TWO OF HEARTS
Two things my father left me: Congenital heart defects, and an object lesson. Dad had spent his too-few years working in retail, dripping frustration, trying and failing to get ahead. Come evening, he’d slam the door, flop wearily into the easy chair, and tell me for the billionth time about the “Arrogant rich snobs who’ve never broken a sweat, never learned the meaning of a dollar, never worked a day in their life.” I’d miserably mouth the words along with Dad, though I miss those days now. He always concluded by telling me my future. “You and I can work as hard as we want, but we will always finish last.” I remember the sad look he gave me when I told him, “Well, that makes us the nice guys, right, Pop?”
Dad was nice, but he didn’t want to be. He didn’t want to be the people he complained about, either. He wanted what they had. He never got it. Never got a break, never got a fair deal. What he did get was bitter. And he got a lot of that. I believe that was what killed him, just as surely as his congestive heart failure. I still carry my resentment over his early demise and the people who caused it in my own weak heart. Time after time I’ve vowed to be more patient and easy-going than he had been. With any luck, I hoped, I wouldn’t exit the scene as early as he had. As Dad had warned me, however, the cards were stacked against me.
At any rate, my failing heart and my aversion to arrogance that my Dad had bequeathed to me intersected on what could have very well been the last day of my life.
Baker Clinic had been expecting me. I’d had years of history with the cardiology department – echocardiograms, electrocardiograms – every kind of gram. My condition failed to improve, despite trying every possible pharmaceutical from A to Z. We ran out of alphabet, and nearly out of time. Dr. Diamond had done her best, patiently paging through the five-pound Physician’s Desk Reference, seeking a cure that didn’t exist. All the appointments and corresponding failures confirmed what both of us had known all along: I needed a heart transplant, and soon. I went on the waiting list, and there I stayed. I made my bucket list, and that was all I had energy for.
One humid evening, when the few last scraps of hope were preparing to ship out for good, the phone call finally came. The good news, there was a heart for me, the bad news, an unfortunate young donor was the victim of a fatal shooting. It was impossible to be happy about the situation, but I vowed in my weak old heart to make the most of my second heart and second chance, provided things worked out. I said a prayer of thanks to everyone involved, including the young woman whose heart would replace mine. Then I called up my ex-wife and asked for a ride to the hospital. There’s no story there; she lived nearby, I knew she’d be home, and that she’d be quite eager for the opportunity to help me mind my business.
It was a long ten-minute drive, her dodging traffic, me dodging overly personal questions. Halfway there, a strategy came to me. “No black umbrellas,” I said, interrupting her mid-interrogation. “What?” she said. “My funeral. If I have a funeral, it can’t be on a rainy day. It’s sad, and cliché.” I glanced over, and Melissa’s mouth was open, but nothing was coming out. “And for God’s sake,” I went on, “No bagpipes playing ‘Amazing Grace.’ No bagpipes at all. Okay?” She was completely speechless, a sight I’d rarely seen. When we arrived at the hospital, I couldn’t help but give her one more thing to think about. “Thank you, Mel,” I said as I got out, “My girlfriend works nights.” I moved as quickly as I could into the lobby, dying to turn back and see the look on her face.
Within minutes, the cardiology team quickly briefed me, and gave me privacy while I un-briefed myself. I traded my plainclothes plaids for a gown thin enough to accurately gauge the chill in the facility. Next came a ride through the brightly lit and antiseptic scented hallways, my gurney bumping the occasional corner and interrupting my nervous driver’s chatter with apologies. I looked up at a face twenty years younger than mine, and said weakly, “Hey. Let me do the worrying, okay?” With a final thump and apology, my footboard banged open the doors of the Conrad Cardiology wing and into the pre-operation room. There, my chest was shaved (I apologized that I hadn’t had the time), I was given a terse final exam, and numerous tubes, sensors, and gauges were either inserted into or pasted onto most of my Northern Hemisphere. Once I had a “ship in every port,” the gurney arrived at my final but most hopefully temporary destination, the Operating Room. Incredibly, the air temperature was at least ten degrees lower than the pre-surgery room. I lost all feeling in my eyebrows; they’re sensitive to cold. The heart lung machine was primed and ready to do its thing while I couldn’t do my thing. My intravenous drip was started, when Trent Conrad happened.
Baker Clinic had not been expecting him. No sirens announced his arrival, rather a terrible squeal of animal and brakes, a bang, a bellow, and more than the usual amount of commotion at the Emergency entrance. The engineer of the disaster, the aforementioned Mr. Conrad, had hit a dog in the parking lot with his speeding truck, then hit the chaplain’s car, and finally an ambulance for good measure. He’d thrown his keys of his oversized vehicle at one of the paramedics as if he were the valet. Shouting and pushing aside orderlies, he barreled through the doors of the halls of his cardiology unit. Yes, he was that Conrad. He needed no appointment, no invitation, and certainly no apology.
Trent Conrad was entitlement personified. Superiority and bad breath oozed from his pores and spilled out of his acerbic mouth. He was short and squat, a bald man in denial, the back of his hair grown ridiculously long. He probably used expensive volumizer, and from the sounds of things, he also gargled with it. Half of 49th Street could likely hear him shouting commands as he waddled down the hallways I’d just traveled, acting as if he owned the place. The cardiology unit bore his name based on his large and completely ulterior contribution to the hospital. He was counting on it earning him a huge favor right now. Rather, a fist-sized favor that was waiting in an ice-filled cooler.
Trent Conrad was disgustingly wealthy, correspondingly haughty, and suffered from severe coronary artery disease. Years of cigar-smoking and gorging on fast food from the restaurant chain that he owned had bottlenecked his arteries and put him on the waiting list with me. There was an impossibility, however, as far as he was concerned, a universal injustice: My name was before his on the list. Trent Conrad could not be second, he wasn’t going to have that. Someone had given him unfair advantage, tipping him off about the viable heart becoming available. He presumed, exactly as one would expect Trent Conrad to do, that it was rightfully his.
“Get your ass-sniffing ass out of my way!” was the shout just outside the door a half-second before Conrad burst through it. He was not appropriately gowned, he had it clenched in his fist. He should have been masked as well; we’d would have rather his hateful reddened face be at least partially obscured. And we wouldn’t have had to had seen his mustache, either. It was a monstrosity, waxed at the ends, the kind that harkens back to days when people used the word “harken.” He grabbed my medical chart in his hairy paw, and in a manner of seconds, had violated numerous privacy laws, hospital rules, and sanitary guidelines. Not to mention rules of good taste. The air once pine-scented now smelled like perspiration, thick Cuban smoke, and beer. Conrad was wearing one of those shirts that fat people wear because they don’t have to tuck them in, and it appeared, inexplicably, that he wasn’t wearing pants anyhow. This man knew how to make a scene – make it ugly.
“You need to leave,” Dr. Diamond stated the urgently obvious. “Do. You. Know. Who. I. Am.” Trent Conrad demanded. She did know. “You,” she said, “Are an uncouth, unwelcome, and unbelievably obnoxious toad,” and all I want to see, and at the same time I dread seeing, is your rear end as you leave immediately.” The fuse was lit. It was very short fuse, and the explosion came instantaneously. “Your ass,” he shouted, proving the uncouth he’d been accused of, “Will be fired by end of day.” He had many more words, most of them the four-letter variety. There was a donor heart, and he was to be the recipient, was the gist of his obscenity-garnished tirade. He finished chewing the remarkably calm doctor out, and then turned his ire in my direction. He pointed at me, but apparently, I wasn’t worthy of even a glance. “This… IRS auditor,” he spat (he had indeed read my chart with those angry eyes of his) is no more deserving of this heart than that ass-sniffing mongrel I flattened out in the parking lot!”
“Hey.” I surprised myself, it almost came out like The God of Thunder would have said it. “Was Vernice Prado deserving?” I had his attention, somewhat, droopy and condescending eyes turning toward me “Who is that? The name means nothing to me,” he lied. I answered him anyway. “Vernice Prado,” I told him, still doing my best Thor impression, “Is the young lady who lost her life tonight and donated the heart that you’re so asininely demanding.” I surprised myself, and him, too, I think, especially how I emphasized the “asinine” part. “Like I said,” Conrad continued, “Means nothing to me. I will, however, put that heart to good use.”
“That heart.” He had some nerve. Conrad’s dismissive tone had me imagining removing his present heart, the one clearly diseased and completely out of order. I’m not a violent person, however; if I’d had a scalpel, I’d probably just have excised the terrible travesty of a mustache from his upper lip. While I was enjoying that thought, another cardiologist, Dr. Shill poked his head in, and nodded it knowingly at the loud and large intruder. Conrad immediately turned away from we, the inferior. As he did, I saw the look on his face say, “Thank God, the man in charge is here.” Then the fat mouth on his face said it. Dr. Shill looked like he wanted to disappear, but still, he eagerly took the handshake Trent Conrad offered. It was now obvious who had tipped him off about the available heart. “Please come with me, Mr. Conrad,” the sheepish doctor said, in a servile mumble. There was an entire team of surgical assistants all trying to hide behind him.
“Just one moment,” Mr. Conrad, Dr. Diamond, and I all said at the same time, though in varied tones. My voice was weak, and I was sounding less and less like Thor. It didn’t really matter, because no one could be heard over yet another tantrum by Trent Conrad. He lurched forward aggressively, but Dr. Diamond, my new hero, stood her ground. Cool as the room we occupied, but I had a feeling that if Trent Conrad had made physical contact with her, heart failure would be the least of his medical problems. Spittle showered from his mouth as he used words one shouldn’t use in the presence of ladies, humans, or anything with ears. When he ran out of foul breath, Dr. Diamond repeated her original directive. “You. Need. To. Leave.” She meant it, and he did it. As he spun away, we got the view nobody wanted, his gown flipping up and striking all with temporary blindness. We could hear the bloated bag growl, “Bunch of ass-sniffers.” He seemed to love saying “ass” as much as he loved himself.
Dr. Shill’s team led the oaf away, and the doctor stuck his head back in, saying meekly, “I’m sorry for all that.” Personally, I don’t believe in apologizing for others, unless they are completely unable to communicate, in which case, how do you even know they’re sorry? Before Dr. Diamond could give him the dressing-down he richly deserved, he stammered, “I’d better scrub up,” and slithered out the door in the direction of the man who’d paid him off.
I realized then that I was more confused than entertained at the entire scenario. I had a million questions, but when I caught Dr. Diamond’s eyes, I said nothing. The cat had my tongue, and the cat was probably better off with it. Jaw clenched, she gave me a brusque apology, grabbed the phone off the wall, and issued a series of commands that was even brusquer.
Time was running out, along with any hopes I had come in with. The heart that had been rushed in via ambulance would only for last a few hours, even on ice. Yet here I was, at a horizontal standstill. The worries in my head were multiplying like accountants. I wasn’t going to have the surgery after all. Trent Conrad was getting the heart. Dad was right. I was a loser, just like he had been. I squeezed my eyes shut tightly, hoping the tears would stay in. They didn’t. I tasted salt, and it made me angry. All my years serving my death sentence I hadn’t once cried.
I felt completely alone. I wished I had been. But there was movement behind me, voices saying all sorts of things that I ignored, because I knew they were taking me back out. I felt a chill inside me, and my self-pity began to turn to numbness. “Why are you doing this?” I asked, but my lips felt swollen and heavy, and “Walrus?” was what came out. I tried to open my eyes, but they were just. So. Heavy.
Then, I heard…bagpipes. Oh, no, I thought. I wasn’t so much upset at being dead as I was that my ex had not honored my dying wish. Wasn’t that just like her. Then I realized, it wasn’t bagpipes, but it was every bit as obnoxious. A loud, angry howl. I kept my eyes closed, lest I look upon the source of the terrible bellowing.
Death might have been preferable to the torments I was undergoing. I felt fatigued and disoriented. An angry bull had apparently gored my chest and was now sitting on it. So much must have happened while I was out. How long had it been? Hours? Days? Had I somehow swallowed an entire roll of gauze? And what was that infernal baying?
Reluctantly, I raised the heavy shutters over my eyes. The very first face I saw, was the last one I wanted to see. Not the ex. Worse. Trent Conrad – straight across from me in the noisy and disoriented plane of existence we shared. He was in in a gown like mine except eight sizes larger, and unfortunately, still not wearing pants. Devices like the ones I was arrayed in were attached all over his corpulent body. I saw his lips trying to move, and I swore to myself that if I heard the word “ass” come out one more time, I would throw the nearest object at him. I glanced to my side, as much as I could without moving my eighty-pound head. The only thing within reach was a blue rubber ball. I’d been hoping for a stapler. Or a grenade.
The huddle of half-obscured faces over me looked relieved. There might have even been a couple of smiles beneath those masks. “How do you feel?” one of the nurses asked. “Terrible,” I answered honestly, my dried-up tongue translating it as “Table.” Someone brought me water, but what I really wanted was answer.
“I won antlers!” a similarly dried-out tongue across the room yelped the same sentiment. It was a loud obnoxious tongue in a large obnoxious mouth. Trent Conrad was trying to move, panting from the exertion. His gown fell open to reveal an incision similar to mine running down his pudgy chest. I couldn’t make sense of the situation, but my first thought was, my pecs are better.
Initially it appeared that the large patient across the room from me was envying my chest, but he was actually staring at my incision. We shouldn’t both have one, we were both undoubtedly thinking. His face was amusing, as if it couldn’t decide between a sicker shade of green and a redder shade of angry. He growled unintelligibly, trying to sound threatening, but enfeebled as he was, it was just plain humorous. I would have laughed if I hadn’t felt as if it might kill me.
“Who. Got. The. Heart.” He barked. I could almost hear the staples in his chest popping. Dr. Diamond moved into view, put a finger up, and miraculously, Trent Conrad’s mouth closed. Not all the way, he’s a mouth-breather. I stared at her finger. It was a thing of wonder. Then, she put up a second finger, and I couldn’t help but wonder what special powers it would have. All eyes were on her.
“There were two hearts,” she said. A sputter came from across the room, one part confusion and several hundred parts exasperation, but Dr. Diamond, miracle worker, went back to the one magic silencing finger, and it worked again. Then she turned to me.
“Mr. Reynolds, your donor was young, and her heart was strong. We had a very healthy specimen, a successful transplant, and I might add, a good fit. I hope and strongly believe, that you have many good years ahead of you.”
Across the room, Trent Conrad started to snort, and somehow stifled it, as he realized the shut-your-mouth finger was coming for him. The doctor touched her lips with it and turned to him.
“Mr. Conrad. Your donor was similarly cut down in the prime of her life. Only twenty-eight…” she paused and corrected herself, “…four, and completely undeserving of her tragic fate. By some miracle of modern medicine, and a fair amount of luck, her heart is now beating in your chest. I hope and trust you will spend however much life you have remaining as she would certainly have liked to.”
“By that I mean, barking out the window, scratching yourself, and sniffing asses.”
She said it deadpan; her face inscrutable, I’ll never know if she was joking or not.
What I do know, is the laugh I couldn’t stifle would have impressed even Thor, although I doubt that he would have passed out afterward like I did.