In the late summer of 2020, during the throes of covid and quarantine and trying to adapt to the reality that it wasn’t going to be over in a few weeks or months, I turned 65. The best part of turning 65 is Medicare and Social Security. My 50 year-old self would do a big eye roll in response to the importance I now give to those words —Medicare and Social Security. Seriously? Medicare and Social Security? But I stand by those words now. With the enrollment of Medicare came a physical, much more thorough than the ones I’ve had in the past, including baseline tests for physical and mental agility. The best part was it cost me nothing. As with every physical, there was blood work and with that came the bad news about my cholesterol, which is higher than my doctor wants it to be. I’m used to this and have gotten a pass over the years because my lifestyle and my other numbers are good. Still, I always feel let down when all the dietary changes I’ve incorporated along with considerable daily exercise, barely sway the needle in the right direction. This is the part of the physical when I say,
“Can we return to talking about my blood pressure?”
My blood pressure is what I like to lead with — numbers that almost always elicit a compliment by whoever is taking it. It gives me a cushion of confidence before the comments on the cholesterol numbers begin, which are always disappointing. My doctor decided she wanted me to have an aortic scan and if it came out without plaque, she would be willing to overlook the cholesterol numbers (at least my good cholesterol is high making for a good ratio, but the bad is still bad).
A few weeks later, I made a trip into Denver for the scan. I had not had an aortic scan before so everything was new and out of both nervousness and curiosity, I asked the technician a lot of questions. He was more than willing to answer. It was a slow day.
After the scan, I asked him if some people ever struggle with the 30 second breath hold. It felt long to me, although do-able.
“Yes, they sometimes do, he answered, but the fact that you have a long heart helps you. It allows for deeper breathing capacity.”
“My heart is long, I asked, as in not short??”
“Yes, long. People have long hearts and short hearts. One is not necessarily better than the other. Yours just happens to be a long one.”
What? I have a long heart? I’ve never heard of such a thing. How was it I had lived 65 years and someone is just now telling me the shape of my heart? Fortunately, the scan of my long heart turned out fine and plaque-free but thoughts of what the technician told me lingered.
The very nonchalant manner in which the news of my long heart was delivered kept me from worrying about it, but I was curious and did what most people would have done once I got home. I put Google to the test.
“What does it mean to have a long heart?”
Nothing. Enlarged hearts, symptoms of heart attacks, scary medical stuff and broken hearts, but nothing about a long heart. I was intrigued, curious and beginning to wonder exactly how much training, education and experience the technician who shared the information with me had.
I love thinking about the physical attributes of my heart, barely a side note when compared to the amount of time I spend thinking about its emotional qualities. Did it become long because of all it holds? Of course not, but I like thinking about my newly discovered attribute in this manner. The muscle in my chest that gives me life with its constant beats needs more consideration than I had been giving it. Clearly, I gravitate more to thinking about my emotional heart rather than the physical, but now that someone was actually able to give me a brief description of my heart, I can’t help but envision a long, pumping vessel, that looks stretched while trying to hold far more emotions than what it was designed for, like a knit bag that has grown long with the weight of its contents. Whether or not the technician, who started this whole ordeal, was giving me an observation based on trained eyes or just a quick and possibly not accurate conclusion, I carried those words home with me and now, 2 1/2 years later, I’m contemplating them again.
Does my long heart still hold the shape of a valentine? (I know hearts don’t actually look like the valentine shape we associate them with, but it is how they’ve been represented historically). Has the record of my emotional life actually changed the shape of my heart? Clearly, I’m not done with this subject. I googled it again, this time resulting in cardiologist, Sandeep Juahar’s Ted Talk, where he addresses “the mysterious ways our emotions impact the health of our hearts—causing them to change shape in response to grief or fear.”
He spoke of examples where hearts actually did change their shape after being subjected to periods of stress and or grief. Ah ha! Now I’m getting somewhere. Maybe, just maybe, the stress, the fear of the unknown, the loneliness of a solitary quarantine that happened just months before my scan in the unforgettable year of 2020, really did change the shape of my heart. Or maybe I was born with a long heart instead of a short one or one that simple resides in the middle measurement.
My long heart and all it carries — the love, so much love, the hopes, the desires, the fears, the dreams, the memories, both the good ones and the bad ones, the very essence of my being and the creative and curious element that has made writing such a necessary part of my life. It is the most precious of packages. It needs more attention.
The very same long heart that ached for months after I saw my dog get hit by a car when I was in the 3rd grade is the same heart that only recently felt the pain of learning that a former classmate of mine had died. Metaphorically, there’s a lot of expansion going on in my already long heart. It makes me think of the umbilical cord that I’ve written about that emotionally still connects me to my three children, all living in different parts of the country. The physical feels easier for my mind to grasp with visions of three cords that originates with me, and stretch out to the other side of Boulder, to Portland and to LA. That I can visualize. That I can understand. But it’s the emotional aspect that is out of my grasp. All that enters the heart — first loves, bad break ups, the birth of my children, moments of ecstasy and joy, heartbreaking sadness that is so deep it is felt physically, are all mingling around together in the space of my heart. Maybe they are organized into groups, I am a virgo after all.
All of this, including the shape of my heart, I had forgotten about until I was going through a stack of my many notebooks looking for inspiration. On that day in August of 2020, after googling “long heart” with no success, I wrote brief notes in one of my notebooks and underlined “long heart.” I always think I’ll remember, but always right things down, just in case. I didn’t remember being told that I have a long heart. Thank goodness I write things down. Thank goodness I never throw notebooks away. Today I feel more curious and more intrigued than I did in 2020. I had other concerns then, such as how to maneuver through this new masked-life doing my day to day chores, while trying to remain healthy and covid-free.
Sandeep Jauhar ended his Ted Talk by saying,
“The emotional heart intersects with its biological counterpart in mysterious ways.”
I give that intersection a lot of attention, heeding both the advice of the medical community I surround myself with, and an acute awareness to the emotional life I hold in my heart. My heart may be long in its physical appearance, according to the young man in the light blue surgical scrubs, but it’s what it holds that has me returning to this subject again, 2 1/2 years later, with continued interest. Maybe it’s the longing inside my heart and not the length of my heart that holds the power — the longing to make sense of my world by organizing it into words tucked away in notebooks — notebooks that have held what I thought my mind would, but didn’t. But my heart, that long heart of mine, has never forgotten.