Do you believe in miracles? I do.
I entered the world small and barely breathing during an early September afternoon. And with a companion, too: my twin sister, triumphant and vibrant with life.
So happy my parents were with their bounty: a set of twins! However, Fortune frowned upon them and rendered me deformed. No, not in a way that made people stare shamelessly. No—this dysfunction was steeped in subtlety. It existed inside of me.
I nearly died numerous times before my first birthday. The left ventricle of my heart never formed correctly—a condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome; infants endure procedure after procedure before they can lift their heads, aided by the oracle of technology. Back then, such boons were not available, and the news descended from doctors’ mouths like an atom bomb.
When I flash back to the moment the stalwart Dr. Gregory Armstrong stood wearily before my shaken parents, surgical cap in his hands, my parents’ solidarity jumps out at me. Hands are linked, bodies are close. You would never know that two years later, my father would have resumed the affair that spawned three children with another woman. Thinking of that makes me wistful.
“If she doesn’t have surgery,” Dr. Armstrong informed them, “she will die. Her heart is severely malformed, and it will be a miracle if she lives past a month of age without swift action.”
My mother attempted to swallow her tears but could not. She broke down into heart-aching sobs. The thought of her precious daughter dying…inconceivable. My father nodded resolutely and told Dr. Armstrong to do everything in his power to save me.
* * *
I stand in the gallery of Audbone Heights Medical Center while a long-haired (in a surgical cap, mind you) and focused Gregory Armstrong amends my inauspicious heart with the Norwood procedure, which, at the time was fairly new. My father, versed in the discipline but sobered by the sight of his own child under the knife, observes. My little body appears blue and pitiful under the illumination. I cannot watch for long.
Later on, I hover a moment over myself in recovery. I brush a finger over my newborn fist, wishing I could feel my own skin. As a rule, I never get to touch my past, just to observe.
* * *
The plate flies over my head and shatters against a wall. Luckily I am a mere shade in this scene so the possibility of getting maimed remains low.
It is 1988. My mother carries my little sister Gretchen on her hip to her seat while the rest of us cower at the dinner table, listening to my parents argue. I didn’t know then what the pictures in my head meant, only that they scared me. My mind foretold my hospitalization, but how could I verbalize this? Outside of the family, others believed I was odd, despite Jessica and Claudia-Michelle’s fervent defense.
“I know you’ve been with her, Robert!” my mother exclaimed, banging a pot of pasta. “I can smell her on your breath.”
“How dare you accuse me of being unfaithful without any proof, Irene?” my father demanded. “It’s not my fault if you’re feeling insecure.”
At the sound of metal hitting metal, six-year-old Gretchen jumped. Danie frowned into her spaghetti. Jessica tried to calm her, bolstering the rest of us. Eric sat red-faced, inwardly cursing his parents for not being nice to one another.
But Claudia-Michelle. She’s staring at me.
With the dubious pleasure of hindsight, I now understand not only the development of myself but also that of my sisters and brother. Jessica formed into the tough tomboy because she had a great deal to protect and Eric felt, being the only boy, he had to be as tough as she was; Claudia-Michelle, gentle and sophisticated (and fierce when circumstance allowed), learned to appreciate the brief beauty of things in life and the care and respect they required. Danie refused to be lumped with her sickly twin and flourished with her vitality. Gretchen struggled with the awkwardness the inattention brought. My life impacted all of theirs; many a night there were with them bouncing around in a waiting room for me.
My seven-year-old face hurts to take in; inside of me, my heart fought to pump as infection started to overtake it. My glassy eyes fluttered with the effort to stay conscious.
Claudia-Michelle rose to her feet. “Mama!” she yelled, voice hoarse with fear and urgency.
The scene blurs; Mama rushed into the room just as my seven-year-old self collapsed into Claudia-Michelle’s arms. I can barely see past the tears before I close my eyes and move on.
* * *
Later on, Dr. Armstrong faced my parents (less than united) about my newest problem. I had an infection of my heart, and the shunt was becoming ineffective. There existed two options: transplant or death.
My father threw his hands up in frustration. I press my lips together, trying not to be angry when he suggested that the transplant is too much of a long shot. He worked in the profession, watching as hope failed for transplant patients and they died without a new organ. His assertion is steeped in reason, in logic.
“No,” Mama disagreed, eyes damp but voice firm. “We will manage. Get m’ija a new heart, Greg. She hasn’t come this far to fail now.”
Dr. Armstrong, that bullish giant with the gentle hands, nodded. He wasn’t merely interested in the positive stats and the good press; he genuinely wanted me to pull through. I believe if my parents had disagreed with the transplant option he would’ve placed me on the list himself.
“I am glad we both agree,” Dr. Armstrong said quietly. However, there resonated a bit of reproach for my father. A little amusing from this end.
* * *
Oh yes. I can’t leave out the heart. It has a story of its own.
The donor had been a vibrant ten-year-old girl who had died in a tragic car accident while visiting family in New York. Her name was Ella, and she lived in a suburb in Pittsburgh with her two sisters, mother and father. She played softball and loved Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Her health was exquisite, and her blood type matched mine. And the heart? The atria and ventricles were perfect, like they had been carved by gods while the embryo flourished inside of her mother.
I’ve visited Ella several times. She was lovely, a precocious redhead that reminds me of Jessica. She had freckles that she hated and blue eyes inherited from her mother. I am not so egotistical that I believe I deserved her heart. Every time, whether she’s sighing over Zack Morris’s smile on the TV screen, catching her breath after clearing home plate, or fighting for her life in an ambulance going at light speed, I thank her for the gift. She will not be disappointed.