First published in Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women Volume 1, published 8 March 2019, curated by Kim Wells and P K Tyler
When Dr. Roberts lifted the stethoscope away from my chest, it was my mother’s cue to start her fussing again. She swooped in from where she’d been hovering, and pressed a glass of lemonade into my hands, urging me to drink.
‘Is she going to be all right, Doctor?’ she asked in her tiny, shrill voice. Those words were my mother’s mantra; repeated every time Dr. Roberts came to see me, which was as often as my glass heart demanded.
Continuing the tradition, Dr. Roberts turned his face towards her and offered his most confident smile. ‘Of course, Mrs. Linden, she’s going to be fine. But, Attie, you must remember to be more careful from now on.’
Suffice to say, I remained unconvinced.
You must be careful, he would say, you must be careful, my mother would echo. You must be careful, Attie, your heart is very fragile. You cannot run, Attie, your heart can’t take it. You must not shout, Attie, think of your heart. You can’t go outside today, it’s chilly and the cold is not good for your heart. Be careful, Attie, the path is uneven here; think of what a fall would do to your heart. Be careful. You must always be careful.
My glass heart, made to keep me alive because the one I was born with decided to quit the position, didn’t seem to like anything other than lying in bed all day. It kept up a protest every time I tried to do more than stroll along at a sedate pace, there was no way being more careful would make it work any better.
You’d think I’d have learned by now, I’d carried the useless thing for all of what I could remember of my seventeen years, but it was more often than not that I forgot. That lead to incidents like today’s, where my hat had been caught my the wind and in trying to catch it back, I’d overworked my poor, glass heart and all but fainted on our neighbor Miss. Orchard’s lawn. Our frightfully improper, spinster neighbor, whom we should not associate ourselves with, my mother wasn’t going to let me forget. Because if I had to find myself in a weak state on someone’s lawn, it had better be one of the respectable young men in the neighborhood.
I sipped the lemonade while Dr. Roberts and my mother agreed on how much more careful I was going to be from now on.
‘All right then, Miss. Linden?’
I whirled around, my glass heart pat-pat-pattering out an objection, to come face to face with Miss. Orchard and her horribly improper trousers. I hadn’t seen her, though given that she was wiping dirt off her hands, I guessed that was because she’d been kneeling behind her bushes, doing some gardening.
‘I didn’t mean to frighten you,’ she added.
‘Oh, not your fault,’ I replied as I pressed a hand to my chest in a futile attempt to calm my heart’s fluttering. ‘I just didn’t see you there.’
‘Might have something to do with the way you’re preoccupied keeping an eye on your own front door.’
I couldn’t help but smile. Miss Orchard might have been frightfully improper, being unmarried at twenty-five (my mother gasped in horror) and employed (as a writer no less) and possessed of a penchant for going about in trousers, but I quite liked her forthright manner. Not that we’d done much socializing in the year since she’d moved to the neighborhood, my mother had seen to that.
‘I’ll learn to keep a better eye out.’
‘Oh, I’m only going for a little walk.’
‘And that’s your business. But if all you wanted was to get out of your home for a moment, you can come inside. I’d rather you weren’t walking alone after your trouble earlier.’
I bit my lip. If my mother saw me doing so, she would have scolded me.
Miss Orchard had an excellent point, because although I felt fine, episodes of weakness could often catch me unaware on days like this, and another visit from Dr. Roberts was not something I wanted to endure. ‘If it’s not too much of an inconvenience...? I just need a few moments away from my mother’s fussing, is all.’
She nodded and I followed her into her house where she happily gave me a tour that included the most wonderful library I’d ever seen. My relationship with books was a dysfunctional one; often during my life they’d been my only companions in longed for adventure, and for that I both loved and resented them.
She made tea and we sat in the library, exchanging small talk. She didn’t ask me questions about my dramatics on her lawn, and I didn’t echo my mother’s judgmental attitude towards her. After a half an hour, I decided I’d better put my mother out of her misery and go home. Miss Orchard walked me home and told me I could call her Helen. I decided the day wasn’t a complete waste after all.
‘I think I envy you, Helen.’
‘In what way?’
I giggled, because wasn’t that a silly thing to ask. I envied her in every way. ‘Why, you do have a beautiful library, and a home all your own.’ And a healthy, flesh and blood heart that wouldn’t betray you at the slightest hint of excitement, but I couldn’t say that.
‘You’ll have those things too, one day. You’re only seventeen, Attie.’
‘I don’t think so, but I suppose it’s nice to dream.’
She frowned at me. ‘Why don’t you think so?’
‘It’s my heart,’ I said, somewhat confused. I’d never had to explain this before, everyone, through the magic of gossip, had always just known, but Helen wasn’t much for gossip. ‘I was born with a bad heart, it was replaced with a glass one when I was a child, but I have to be careful not to strain it. I wouldn’t be able to work, and even if I got married, I wouldn’t be able to have children or even care for someone else’s. Too much running around.’ I accompanied my forcibly light tone with a smile, so that she wouldn’t be concerned. It didn’t work, she continued to frown.
‘Is that what happened the day you were feeling faint outside my house?’
‘Yes, but it’s all right, really.’
‘A glass heart.’ She was still frowning, but she was also scanning the shelves. ‘I think I’ve read about those.’
Helen gave me the book. Dr. Roberts’ name is on the cover, accompanied by that of a Dr. Emma Lowe of Cheshire University. I opened the cover and fount the publication date was not two years ago. ‘Can I borrow this?’
Helen nodded, as though that was always what she intended.
I read the book. Devoured it despite its dry prose and jargon heavy text. Inhaled it like it contained all the answers to my problems. In a way, it did.
I recognized Dr. Roberts’ voice in the book. His paternalistic manner evident in the way he spoke of patients and their conditions. With shock, I also recognized myself. He didn’t use my name, but there was no doubt that the subject entitled Girl was me. He described my original, failing heart, and the surgery to deliver into my tiny body a new, functioning organ. After the success of this venture, his reports of my recovery faltered into vague statements as I grew. His last word on my progress was that I was still alive, though a little hindered by the small size and age of the heart beating in my chest.
If not for the respect I had for Helen’s property, I would have thrown the book across the room. As it was, I had to put it away (hide it from mother), and lay down until my small, aged heart stopped its put-put-puttering.
Dr. Lowe’s sections of the book I found less likely to produce these reactions. Perhaps because she was far removed from me, or perhaps because I couldn’t see the half truths in her writing, I looked forward to reading her case studies much more than those of Dr. Roberts. Unlike him, she didn’t seem afraid to include or discuss her failures. Those that died, or those that needed replacement hearts as they grew and their hearts aged.
That was a revelation to me. Reading a case study about a young man who’d had his glass heart replaced with a new one after fifteen years. Dr. Lowe even went on to say that since the man had been given one of their earliest models as a child, the upgrade not only replaced an aging heart that was too small, but gave him a heart that had been better than the one he’d had before.
After reading that ten times over, I went downstairs and asked mother to call for Dr. Roberts.
‘I want a new heart,’ I announced as soon as Dr. Roberts had walked through the door.
While my mother was near spluttering at the shock of my impertinence, Dr. Roberts sighed. I could see him gathering his arm of well meaning arguments as he insisted we all sit down and talk about it. He explained, patting me on the knee, that surgery was dangerous, especially for a frail girl like me, and it was much safer to continue as we have.
‘But my heart is small and weak. It’s a child’s heart, and I’m not a child anymore.’
‘Where have you been learning these things?’
‘It’s true, isn’t it?’
‘Attie, I’m a doctor. I’ve supervised your health ever since your mother first came to me, trying to save your life. I need you to trust me when I say a surgery is not in your best interests.’
My mother was nodding along. ‘Yes, honey, you’re all right now, why tempt fate?’
‘I don’t want to be “all right” mother, I want to be well. I want to run and shout and not be confined to this house anymore. I want to live. I want a new heart.’
Dr. Roberts frowned. ‘I’m afraid that’s not going to happen, Attie.’
‘Are you saying there are no circumstances in which you’d replace my heart?’
‘I wouldn’t say none. If your heart stops functioning properly, it would be less dangerous not to replace it than to do so. But your heart works perfectly well.’
‘Perfectly well?’ I echoed.
‘I understand you’re passionate about this, Attie. If you like we can discuss it again when you’re older, but I stress again that the surgery is very risky.’
‘It’s my risk to take.’
‘Not until you are an adult. Until then, it is your mother’s risk.’
I turned to her, but I could see in her teary eyes that she’d never agree. ‘Please, mother,’ I said anyway, but she turned her face away.
I went to Helen’s house and told her what I wanted to do.
‘Will you come with me?’
She hesitated, and I could see she wanted to send me home to my mother. I hoped she could also see I wouldn’t go.
Helen and I took a three day train ride to Cheshire University. Thank God for Helen, for I knew I could not have made that journey on my own. Even buying a train ticket was a new adventure, one that I felt my books had not prepared me for. Actually riding the monstrosity gave me palpitations that had Helen frowning and pale.
The University itself was a sprawling mess of old buildings laid out in no sensible way at all. I was lost just looking at it, but Helen guided us toward the medical buildings with the assistance of only a small pocket map brought from the train station.
We were waylaid by a group of students, apparently amused to see two young women invading their domain, and one of them in pants. But with some quick talk, they seemed happy enough to direct us to Dr. Lowe’s office. Perhaps they thought us female types should stick together.
Dr. Lowe’s office had a bronze plaque on the door and the office itself was shrouded in stacks of paper. What Dr. Lowe’s office did not have was Dr. Lowe. Fortunately, a passing student informed us that the doctor was down at the glassworks. After saying I was a patient of hers (please, please), they even offered to show us the way.
The glassworks were hot and smoky and amazing. I had thought that they would only make hearts there, but I was wrong. The student walked us past artists making everything from plain window panes to vibrant colored vases.
My glass heart kicked up to a staccato beat at recognizing its birthplace.
Dr. Lowe turned out to be a gray haired woman in glassworkers’ overalls and face mask. We watched her work, shaping a red-hot lump of glass into something that would replace dying muscle. We watched her until she leaned back from her work and divested herself of the mask, wiping her sleeve across her sweaty face. Only then did the student walk over and tell her we were waiting.
‘You’re not one of my patients,’ Dr. Lowe said.
‘Actually, Dr. Roberts is my doctor. I was hoping to get a second opinion.’
She looked me up and down. ‘Let’s get some lunch.’
I learned that she and Dr. Roberts had been married once. Had a child once, who’d had a bad heart. He didn’t survive. Neither did their marriage. But because there were other bad hearts, other people’s children, the glass hearts survived and improved with time.
I had my very first x-ray, and could see my heart for the first time in shadows and light. If it wasn’t still within my chest, I could have closed my fist around it, it was that small.
I could also see the way Dr. Lowe frowned at it.
She listened as well, when my heart was performing its steady thump-thump thump-thump, and again to the put-put-puttering it made after I ran on the spot for her.
Her frown deepened.
She spent some time on the telephone, consulting with Dr. Roberts. Gradually, the professional tone she’d adopted in the beginning devolved into shouting.
Helen took my hand and smiled, but her eyes remained creased with concern.
Dr. Lowe sat across from us. ‘Dr. Roberts told me he told you that replacing your heart was too dangerous to consider. While it’s true that the surgery will put your life at risk, it is my opinion that waiting until your heart begins to fail completely would be more risky. Attie, your heart wasn’t meant to last this long. Truthfully, it was only ever meant to give you more time. It’s dying, Attie.’
‘I know. I can feel it.’
‘I need you to realize that if I do what you want, you may die anyway. Surgery of this kind is very risky.’
I nodded. ‘But I need it to live.’
‘We can do it tomorrow.’
‘So soon?’ Helen gasped.
‘There’s no reason to wait. We have the facilities here at the university.’
‘You haven’t even said what it will cost.’
Dr. Lowe scowled. ‘Probably not as much as Dr. Roberts has taken from her mother in call out fees.’
‘Attie, are you sure?’
I nodded again. ‘I just... I just need to call my mother.’
Dr. Lowe pressed the mask over my face, and instructed me to breathe deeply and count backward from ten.
At my side, Helen forced a smile. ‘See you when you wake up.’
And I could feel it in my heart, glass though it may have been, that I would.