I heard it from my mom who heard it from my sister. An EKG showed my father had a mild heart attack at the back of his heart, so sneaky all he experienced was a moment of shortness of breath and pressure in his chest. While listening to the voicemail I felt a pressing behind my own breast. It was the middle of the workday. I shouldn’t have stopped to check my phone, but the momentary peace in the office tricked me. I played the message again. “He wants to know how to break it to you,” my mom said, “so I just wanted to warn you.” The compression passed. My heart thumped hard once, twice, triggered a ripple, scenes from our past resurface.
On my birthday after the divorce he sat at my mom’s kitchen table without shucking his jacket or work boots, and gave me a VHS tape of Jurassic Park. Sometime before that he had stretched out across our driveway so my mom had to cut through the yard to leave with my brother and me. There was the night when a neighbor picked us up from a babysitter, and just as we drove past our patchwork house an ambulance pulled away. It took ten years for me to learn that he had swallowed down a bunch of pills with a twelve pack of Miller Light and told my mom not to call 911. During the first weekend of joint custody, I walked into his kitchen to get a drink and he pulled me into a constricting hug. He said he was sorry. More recently there’s his avoidance of his biracial grandchildren, his insistence that my sister isn’t actually his kid anyway. One time a family friend called him heartless.
I drag my thumb across the rubbery scar above my own heart, my knuckle knocking against the bumps on my port. Two months ago I had a port-o-gram done—a moving X-ray where the technician injects contrast dye to check for clotting. It zapped through the fat and tissue, filmed my insides as they worked. The video looped, my heart repeating the same five seconds of pu-pump, pu-pump. The tubing for most ports stops short of the rear atrium, but mine breezed past the valve, whipping and dancing to the tempo of my heartbeat. When I had asked the technician if it would cause any damage he dismissed my concern with a waved, gloved hand. He said, “It should be fine.” I leave my port alone, delete the message, and try to turn back to work, but I keep fabricating the future talk my father and I were bound to have, wondering if the tube in that chamber of my heart would whirl about faster and faster.
The conversations between my father and I are anchored to a neutral zone. Politics, the past, and exposed emotions are strictly off limits. When he calls four hours after my mother’s message, we fumble through a series of questions and explanations, keeping our distance. Until the end when he says, “Now look, I want you to promise me that you won’t sit around and think about this, okay?” I echo his okay, but now I’m processing our history with cardiac arrest.
My uncle needed to wear a heart monitor for a month. My brother was diagnosed with a leaky aortic valve, so a little blood slips through whenever the valve snaps shut. And now a blockage in my father’s heart caused a myocardial infraction, the death of heart muscle tissue.
If I go knocking on our family tree how many damaged hearts are going to fall down?
Adina Ramsey is a native of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, who moved to Lexington on the cusp of a cicada summer. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English and Theatre at Berea College, and, like most twenty-something-year-olds, she is maintaining a day job while working on her writing.