July 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Heart to heart

By Gail Bell
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

My sister is in town, on leave from her burn-out job and hankering for family. We both work in health provision, which is to say, we serve (in different uniforms) at the great community welfare table. She manages a team of crisis counsellors; I hand out drugs to anyone with the right piece of paper. We are poles apart in orientation and style but time has eroded many of our certainties on inscrutable metaphysical subjects, such as lingering pain. Now we make small allowances. She will take two Panadols for her killer knee-joint; I will pick up the phone when I hit a wall or the Valium wears off.

She’s flown up from Victoria for two reasons: she needs a rest from office politics and she wants to take a look at me. I’ve been ill for four months and nothing that she’s heard from concerned third parties has passed her test for plausibility. She wants to know how I, the family storyteller, can allow myself to dangle on a precipice with no resolution at hand. “Fall off the cliff or send in the cavalry,” she says as I drive her to an eating place that’s been transformed into an exotic Balinese garden. It’s a longish drive and the road bumps emphasise my resistance to being told how to behave in my own drama.

On the last stretch we dispose of her psychopathic boss. I run through a few Borgia-inspired recipes for poisoned teacake. “Just enough to cramp her gut to pieces,” I say.

“I was thinking about a voodoo doll.”

“You could let her tyres down?”

By the time we slide our legs under a teak table overhung with palm leaves and Buddhist prayer flags, the boss is mincemeat. We both take deep, satisfied breaths. To our right there is a carp pond where fat, spotted vagrants are making pleading O-mouths for small girls in pink fairy dresses. “What is it about kids and fish?” my sister asks in a slightly softer voice. Through the striped bamboo we see two women list sideways as the girls kneel close to the edge and tickle the water.

We order lunch, then I tell my story. I’m so sick of trying to make sense of it, I skim across the top, only breaking the surface in shallow strikes. Three different ambulances, a cardiologist, intrusive tests, drugs that made my ears thump, pain that pinned me to the bed.

“At least you speak the lingo,” says my sister.

“But that’s just it. I keep asking myself if something I said or did influenced them to look in a certain direction, as opposed to another. That whole little bit of knowledge thing.”

“Well, you look like crap,” she says. “Worrying about what you said or did is helping tremendously.”

I tell her how it was in the ambulance: keeping one part of my panicked brain focused on the terminology, sucking the oxygen, saying “yes” and “yes” to the morphine.

I describe the emergency department, the misdiagnosis then the correction, the needles, the fear, the unappeasable monitors pinging all night. “Five times I ended up in an emergency bed. I know the drill by heart.”

Even the silly pun doesn’t lighten my load. There’s a history of heart attacks on our father’s side of the family. And then there’s my own ten years of cigarette addiction.

A young woman brings our vegetarian lunch. I swear I owned the same dress she is wearing once upon a time, before they became retro.

“But you got sorted in the end,” says my sister, admiring her salad. “The whole body-scan thing.”

Well, yes, sort of, we think so. Referred pain from my thoracic spine. The sort of diagnosis you have when you don’t meet other criteria. The sharp right turn out of the cardiac ward, the appointment down the corridor in physiotherapy.

My heart, it turns out, is healthy. All the tentative diagnoses can be dismissed. No rare angina with sneaky plaques lying flat against the coronary vessel walls like a gang of thieves in an alley. No dangerous arrhythmias. No atypical anythings associated with the fist-sized beating muscle in my engine room. Nothing, actually, to do with the heart at all.

“You know your problem, don’t you?” says my sister, taking an interest in the terracotta Buddha seated in a bed of maidenhair fern. “You’re traumatised. I see it all the time. You’re stuck in the ambulance. Talk to someone about it.” She stands up and stretches back her arms, opening out her chest. “I’ll be back in a tick.”

I begin thinking about the path I’ve been on, wondering if I’ve lost an important faculty along the way. The power to discriminate comes to mind. I surrendered myself to the great organism in which I trained and what did it give me in return? Kinship with a growing band of disaffected medical refugees. But surely there’s a way to claw back some of my hard-won sanity around the notion that medicine is the supreme arbiter of all that ails humankind?

“Follow me,” my sister says after a ten-minute absence. She’s been exploring the garden rooms – drawn from the carp pond to the small wooden bridge and onto a verandah perfectly positioned for crafts and classes and quiet reflection. She points to a tent draped with brightly striped sarongs. “I’ve bought you a 15-minute reading.” Smiling like a sideshow spruiker, she pushes me into the presence of Marsha, a plump middle-aged lady with deep-set brown eyes.

Anyone could have read my body language, and Marsha, wisely, doesn’t pronounce on the perils of suppressed hostility. Instead, she puts a smooth stone into each of my hands, places her very warm hands over mine and bids me take three deep breaths, eyes closed. For quarter of an hour she tells me what she discerns from “reading” me. She calls in healers, washes me in coloured lights and ends with the firm instruction that I will sleep well and awake refreshed.

Outside, I stand blinking, the way I do when I have lost track of time, emerging from the cinema.

“Sometimes we just need some mothering,” says my sister.

I feel oddly not antagonistic towards my younger sibling. After months of churning, my inner motor seems to have wound down. Absurdity is, in some ways, a welcome relief. We decide to linger, sitting on opposing banquettes, New York-diner style, away from other people.

Books that have changed the way I think drift into my mind. I momentarily become a ten-year-old sleepwalker again, immune to “the great outer world” that Annie Dillard describes in An American Childhood. I put aside the heavy burden of myself, my restless thinking and the scales that measure give and take. It is enough to sit in comfortable silence with my sister.

The light above the overhang on the verandah is captured inside the rainforest canopy. I think about another sentence I love, from Camus’ The Outsider. “The sky was green; I felt happy.”

And I do. For now.

Gail Bell
Gail Bell has worked as a pharmacist, educator and writer. Her books include The Poison Principle and Shot: A Personal Response to Guns and Trauma.

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