While the Cherry Blossom Falls By Jeanette Everson
If you held my heart in your hands you would be able to tell me where it was broken. You would tell me how it happened, and whether you could fix it. I know that you would try, and that if you couldn’t fix it for me, you would tell me gently, calmly, but that I would see sadness in your eyes and new lines on your face.
I can you tell you that you can hold a six-year-old child’s heart in your hands and pump it back to life in another child’s body. I can tell you that if that were not enough, you can perform this magic while news announcers pump updates to your assistants about the earthquake rumbling across the nearby towns. I can tell you that while the buildings around you begin to quiver, and the blossom is shaken from the trees outside your windows, you will remain steady until your work is done.
I can tell you that if my aorta is too weak to clamp while you replace my mitral valve with a synthetic valve, crafted with a precision that makes it easier to replace than repair, and you cannot cut off my blood flow while you operate then you will be able to lower my body temperature to a steady eighteen degrees for up to forty minutes and my blood flow will slow sufficiently for you to hold my heart in your hands and mend it. I can tell you this.
I can tell you these things, because in between shifts, you tell them to me. Yet, you still laugh as you tell me you can do these things, and the stress of your days shows only as tiredness in your eyes as they crinkle while you talk. You are amused when I suggest that when you are older, and your hands begin to shake, you will be able disguise their aging infirmity by attributing your tremors to performing in a quivering operating theatre as the next earthquake crumples your neighbourhood. You laugh as I describe my mental image of your assistants rushing to hold down your patient as the table tremors, wobbling her open chest like a plate of jelly. You smile indulgently as you agree that piping the aroma of coffee into the theatre air may be a useful substitute for the hot liquid you are not allowed to drink in your non-stop marathon of operating time. You tell me, no, whilst there are peaks and troughs in every surgery, there does not come a point where you can take a five-minute break to sit back and flip through the papers or nip outside for an illicit cigarette. When I say that perhaps the piped caffeine is a bad idea after all, in case it wakes your sleeping patient, you disagree: I can tell you that you have confidence that the anaesthetic will not fail, the coffee aroma would never penetrate sedation, and there will be only a very small risk that - with or without coffee - you or your team will fall asleep on the job.
My curiosity to hear more about your days feels like an imposition, a further demand on your emotional stamina, but, like a voyeur at a car crash, I cannot stop myself. I am enthralled, intrigued, and awestruck. By now, I admire you in clichés: When I talk to you, my heart is in my mouth; my heart stands still; you hold my heart in my hands. I try to rein myself in. Some days, I suggest that we could talk about the weather, the news, your homelife, trivial things. I don’t want you to pack your work into your pockets and bring it home with you just to tell me. Or, when you call me in snatched time between operations, I want you to relax, turn the work off for a moment. I don’t want it to ooze out of your arteries, your veins, become your blood.
You don’t mind, you tell me. When you explain it to me, it is not a stress. In fact, you say, it feels like a release, much as taking a clamp from an aorta releases the blood and the heart resumes its natural rhythm. The coolness you maintain as you work is warmed to body temperature as you talk to me, and you can release your own held breaths; talking to me, you tell me, relaxes you. You teach me the tricks of your trade, and I am relentless with my questions, my need for childlike simplicity in your explanations to be sure I understand. You are generous with your time and encourage my interrogations. I find a news article, related to your work, and together we dissect it - a heart, an article, an argument.
The article investigates the need to instigate DNRs – Do Not Resuscitate orders – and the difficulty in the time needed to explain their purpose, versus the time available to explain. How do you keep someone alive long enough to tell their grieving, hoping, despairing spouse, children, parents, siblingsloversfriends… that there is only time for them die? How do you make them understand that they will die anyway? That the only choice left is to die in calm dignity with silence and love - or in chest-thumping, rib-breaking, invasive trauma with bells and whistles and lights and screaming? We agree, you and I, that sometimes – often - it must be better to let them go quietly. I can tell you that you have faced wrath and rage and bewildered vacant confusion from the bereaved. I can tell you that when they say you have done everything wrong, I am certain you have done everything right.
I try again to talk about other things. What do you do to relax, for free time? I ask, but then we laugh. You haven’t time to relax and I must explain to you what ‘free time’ means. It is a concept you cannot grasp, and I become ashamed as I give you examples about how I fill mine. Yet, you make time for me, and now I fill my free time thinking about the things you told me. The dead child whose heart you had to take has lingered with me. Perhaps, here, I can help you. Perhaps when necessity of focus means you must not dwell on those that are lost so you can concentrate on saving the ones you can, I can hold your heart for you and cry for the ones who died. This child has haunted me for the days since you told me – you only mentioned her in passing; telling me you’d facilitated the donation of her organs. You didn’t linger; you couldn’t think of her. You transplanted her lungs too, but you glossed over those – to you, this is an everyday occurrence, so you are surprised by my surprise. How do you still smile when you talk to me?
I can tell you these things, but I do not know you. I can tell you these things only because you have told them to me, in your almost-perfect English that only falters when you are very tired. Your Japanese accent becomes more pronounced when you have had a more exhausting day – back-to-back surgeries, open hearts, a difficult operation, then two small children - one dead, one living (you did that, I remind you, you are why she is living, remember that, I urge you) and an earthquake. I do not know you at all. We meet, online, once or twice a week. Today, you wear your own heart in the 3-day old beard that I haven’t seen before, as you snatch a moment during your 36-hour shift to talk to me. You tell me that adrenalin keeps you focused while you perform; you only feel tired in between. On days like this, your exhaustion spills over into fumbled words, forgotten sentences, and a slower response to my endless questions. You have to slow down while we talk, to think more carefully; you falter more often when you are tired. I know now that the gaps in our schedule are the weeks you work the longest shifts, the hours that do not mesh with my own, the shifts that even you are exhausted by. It is in these gaps that I miss you most, worried by what you may be working at today, whether another earthquake is shaking your theatre, or another child has died in your hands. I wish I could reach through our screens and hold onto your hands, just for a while. I hope you have someone who can take your hands in theirs and hold them, treasure them, remind you of how special they are, support their weight while you rest them.
I could tell you now that while it is late into your nights when we meet, and you are straining against fatigue, hunger, sleep, for me, it is only early afternoon, sunlight still streams through my windows, the ground is steady under my seat. I could tell you that I, unlike you, have coffee beside me while I work, can take breaks, go to the bathroom, stretch my legs, stare unseeing into nothing until I am recharged enough to continue. I could tell you those things, but I don’t. Here, at my desk, my comfortable chair, talking to people like you, I learn the most, yet I am the teacher and you are the student. I take your money and I take your knowledge. You need to improve your English so that you can lecture across the world, answer quick fire questions far tougher yet than those I ask you. You need to come home from your 16, 24, 36-hour shifts where you hold lives in your hands and work miracles and then call me, your English tutor, for English conversation, where I - I – am always the one who learns the most. And then, each time, you thank me. You. Thank. Me. For what it’s worth, your English is great.