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A Broken Heart

It wasn’t a heart attack after all.
And how could it be, I wondered, even
as the pain grew in my chest like a succubus.
I gasped for breath that I couldn’t
find. The air left the room and left me
sprawled on the living room chair where I
normally read the paper, and struggling
to breathe.

Thirty years of hard tennis and nearly
vicious racquetball had rendered my
knees bony stumps of gristle and shard,
but left my heart perking along like a
muscular metronome. I had the belated
knee replacement scheduled for the
following summer. Now I wondered if I
would be alive when I arrived at the ER.

Strangely, that thought of dying
didn’t particularly perturb me. The awful
pain did. That succubus had teeth
that sank deep into my chest–heart,
lungs, and whatever else resides there.

My brain felt numb, as if velvet folds
of chloroformed cloth lay there. I was
told later my eyes rolled up into my head.
I couldn’t believe it because a fascinating
show of bright flashing orbs danced
there, brighter than a thousand stars.
They had to come from somewhere. They
had faded. If only I could breathe.

I have always been claustrophobic
and came close to drowning once when I
was a boy. Then I had a similar feeling,
and a resigned reaction–well, this is it.
But I’ll fight back a little more.

And then I don’t have to, of course.
The ambulance arrives; the efficient EMTs
enact their ministrations. I succumb. I
don’t have to fight, only endure. The
thought crosses my mind: when does endurance
become dying?

Anything to stop the pain that has
now settled over my torso like a chain coat,
inside the flesh, in the land of hurt. The
hospital is not far away, and too far. The
EMT has slipped six nitroglycerin tablets
under my tongue by the time we arrive.

Heart patients get the express lane.
The gurney wheels through corridors to
our own little, sterile monastery where
we huddle like flagellated monks. Nurses
hoist my ungainly bulk from the gurney
to a bed. By now I am hypomanic with
the pain meds and nitroglycerin. I crack
jokes and make puns with the attending
physician as she fastens wires and bends
across my torso.

“Tune in a different channel, Doc. I
don’t like the heavy rock on that one.”

“Ah, yes. Golden oldies for the old boy.
That’s more like it.”

The bewildered cardiologist turns to
my wife. “Is he himself?” she asks.

Sadly, I think, my wife answers,

I burst out in hysterical laughter. “Myself,”
I say. “Been looking for that rascal
all my life.”

Finally the pills do what they’re supposed
to–a drunken, deathlike sleep. I
am aware of flashing light now and then,
machinery clicking.

The next morning I am wheel-chaired
to tests. I am helped out of the wheelchair
to clamber onto a treadmill.
He shakes his head slowly. The voice is
soft, so very soft the words float, “I don’t
want to break Papa’s heart,” he said. Oh,
my child. So this is your torment. Did you
really think that all our wild love-frolic
broke Papa’s heart?

I collapse in
mere seconds. “Well, that was fun,” I tell
the doctor, a new one, of course. Probably
specialized in the treadmill to nowhere,
the existential highway. Myself isn’t. They trundle me onto a bed and inject dobutamine.
Artificial exercise. Within seconds
my heartbeat is pounding a kettle drum in
my ears, my scalp lifts slightly.

No abnormalities, really. Except it’s
hard to draw a breath. Drowned people
have that problem too. So let’s try more

A heart cath is run from my crotch
into my heart. A little man in there with a
miniature camera must take the pictures.
Everything’s fine in all the rooms of that
heart. Living proof.

So my heart is good. I have the certified
stamp of approval. I have already
signed away my organs for donation upon
my death. Here is a good one to harvest–a Cadillac of hearts, lots of miles left. Just
give it to someone else who needs it more
than I will reposing in the moldy grave; I’ll
probably get a new one in heaven, I might
not need one at all.

But now I’ve been on the costly heart
unit for two days and these doctors, these
circling non-entities aren’t satisfied.
Clearly something is amiss. Here rational
deduction intrudes. What else lies in
that old thoracic cavity? A set of lungs, of

That evening my daughter brought
my five-year-old grandson, Logan, to see
me. Logan and I share one of those special
relationships that only grandpas–or
“Papa” in his vocabulary–are privileged
to have. It’s called “rough-housing” and
“tickle-treatment.” Every Monday since
he was an infant, grandma and grandpa
have had this young dynamo, this flurry
of arms and legs, this smooth dark skin,
these perfect brown eyes, in our possession.
Our time ends after a restaurant
dinner or when he falls asleep.

And why shouldn’t he sleep. The
rough-housing is wild, pure abandonment
to frolic. He lies in wait for me when I get
home from work, sneaks up on me when
I’m changing clothes (I know where you
are every second, Logan), emerges with
a shriek. We tumble and roll across the
once neat bed. We storm down to the living
room, play bucking-bronco or hide and
seek until we both collapse on the floor,
utterly spent but still giggling
like a pair of cubs,
hardly human in our

Tonight he stands
uncertainly by my daughter,
holding her hand, half
hiding behind her.

Yes, I think. A hospital
is a confounding
place, isn’t it, dear grandson?
These beds were not
made for frolic.

A tear slips his eye, a silvery track
down the brown cheek.

My daughter asks, “Don’t you want to
give Papa a hug?”

He shakes his head slowly. The voice
is soft, so very soft the words float, “I don’t
want to break Papa’s heart,” he said.

Oh, my child. So this is your torment.
Did you really think that all our wild lovefrolic
broke Papa’s heart? So you took it
upon your own thin shoulders.

Forgive me, dear child. Forgive my

I called him to the bedside, ran my
hand across his tight curls, wiped away the
tear with my index finger, held his hand.
He raised those wise brown eyes. “Logan,
Papa’s heart is just fine. You’ll be able to
rough-house with Papa all you want.”

He didn’t fully believe me, of course.
Fear is never easily erased. But at least I
spoke honestly. Tomorrow they would do
the excavation of my lungs.

The sedatives again. I wonder if I’m
myself, living in this dopey dream world
of pharmaceuticals. A pulmonologist had
studied the cat-scan or MRI or a Ouija
board and detected some warty growths
residing like a fungal forest in the bottom
of my left lung. These he would excise–I
no longer cared how–and test for malignancy.
Well, I thought, what a rotten way to go. But by then I was on my way to
sleep and only dimly aware of a small tube
threading up my nostril.

Another night on the flat cold bed,
waiting for results. It wasn’t cancer. Benign.
Probably some deposits from some
long ago pneumonia embedded like dirty
tailings in the lung tissue. I was sent
home–along with follow-up appointments
with the pulmonologists.

But what was the problem? Why was
it that when I had to climb 22 stairs from
my first floor classroom to my second floor
office, I had to stop at every landing (three)
to catch my breath? And why, when I
reached the top, dizzy and reeling with
black spots and white lights in my eyes,
did I have to lean against the wall before
getting sufficient balance to make it to my
office? Maybe not just Papa’s heart but his
whole body was broken.

Repeated visits and tests later my lung
capacity was pronounced normal. If this
was normal,
Oddly, during the pain and tests, I thought
of Jesus. Not that this was an infrequent
matter, but this was different. I did not
think of Jesus as the stand-by friend, nor as
a cosmic comforter, although I would have
taken either one at the time. No, with a
physiology and metabolism apparently as
unusual as mine, I thought of Jesus’ heart.

if I had to snail-creep my way
around hallways, take elevators instead of
steps, have a colleague
carry my briefcase when
it was too heavy, then, I
thought, it wasn’t much
to my liking. In fact, it
was pretty nearly pointless.

It just so happened
that about that time I
had my semi-annual
medication check with a
psychiatrist whose wisdom
and grace lent as
much balance to my life
as did the medications.
I related my symptoms
to him, telling also of my frustration with
the fact that, after countless tests, these
white-coated technocrats had found no
identifiable cause. He listened, nodded,
then thought a moment. “I know exactly
what it is,” he said. “And I can tell you how
to get better.”

He turned to the computer and printed
out six pages from the Mayo Clinic website
diagnostic manual. “Here,” he said. “Tell
me if these sound familiar.” I read them
one by one, placing a mental check mark
by each. If there were such a thing as a diagnostic
grid, I fit perfectly. Scored 100%
at my very first test: Metabolic Syndrome.

“Sounds almost too easy,” I observed.

“It isn’t. Most doctors today are
trained to do tests in a specialized area.
Sometimes the hard part is seeing the
whole picture. The hard part for you is
what you’re going to have to do about it.”

I groaned. There’s always a catch.

“First, I want you to lose 30 pounds.”

“I don’t have it to lose.”

“Yes. You do. You’re a large man so
you carry it well. Think about this. Two
of the medications I prescribe contribute
to weight gain.”

Well, I knew that. “Can we change the

He shook his head. “Not wise. They’re
doing very well what they’re supposed to
do.” He turned and scrawled some figures
on paper. “Here’s your daily limits for
carbs, calories, and cholesterol.”

I studied the sheet. “This is less than
my dog gets.”

He nodded. “You’ll have to make
friends with hunger.”

I have enough friends, thank you.

“Make no mistake,” he added. “This is
a deadly syndrome. You also have to start
some low impact exercise–walk as much
as your bones permit, ride a bicycle.”

I wouldn’t say the pounds melted off,
but six months later I had lost thirty-five
of them. True, my “large” body looked
like a shadow of itself. When I flexed my
biceps they looked like a couple of dimes
standing on edge. My legs looked like legs
instead of sausages. Best of all, I could
walk the dog around the block without
feeling like I would collapse. I could do chores around the house–and finish

No, that’s not best of all. Logan still
comes over every Monday. He hides when
his Papa comes home from work. Then he
barrels out of his hiding place and is all
over me, rolling on the floor, playing bucking
bronco, getting a tickle treatment.

And all things are made glad in my

But not quite all, for I have this to consider.
Oddly, during the pain and tests, I
thought of Jesus. Not that this is an infrequent
matter, but this was different. I
did not think of Jesus as the stand-by
friend, nor as a cosmic comforter, although
I would have taken either one at the time.
No, with a physiology and metabolism apparently
as unusual as mine, I thought of
Jesus’ heart.

I am told that Jesus suffocated.

Nailed as he was to the patibulum and
post, nailed through ankles and wrists,
Jesus had to push himself up against the
nails to draw a breath. As his strength
failed, his lungs began to fill with fluids.
Simultaneously, unable to breathe except
by increasingly futile gasps, his pericardium
filled with serous fluids. Some call
it suffocation by drowning.

I am told it was a Latin cross, the
crux immissa, since the superscription
was fixed above his head. The King of
the Jews. Blood flowed copiously from
the thorn induced scalp wounds, the torn
flesh of the flagellum, the ruptured wrists
and ankles. But loss of blood did not kill
him. He was dead by the time the soldiers
came to break his legs and end the ugly

I wonder about that one reckless soldier.
Was he frightened beyond belief? Did
a blood lust seize him? He strode to the
dead figure and rammed his spear into its
side. As he pierced lungs and pericardium,
blood and water flowed from the wound.
The Living Water. My blood shed for you.

Truly, Jesus died of suffocation. I
believe the medical autopsy.

And I believe, with every beat of my
own curious heart, that Jesus died of a
broken heart.

So it is; so it was; so it shall forever

John Timmerman, Professor of English
at Calvin College, is the author
of over twenty books and dozens of
short stories and articles.