Heart failure in marriage isn’t at all uncommon these days. Almost fifty percent of couples divorce. Plenty more—to twist Thoreau’s words a bit—live quiet marriages of desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. There is a very good chance that at some point, we married couples will fall out of love. Some of us will split; some of us will stay while emotionally checking out; some of us will resign ourselves to a disappointing new normal bereft of the romance, electricity and intensity of feeling we once knew as love. So this is it. We’ll lose heart.
And some of us, diagnosing our failing marital hearts, our broken tickers, will bring them back to life.
“How’s the Ticker?”
My husband’s heard this question many times since receiving his first pacemaker several years ago after an autoimmune disease knocked out his heart’s AV Node and electrical circuitry. Then last year, when it was discovered he had an ejection fraction in the heart failure range—that his heart wasn’t pumping enough blood per beat—doctors replaced this first device with a second biventricular pacemaker.
How’s the Ticker? Fine is the easy one-word answer. But the question begs a follow-up: Really, now, how’s the Ticker?
How do we answer when asked to evaluate and explain our heart health, really, especially with regard to our relationships? Would the answer we give our friends be the same one we provide for our partners, and for ourselves? How truthful are we—and how truthful can we honestly respond—when we share the state of our hearts?
You’ll keep secrets from one another, said the priest who officiated at our wedding over twenty-two years ago. I remember thinking no, we’ll tell each other everything. We’ll be the best of communicators. We’ll be openhearted all the days of our lives.
Back then, however, we hadn’t seen one another’s green eyes filled with tears over heart failure, and not just the kind you could fix with a pacemaker battery and wires.
* * *
I’ll call her Mrs. Belle, because she was from South Carolina and when I was about six or seven years old, she came for a long visit and my parents gave her the attic room my sister and I shared and she ran the water into the claw-footed tub up there in the little bathroom beneath the slanted roof—you could hear the hot and cold faucets turning on and off and the water flowing through the pipes above our heads—and she was beautiful and I pictured her long, dark hair wet and floating around her shoulders as she lathered up, rinsed and repeated.
She resembled doe-eyed Audrey Hepburn, only taller. She was angular and elegant, wrapped her hair into movie-star beehives or let it cascade down her back, and she painted her fingernails scarlet-letter red. She wore maxi-dresses, drank martinis, and she’d left her husband. For a while, anyhow. My mother said Mrs. Belle was staying with us because she and her husband needed some time, separation time. This was the first I’d ever heard of heart failure in a marriage.
My parents entertained her. One night they took her out to a party. The story—repeated for years after with laughter and awe—went that Mrs. Belle whispered as she entered, “Now y’all just watch the women run along and cling to their husbands’ elbows!” And they did. She divided a living room of women more quickly than Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea. Years later I learned Mrs. Belle caught and disappeared with one husband that night, at least ‘til the wee morning hours. He was a looker, and I still remember his blue eyes; he was one of the handsomest men in town. He and his wife divorced a few years later.
But what did I know of the heart-breaking parts, of the moment when Mrs. Belle left Mr. Belle, either because he insisted—Just go then!—or because she announced she was leaving—I’m going now—or the silence between them and the alien loneliness they must have surely felt as the door closed between them and she drove north.
How’s your Ticker, Mrs. Belle?
She captivated me along with everyone else. Shortly before she left us, I Crayola-crayoned her a periwinkle-blue, underwater scene crowded with colorful fish and seaweed. She promised to hang it on her refrigerator back in South Carolina. So Mrs. Belle was going home to her husband. I had no idea what had happened between them or whether they’d save their failing hearts, but knew only that when I grew up, I wanted to be like her.
* * *
What does heart failure in marriage mean? Is it the same as losing desire, or not feeling desired? Partly. The phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey suggests that women’s erotic batteries are so eager for a jumpstart that we love to shock ourselves repeatedly with smoky sex-scene defibrillators. Bring on the paddles, Christian Grey! Our circuitry’s fine with shock quantity over quality: Heroine Anastasia’s constant “Holy craps!” and “Oh mys!” lend a Batman-and-Robin “Pow!” and “Bam!” ejaculatory slapstick to her inner-goddess ruminations, orgasms and spankings.
Tolstoy disparaged this sort of writing as “works by people suffering from erotic mania,” or spiritually-bereft, upper-class art containing and catering to its audience’s ”feelings of pride, sexual lust, and the tedium of living.” Ponderous Tolstoy. He reminds me of the literary grown-up in the room, the voice that tells us we’re above this silly stuff, the above-it-all tone mocking the adulterous Mrs. Belles of the world, “What were you looking for? Passion?” There’s an unspoken tendency to berate passion in our workaholic, recession-grey era, especially when it’s popularized as “Holy Crap!”
Dead circuitry, then, contributes to marital heart failure—but atherosclerosis of our feelings for one another is worse. We harden. We become brittle; we break off pieces from one another’s hearts, constricting each other’s blood flow with dangerous blockages: little cutting remarks, solid indifference, palpable silence, the last word. We create a new universe that, like Prufrock, we dare not disturb; we fail to engage; we rebuff the other’s sensitivities: That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all. Circulation slows; our currents of emotion cool into ice and the ice evaporates into glacial rock—yet we’re volcanic to our cores. We devour Gone Girl because it deliciously exploits and explodes the hidden resentments, plotting and murderous impulses beneath everyday, picture-perfect marriages. We shake our heads over the cheatin’ woman arrested when her husband’s dismembered body floats to shore in a Samsonite and we sympathize— for which one?—well, you decide.
* * *
The return address on the cardiology appointment envelopes read “Yale Center for Advanced Heart Failure and Heart Transplant.” I sat in the waiting room during my husband’s stress test and wondered if the salesman who checked in was carrying Jarvik Heart samples in his Samsonite. A supportive friend, also a doctor, offered some encouragement over coffee during those weeks my husband’s heart was analyzed and catheterized. “If there’s any organ that can go wrong—any organ where you’ll be okay—it’s the heart!” she assured me. “Doctors know so much about the heart these days. They can fix it—and if they can’t fix it, they can give you a new one!”
* * *
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road (T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”)
And so it goes: sometimes the streams and currents that attract us dry out. Our hearts lose their electrical conductivity with one another and harden into stone so gradually, so imperceptibly, that we barely notice until we realize, for whatever reason, that our love is fossilized within the calcified rocks we’ve become. We’re walls divided by walls. Some of us do nothing; nothing changes. Some of us leave. Some of us, however, manage to divine the wellsprings still within our partners and ourselves. We widen the paths back to one another’s hearts through emotional angioplasty; we fracture them open even when it hurts because we’re sure there’s water in the rock. We say things like I don’t know if I like you anymore. I don’t know if you like me. I don’t know what to feel about you, or if I feel anything. I’ve been thinking about life without you. I hurt, here (fist against heart). You want to go? Then go.
But we don’t go. We spend the night seeing one another through tear-filled green eyes and talking the sadness out of our cells. In the early morning we return to bed, wrap our arms around one another, and we stay.
* * *
It feels like this, the bottoming-out, the moment of reckoning when you’re about to lose each other, the second chance when something gives, when you break and your heart releases its humors—the black and yellow bile, phlegm and blood bottled up inside—and the water runs out of the rock you are:
Shortly after being diagnosed with heart failure last fall, my husband was working in Washington, D.C. and experienced some alarming symptoms that led us to believe his heart condition had worsened. He took his chances, flew back to Connecticut and checked into the St. Francis Emergency Room up in Hartford, closer to home.
All day and evening the rain had poured down, hurricane-heavy rain. Unrelenting sheets of water pounded and eroded our worn, fungal, needs-replacing roof; rain soaked the ground and when it had nowhere to go, it saturated our basement rock. Adrenaline-laced, my own heart sprinted and repeatedly jumped into panicked arrhythmias. At midnight, soon after my husband texted that he’d arrived at the E.R., I went downstairs to inspect and discovered the floodwaters rising out of the concrete.
Up to this point everything had gone smoothly. I’d written letters to the children’s principals letting them know that they might not be in school tomorrow, that we might have to visit their dad at the hospital. The last time he’d gone into the hospital because he felt “off”—two years before—he’d nearly died; the nurses had kept paddles beside his bed and sat outside his door keeping watch. I’d taken the kids to visit, said good-bye and had no idea he was in for a rough night—holding on at twenty beats a minute—lying there waiting for the next heartbeat to shake the bed. This time we weren’t going to leave him alone.
But now water was streaming into the basement, funneling into rivulets and a small lake where the gray paint chips—lifted off the freshly-painted concrete floor after our last flood—floated like ghost leaves. I did the only thing I could do; I started sopping up water with the sponge mop, squeezing it into the bucket, hauling the bucket outside into the blackness and torrential rain, and heaving the water into the driveway where it sloped away from the house.
I did this for hours. Over and over, I soaked, squeezed and hurled water into the dark world while checking in with my husband at the E.R. Please don’t go. The concrete space felt more and more like the tabernacle of our marriage, a sanctuary where we’d shored fragments against our ruin: the weight set, the climbing ropes, camping equipment, Rubbermaid containers filled with photos and children’s art treasures, nonperishable food, old parts, paint cans and the anatomical skeleton our daughter had asked for because she wanted to be a cardiologist.
Our hearts were buckling under the stress—his heart failing, mine racing—and water was flowing out of the rock, the foundation supporting everything we owned, the home we’d made for ourselves, and he might go and I was drowning in a floody mess of tears and rainwater.
Over and over I headed into the rain to throw a bucket of water onto our dark driveway and listen to that water run off the edge of the earth, or so it appeared in the pitch-black night, and I rinsed and repeated for hours in the aloneness, and my body went numb bailing and dumping, bailing and dumping while I cried myself a river running like rainwater out of concrete. So this is it, life without him.
We weren’t on the verge of marital heart failure although, like many couples—(I’m guessing most wouldn’t admit it)—we’ve been there more than once. I only mention this night because, for me, it comes closest to describing how it would feel if one of us threw in the towel, walked into the rain and didn’t come back. And I don’t want to feel that way. Ever.
* * *
They sent him home before daybreak. No sign of a heart attack despite his chest tightness, no sign of stroke despite his sudden paleness and sense that he couldn’t think clearly, nothing confirming exactly why he felt “off.”
“Everybody has an off day now and then,” the attending, clearly irritated, informed him.
* * *
“Off day” works as well as any other word for it, and if everybody has one, then you know what I’m talking about. Off day: that day you two come to the brink, you and your spouse or long-term partner, where you almost lose one another because you’re ready to call it off; you can’t connect to the electrical pathways in one another’s atriums and ventricles and your arteries are hardened but—just as you’re ready to cash it in—(this marriage feels like a financial contract, that’s it—what else is there?)—one of you mentions a quality in the other that you like, or remembers a trait that you missin the other and the conversation turns —no, don’t go—and the outpouring begins and you open your hearts again.
“You’ll keep secrets from each other.” That was the first thing the priest told us. The second: “Every time you note one another doing something wrong, remember the 50,000 things you each get right.”
* * *
As for Mrs. Belle: I last saw her about five years ago at my father’s retirement party. Sure, she’d wrinkled and gained a few pounds, but still she radiated glamour and style, and she enchanted us with her southern voice, humor and her rich laugh. She was as magnetic as ever and it was obvious that Mr. Belle, after all these years, greatly enjoyed her company. The day after the party when we were lingering over breakfast at the hotel, my parents asked the Belles if they’d like to come up to the house, stay a while longer.
“No thank y’all,” smiled Mrs. Belle, shaking out her dark hair and zipping up her leather jacket. “We’ve got to get on our way to Niagara Falls!” They’d ridden their motorcycles up from South Carolina and wanted to hit the road under clear skies.
Somehow over the decades they’d not only managed to fix their tickers; they’d hot-wired them. We walked them out and watched as they put on their helmets, revved up their engines and waved before riding off to the Honeymoon Capital of the World.
Who knew exactly why Mrs. Belle had left him years ago, or why she’d returned, or why she’d stayed.
I knew only one thing for sure: I wanted to be like her.
Mary Elliott is a stay-at-home Mom with four children, one husband and two leopard geckos. She has a Yale B.A., a Ph.D. in English from Boston College, and—in her old life—taught writing, English and American lit courses at B.C., Gonzaga University & Whitworth College in Spokane, WA.
Upon the birth of her twins in Colorado, she perished rather than published, but has written a couple of novels that need serious rework before they see the light of day. She contributes to Real Life Survival Guide’s Guest Editor blog, is active with the Madison Land Conservation Trust and likes to play the fiddle, hike, bike-ride and unwind with good friends.