by Roxane Gay
It is easier than you might think to dissect the human heart, to cut it open to better understand how it works, why it failed, why it is broken even though it cannot be broken. The heart, though, is merely a muscle. The heart cannot break though certainly, it can tear or rip or weaken irreparably. First you must remove the heart from beneath the ribcage. If the heart is broken, it will come away easy. If the heart is merely damaged you might have to use a little grit to pry it lose but with patience you will be fine. If the heart is healthy, you're going to need help but it is rare you will come across a healthy heart. There is an incompatibility between life and a healthy heart. Worry not. If a person can live with a broken heart, they can survive with no heart at all, at least for a little while, at least for two years, maybe more or a little less or even 737 days and six hours and fifty-two minutes. It might, at this time, also be useful to reflect on the difference between death and not living because there is a difference. Only one requires breathing. There are more people than you might imagine who are neither living nor dead. There is a word for this but it is Latin and contains many syllables. Place the heart in a dissection pan. It is easier to understand the heart when it is in a contained and finite and sterile space, when it is not wild and warm and covered in blood. The heart will likely be covered in viscera. This is normal. The heart accumulates layers. Rinse the heart with water, preferably distilled but tap will do if there is nothing else. When you consider what the heart can withstand, what the heart has withstood, the purity of water seems, suddenly, like less of a concern. Pat the heart dry with a clean cloth. Be gentle. Even broken or damaged hearts require care. There is a layer of tissue around the heart. You will need to peel this back. This tissue, too, will come away easy. If this layer is exceptionally thin, simply brush it away with your fingertips, rub what remains into your skin. Identify the front of the heart. Make detailed notations on what you see there—it could be the love for: a beloved family pet, a favorite grandparent, a Trapper Keeper notebook emblazoned with the image of New Kids on the Block and the college-ruled notebook paper inside on which you wrote awkward notes, the first boy you kissed, the first girl you kissed, the only man you've really loved, a perfect little black dress, a meal in Barcelona in the long shadow of the Sagrada Familia, the first black and gray blur of a girl child, a favorite book, that song that speaks to you like no other, staring into the night during thick of summer with the man you love at your side as you drink cold glasses of gin and tonic with twists of lime. Locate the four chambers of the heart. The left atria will be the upper chamber to your right and there you will find a solid ring made of precious metals and the weight it bears on your left hand, the remnants of faith, all the joy you've ever known, wound tightly, pulsing. The left ventricle will be the lower chamber to your right; it holds the warm breath of the man you sleep with and the memory of his large hand, protectively, on the swell of your belly and the charming way he dances with you even though he is a terrible, terrible dancer, and how he smiles, wide, easy only with you. The right atria is the upper chamber to your left. In it, digging holes in the empty lot next to your childhood home with your brothers and making a tunnel world and spending long summer days beneath the hot sun, your feet bare in the warm dirt and your mother waiting home for you every day at school, how she sat at the kitchen table with you patiently, taught you important things, and your father who let you stand on the shiny black of his Florsheim shoes while he walked into the house after a long day at work. The right ventricle is the lower chamber to your left; you will find that it is triangular in shape; it pumps deoxygenated blood from the heart to the lungs. In this chamber lies everything you need to breathe, everything you hold on to as you make your way from one day to the next, everything that makes you strong, allows you to survive. We will take up the lungs separately. Using surgical scissors, cut through the side of the pulmonary artery and continue cutting down into the wall of the right ventricle. Be careful to just cut deep enough to go through the wall of the heart chamber. If you cut too deep, you will ruin the heart. A ruined heart cannot be undone. Push the heart open along the incision. Feel along the webbed patterns of muscular cords along the inner walls, feel how they bind the heart together. Inspect the inner structure. Again, make detailed notes about what you see there—what you have lost, a box filled with tiny, unworn clothes, the shape of a hole in the ground, the new length of days. See how that structure is somewhat hollow, tender, angry and red. If the heart is broken, if the heart is violently separated into parts, if it has been subjected to fracture or violated by transgression or if it is not complete or full, and this is very likely, you must piece the heart back together. There are no instructions for this but you must try. When you are done with your dissection, when you have made all your detailed notes, when you have found a way to repair the violent separations and fracture and transgression and emptiness, return the heart to its cage of bone. Be firm but kind. The heart is as weak as it is strong.
Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.