My Heart


There is a history of heart disease on both sides of my family and for most of my adult life I have seen a cardiologist once a year. The other day I drove into town for my appointment, to see my divorce lawyer and get new tires for my car. I’ve given up believing that any sequence of events happens by accident and although this particular afternoon came together like any random grouping of errands, it felt as I set out like I was attending to different parts of the same task. I was taking care of myself, getting my life in order, and moving forward. After the usual tests, the cardiologist told me that I was fine. She said that my heart sounded great and that the test results were perfect. I was happy to receive a good bill of health but I also knew that she had not listened carefully enough. She had not heard that my heart was broken. I have recounted my family history of heart disease in her office but she has never asked me to recount my family’s history of heartbreak. It is my broken heart that sends me back to see a cardiologist year after year. I do not understand how it can be broken and healthy at the same time. I do not understand how I can feel it beating evenly in my chest even though it has been shattered into a million pieces. As I drove towards the lawyer’s office, I could feel my broken heart beating and I was aware for the first time of the unbroken line of brokenhearted ancestors stretching straight back through time.

The first heart attack in my family might have been my father’s father. We are not certain how he died, but I grew up believing that he had died of a heart attack. There is no one left in our family to tell us what happened to him or what happened in the generations before him. Did my grandfather also have the first broken heart and if so, what caused it? Perhaps the first broken heart belonged to his wife, my grandmother, who was left alone in a small Illinois town to care for herself and their three children. I imagine my father’s heart was broken by the death of his father, but it could have also been broken many years later by the unexpected deaths, less than 10 years apart, of his only sister and brother.

Grief and loss run through my mid-western and eastern European family lines like the Missouri River. Grief was passed down to me through affect and expectations. It is in my genes. I felt it flowing through me even before my grandmother died on my 6th birthday and my aunt was lost in a commercial plane crash. My brother too inherited an afflicted heart. His was eventually broken irreparably during the AIDS epidemic as he helplessly lost one friend after another.

The heartbreak on my mother’s side of the family was passed down from mother to daughter. My brokenhearted great grandmother, mourning the child and husband that she had lost, raised my grandmother. My heart broken grandmother left her husband while 7 months pregnant with my mother and raised her alone during the depression. My mother was passed from relative to relative causing her to protect her own broken heart and forcing her to find a way to carve out a stable life for her self. The death of my father and brother moved my broken hearted mother to focus her life on understanding grief and loss so she could help others through the experience. My mother is a good example of the strength of my ancestor’s hearts. My ancestors were heart broken but not faint of heart.

Years ago I engaged in training to enhance my psychic abilities. Part of the training involved learning to send and receive energy through my heart. My teacher guided me through the process of opening the door to my heart. I remember the visceral physical exertion it took to pry open the long ignored rusty door to my broken heart. I had to roll up my sleeves to pull and push and force the door in order to open it the smallest crack.  Since then I have oiled the hinges. The door now opens and closes freely.  I mostly leave it open. I use my open heart to feel my way through my life.

When I taught college I shared a passage with my class from Memories of Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy. McCarthy tells the reader that her life has made her who she is. I remember her tone being without regret even though her life had been difficult and full of tragedy. I have always admired her assertion that she was the sum total of all of the experiences in her past. I know that this is true of me as well, but at times I finds this impossible to accept. I rebel inside, against the notion that my life can be understood like a math problem even as I know that there is a direct relationship between my path and my past. My past, my path, my heart too, is each the sum of its parts.

4 comments to My Heart

  • Marlene,

    Your heartbroken mother and fatherlines are so moving to me. Beautiful writing, deeply felt.

    Warm regards,


  • Janet Keller

    You always in my heart on Halloween night.

  • Gilda

    After my husband died, I had a pain in my heart, so I went to his cardiologist and told him that my heart was broken. He placed his hand on my heart and said, “yes, it is broken, but it will heal in time”. The pain subsided simply because he understood what a broken heart felt like. I feel you understand all broken hearts and are on a path that is open to pain. I believe suffering softens the heart.

    Your words, pain, understanding, wisdom and open-heartedness are so precious, beyond gold, diamonds or pearls.

  • Rachelle

    Marlene, I am so deeply moved by this piece, although all your writing is exquisite. I have thought a lot about the intergenerational transmission of grief in my own family, and am named after my aunt, who, I was told in my childhood, died of a broken heart. Through your writing you give us the gift of a heart-opening and a heart-healing experience. Thanks, from the bottom of mine.

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