Open Heart Surgery

Yesterday was a dreary day, the skip work and curl up on the couch with a tattered copy of War and Peace and a steaming mug of tea kind of day.  There is no skipping work for funsies when one is a resident, but on rare occasions one is dealt a lucky get-out-of-work-early-card.  Yesterday it was dealt to moi.  I signed out my circa 1980 little black noisemaker – aka my pager – and took myself to the movies to see Her, Spike Jonze’s latest handiwork, fresh from its Golden Globe “best screenplay” accolade.

Who wouldn’t want to go on a hot date with a mustachioed Joaquin Phoenix?

Not many people, apparently, according to the movie plot.

Her is a love story.  A romantic, post-modern, complicated yet disarmingly familiar story.  It is visually stunning and emotionally disturbing, striking that perfect balance of sci-fi and realism.  Against a backdrop of Apple-inspired can’t-go-without technology, it dissects the most mysterious of emotional states, Love.  The patient is a 30-something man, Theodore, recently separated but not quite divorced.  If the heart is where Love resides, then Theodore’s journey to find Love again is as turbulent as blood whooshing in and out of the body’s most vital organ.  The heart is vast and tricky to navigate.  The left ventricle, a large muscular chamber that pumps oxygen-rich blood to the body, is Happiness.  The right ventricle, Self-Doubt.  The heart valves, who could disrupt circulation at anytime if failing to open or close in a timely fashion, are Fear, the paralyzing kind that threatens to disrupt Happiness without notice.  The right atrium, where deoxygenated blood from all corners of the body collects, is a whirlpool of secondary emotions, namely Lust, Anticipation, Loneliness, and Anger.  In the left atrium, recipient of freshly oxygenated blood from the lungs, resides Hope.  The coronary arteries, those narrow yet essential vessels that feed oxygenated blood back to the heart and keep it alive, are your best friends, the ones that save your life in small yet essential ways over and over.  In this procedure, there is no careful draping of the patient, although the chosen color palette of rich yellows to deep maroons in the movie conveys an overall aseptic not unlike a surgery suite.  There is no pre-surgical counseling or discussion of potential post-op complications in this case.  There is just the surgery.  And the discombobulation that ensues after waking up from anesthesia.  And the ache that emanates from the ragged raw scars.

 I left the movie more than a little worse for the wear, as if my own heart, safely on bypass for the past two hours while watching another’s heart being shredded to bits, was now being asked to fill and squeeze again.  I felt an urge to do something incredibly concrete, to busy myself in order to numb the feelings that were bubbling up at a dizzying speed.  I stood at the kitchen sink and peeled potatoes.  It doesn’t get more basic than that.  Out of 3 Russets, butter, milk, and garlic, I made creamy mash potatoes.  But while the stomach can be easily soothed  – just watch a newborn child being fed – there is not enough butter in the world to melt the heart.  So I sat with my feelings, and that nagging backache that had developed on the drive back from the movie theater.  Somatization is a bitch.

I suspect that anyone who sees this movie will interpret it based on the current state of the chambers of their heart.  I was most pained by the back story of Theodore’s separation and divorce, because it was so familiar.  I too watched my left ventricle (Happiness) shrivel while my right ventricle (Self Doubt) swelled.  Shame, Guilt, Worthlessness, and Despair coursed through my veins, a bacteremia so insidious and poisonous no medication could tame it.  Those days are thankfully in the past but will never be forgotten, because out of that profound sorrow came the absolute conviction that feeling with a capital “F” is what matters.  Feeling the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Allowing yourself to feel it all.  Because once you stop wasting precious energy trying to suppress your feelings – which by the way, you can’t! – you can finally be.  You can observe your feelings, acknowledge them, and learn to walk alongside them rather than be crippled by them.

So grab a pair of Wellies, a small notebook, and keep your finger on the pulse – your own, that is.  Set out to explore your heart.  Do not let Theodore’s questionable high-waisted tweed pants distract you.  Do bring an open-mind.  Do cry if tears come to you.  Do smile at the awkwardly familiar situations.  Be the patient.

Allow yourself to tend to yourself

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