care unit for a while, where I would continue the long journey back to regular life by sitting up and beginning to walk, and then, depending on how it was going, into a residential-care home for a while.

Then home.

 

 

Tuesdee came and went, without a word from Arleth. So, bankruptcy it was. How would I make my way in this new broke world? How would I earn and eat? It all seemed so far away. So theoretical. I remembered the look on Arleth’s face when he told me what I’d said to him about stringing his guts through the mink cages: a loathing that I had earned but which now felt like a unjust judgment upon my nature.

I thought of other people whose loathing I had earned. I made a list: a nephew whom I had once forced to wring the necks of minks all afternoon; my brother, from whom I had received many unpaid loans; my ex, whose joy I stole; my daughter, for all the absences; the widow I cheated when we bought the mink farm.

A very partial list, I am sorry to say.

I thought that maybe when I returned to life with my new heart, I would seek them out and apologize. One by one. Make amends.

I asked Mona what she thought of that.

She paused, cocked her head and looked up thoughtfully.

“Let me think about it,” she said.

She moved about the room, checking and cleaning and entering information into a screen.

“I’m sorry if I made you mad about the Christian Science thing,” I said.

She shrugged.

“It’s interesting, is all. You’ve got to admit,” I said.

“Everybody says so.”

She took my pulse. I could feel the soft, gentle pads of her fingertips through the thin latex of her gloves.

My oh my.

“I’m just not really sure about it all, is the truth,” she said. “I believe, but I doubt, and doing this job lets me live inside that uncertainty. If that makes sense.”

“Holy moly,” I said, in sincere wonder and adoration.

She said, “Everything I do in this work gives me the chance to think about what I believe and how that matters in a very specific way, and sometimes it makes me think I am wrong and sometimes it makes me think I am right, and it’s always changing.”

“That sounds awful,” I said.

Pink spots bloomed around her eyes. She dabbed a cool, damp sponge on my forehead and cheeks.

“I love it,” she said.

 

 

Two days before I left the unit, a different figure in scrubs and footies attended me. I lay there in silent agony as he checked my vitals, fiddled with the dials, entered the information. One day before, the same figure returned. A hard, continual pang throbbed inside – like the sensation of ice water on a chipped tooth throughout my being. My surgeon paid me a visit, two other surgeons in tow, and asked me a bunch of questions.

At the end, I asked, “Is it possible this all changed my personality?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like my feelings or emotions or something?”

He seemed puzzled. I tried to explain my missing anger, my newfound human warmth. He didn’t get it.

“You’re very well-medicated, you know,” he said.

I could tell he was smiling.

Strange. I used to hate it – just despise it violently – whenever anybody told me I was wrong. Now I thought: You don’t understand, Doc, but it’s not your fault.

 

 

She returned on my last day. My new heart waltzed about. I took note of her every movement. I reveled in the graceful movements of her eyes, the tiny touch of her gloved fingertip and thumb.

“I thought about your question,” she said. “About the apologies. Why do you want to do it?”

“Don’t you think I should?”

“Are you doing it because you think you should?”

It felt like a trick question. Wasn’t it the kind of thing a good person would do?

“I guess so?” I said.

She nodded.

“To make yourself feel better?” she asked.

“Absolutely.”

The way her eyes shifted, I could tell she had frowned.

“I don’t think you should,” she said.

A team of blue-scrubbed others came in and began to disconnect me.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Don’t do it for yourself.”

Out came the IVs, off came the monitors.

She said, “Don’t hurt people all over again just to make yourself feel better.”

In this way, too, I felt seen, understood, cared-for.

Released from the machine, my new heart kept going. Once I was clear, and they began to wheel me out, I looked up at Mona. I wanted to say something but everything I thought of sounded absurd. I watched her as I slid away, turning and turning my head until I was looking almost directly backward, Mona upside-down in my watery vision.

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

 

 

You might call it stupid. It seems stupid to me now, honestly. You might call it “transference” – a patient, feeble and deluded, heaping newly vivid emotions onto a caregiver. You might call it intoxication, as the doctors did.

Fine. But: The only real part of the experience was what I saw and what I felt while I lay in that bed in that room as Mona named me sunshine. It was more real than the heart-lung box. More real than an EKG or an MRI.

It was stupid, yes, and it was transference, sure, and I was high as a kite, of course, but it was all there was and nobody can tell me that it wasn’t also love.

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