This was written around the time of my birthday in 2016, a month before my transplant.
And so a word on silence, ignoring things, people, good wishes for one’s health, one’s life.
It’s an acute paradox – talking, writing about silence. Of course, paradox is at the root of much of human experience. Look no further than the paradox of this medical procedure, heart transplant, which has had a phenomenal impact on life and death: In order for one to live by benefiting from a healthy heart, another must die. At least, that’s how far science has brought us.
I thought it would be quite an easy process talking and writing about this major medical upheaval in my life. After all, I’ve had medical crises before and I seemed to be managing the tension of the current season quite well. Tempering my expectations of what my body can achieve with only 10% heart function has been difficult. My days consist of many bouts of rest, even after the most menial, even cerebral, tasks. So my silence mostly reflects my inability to summon up energy to engage with the world.
And then this birthday-thing popped up. And suddenly I was beset with all sorts of nonsense issues, not even deeply philosophical questions about the meaning of life. Instead, my biggest question was whether, on September 14 next year, would I mark 56 years or should I have reset the counter to take account of (perhaps) a new heart, so then 8 or 9 months, assuming liberally and unrealistically that I might not have a long wait for a new heart to arrive. Having to deal with birthday wishes in such a context was just a crazy notion. Of course, I understand that this madness over a birthday number is cover for all the other real emotional and spiritual things that have been occupying my soul and mind for many months now as I’ve tried (or not) to deal with season’s changing.
One of the best pieces of advice I received when I lost my gut 9 years ago came to me from Ora Nell who encouraged me to mourn the loss of this bodily organ. And now, I realise I have to mourn the loss of a heart which, while not removed from my chest cavity, is increasingly pretty useless in terms of the role it was meant to play. This time, a word of advice came from my wag friend Dominic Peel: “Don’t count your chickens, tjaaina, wait until you get a heart.” He was right, of course, there’s much to still go through over many months, years even, disappointments, waiting, if the stories of other transplant patients hold true for me. My journey hasn’t even started properly.
The service at St George’s Cathedral a few days after my birthday, put much in perspective. The first reading from Jeremiah 8:18 could have thrown off anyone looking for morbid sympathy: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” But much of the contextual imagery evokes concerns for the social illnesses, the lack of a healing ointment, the absence of a physician for the people. And that, surely, must resonate with anyone, whether or not suffering a broken (or stretched) heart.j
But it is in the rich poetry of John Whittier’s Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, that paradox was most evoked on that Sunday morning, peacefully and silently so: “speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still small voice of calm.”
In the turbulence, the maelstrom, there is unbelievable calm.