“Pick a day,” the cardiologist said, like we were scheduling an oil change, a haircut. “Go home and check your schedule, get back to us.” Like it’s any casual thing, another dumb bullet point on the To Do list: go to bank, check sump pump, get the baby open heart surgery, gather tax stuff. I should find the doctor’s nonchalant way reassuring, and I do, partially. If your pediatric cardiologist is freaking out, you should probably pick a new doctor, or else consider refilling that hip flask, do what you gotta do. I would expect him to be nothing less than professional and confidant. But his casualness sort of hits me, like a soggy invisible thing, like that movie The Abyss where they breathed liquid to dive so deeply underwater. He does this all the time, it’s his job to ultrasound little hearts, to measure defects and notice new blockages, to order surgeries. I have to trust that I can do this, too. I have to breathe in, just as casually, even though it feels like water invading my lungs, even though my instinct is to spit it out, to kick and sputter and refuse. I have no choice but to inhale and hope it works.
In a few weeks, my tiny boy will be anaesthetised, cut open, and put on a bypass machine. How can this even be? I’ve been in the room during the echos, I’ve heard the electronic whooshing of his heartbeat, seen the opening-and-closing valves on the screen, even as I don’t know what I’m looking at. I’ve said the words “Double Outlet Right Ventricle with a Ventricular Septal Defect” so many times they slide out easily now, like oil; no longer getting caught up and twisted around my teeth. But, still, how?
When my six year old was littler, he insisted that he didn’t have a brain, just a lot of ladybugs up in his head. “It’s not my fault,” he would explain, “the ladybugs made me do it.” And it was exasperating in that way that becomes more adorable in hindsight, that chubby-cheeked stubbornness of toddlers that you think you won’t miss when it’s gone, but you do, oh you know you do. And his chest didn’t hold a heart, he would tell us, but bees. And since the bees were never responsible for temper tantrums or other wily behavior, I was only charmed by their confusing existence. When he would run around, red and sweaty, he would feel his racing heart and say he could feel the bees.
My six year old doesn’t say that he has an insect anatomy anymore. He hasn’t talked about the bees in years. He has seen cut-away illustrations, he understands that there aren’t really bees in chests. He understands that. But I don’t.
I put my hand across my baby’s middle and I feel them, I do. It doesn’t make any sense, how they got there. You can’t explain how I could grow a baby with limb differences and a heart defect and I can’t explain the bees. The impossibility of each is the same. What else could bore a hole in a brand new heart but a winged battering ram made of bees? And we knew we’d have to let them out. We knew right away, when Ulysses was born, that it was just a matter of time before they would be ready to leave, to find a new nest. They don’t mean to be angry, those bees, but they’re louder now, crowded and ready to swarm; they just want out.
We have the surgery on the calendar. We are making arrangements and getting ready, as much as you can prepare for something so big. Should everything go according to plan, should his chest be spread open and all those bees fly out in a vibrating, explosive but orderly cloud, without any complications or surprises, he will be in the hospital for about a week. I will be right there with him. Selfishly, I had been holding a little secret wish that we could postpone his surgery until the new children’s hospital opens. And now I’m second guessing myself. Are we making the right decision? Not about the surgery itself, no. But are we doing it at the right place? We fell into seeing the pediatric cardiology practice affiliated with the hospital where he was born. I am not unhappy with them, but. . . But it’s my tiny baby, who has been on this side of my belly for just ten weeks, who will be marked and cut and repaired. I just need to be sure. I’ve never been faced with a matter so serious as to warrant a second opinion. What’s more serious than open heart surgery? Another round of appointments, then, another team of cardiologists, more waiting and examining and deciding. I should have asked these questions weeks ago. I pray silently to myself, to the bees, that we have time. They’ll get us into the other hospital as soon as they can; if it’s not soon enough, we’ll stick with the current plan. I am new to being an advocate for my child at this heavy level and as much as I beat myself up for falling short, for not knowing enough, I want to make the most informed decisions as possible.
I don’t need a stethoscope to hear his murmur. I press my ear up close and the abnormality is obvious, a rhythmic wet humming that proves this all is real. I know what a broken heart sounds like. I know what it feels like to pretend I am brave enough to handle this. I am not brave. But I am thirty-six years old and have never been stung by a bee yet. I have no reason to be afraid of them. In a few weeks, they’ll be gone. And while we won’t have to think so urgently about this anymore (we’ll be on to the next obstacle), we’ll always remember. Ulysses will have a scar right down the middle of his ribcage. I will tell him the story of his heart and how it was fixed. I might even tell him about the bees. Do you think he will believe me?