2014-2015, Short Story

Heartbeat.

Featured in 2015 Spring Issue of Rambunctious

By Julia Skeval, ’16

The average human heart beats seventy-two times in one minute. One beat is one moment and in sixty seconds, you have lived seventy-two moments, all that you could have used to do something amazing.

When you look at people, you see their hair and their height and the freckles and the scar they try to cover up. And although it may not seem like it, you are looking at a beating heart. Each step they take, each breath they inhale is fueled by the contraction of a single muscle in their chest. The sound of an internal drum beating as it matches the rhythms of the songs we used to dance to. Seeing on the machine as the line increases, decreases and then shoots right back up like a rollercoaster you are praying won’t ever run smooth. We are heartbeats and we, more than anything else, don’t ever want to be silenced.

I didn’t really understand much about life until I saw him fighting for the one he only got six years with. I didn’t understand much about the disease either but it was cancer; everybody knows cancer.

The room was bright with colorful painted walls and drawings of kids playing with kites or swimming at the beach. It was supposed to make it feel happy but we were in a hospital; everything sucked about being in a hospital. He had to lay there unable to walk or swim or fly kites and stare at these pictures but he didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t look at the pictures. Maybe he just closed his eyes and let his heart beat.

His hair was lighter, his skin a little paler. I sat down next to the bed afraid to make noise, afraid to talk to this heart that wasn’t doing all that great a job at taking care of itself. People were surrounding us but I didn’t notice them. I found it odd that people could think of anything except the small boy with tubes for food and needles in the arm of the hand I used to hold as we walked along the grass around the pond.

Our parents discussed how the other members of the family were doing and how the sports seasons were going for us so far. The nurse came in a few times to check the vitals, to make sure he was still going to be okay. I just watched him, the weakened yet repetitive rise and fall of his chest that meant more now than it ever had before. When no one was looking, I took his left hand and held it in my own. I could feel his pulse; it was slow and steady but it was there and I breathed a little easier. I could feel him being alive.

It was bad, they said. We don’t consider that bad things could ever happen to good people until we are in the heat of them, having to drive through this wall of chaos. And it would take a long time for him to get better, they said.

He looked empty and when he finally opened his eyes to see me, he looked so embarrassed for having to be seen like this. For needing help just to keep breathing. He understood—he understood the cancer and I understood how valuable one pounding of a heart could be when maybe there were only a limited number left. 

I tried so hard to remember his laughter, the sound of his voice as he sang the songs he learned in Sunday school. I couldn’t remember the steady heartbeat of the lively boy I used to hold in my arms as I pretended he was my own child when I was nine and he was barely three months old. I saw the sickness; I saw a heart struggling to be okay. I learned then that life isn’t made to be easy.

It is loud and unsteady and we cannot stop it and that is why we are all heartbeats.

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