A Heart Exposed

By Jessica Eddings-Roeser
Guest Post

My husband is asleep in bed, snuggled under our powder blue quilt. It’s twelve thirty a.m., and he has been home just twenty minutes.

He will be up before daylight to operate on infants with heart defects, to ensure that their tiny and irregular hearts beat and pump the needed blood throughout their bodies. As a cardio thoracic surgery fellow he returns home with just enough time to eat, prep for the next day, and brush his teeth.

Saturday, however, he’ll be off for the first time in weeks, and I’ve lived for this day: To watch him tickle our child and make her laugh. To converse when he’s not falling asleep.

But a two-month-old baby at the hospital struggles to live. His surgery has been performed, yet they cannot close the sternum. The heart is exposed. So my husband will go in on Saturday to change the dressing because when this child’s heart beats the two pieces of his serrated sternum click together. My husband must gently separate the bone and change the dressing next to this beating heart.

And despite the grave needs of this infant, I am angry because I am alone.

Even home in bed—though I feel his breath on my face—my beloved is spent. I fear that he has nothing left for me—that it might even be wrong for me to want him given the urgent needs of others. I remind myself that my husband lives only because he received a similar surgery as an infant.

He is called to this work.

But my heart is weary of being strong. I do not want the health I so easily own—like Esau I would take a hot family meal traded on a whim.

I believe in his calling, in our ability to withstand absence, but my strength fails me. So I cry Denise Levertov’s words from Prayer for Revolutionary Love:

That a woman not ask a man to leave meaningful work to follow her.
That a man not ask a woman to leave meaningful work to follow him.

During the day I uncoil my daughter’s fingers from hazardous objects: a sandal, a pink paper clip, a shiny brown beetle. At lunch she grabs the spoon from my hand and smears pureed sweet potatoes through her hair like pomade.

Afterward we read a caterpillar book repeatedly. Finally, she rubs her eyes and puts her thumb in her mouth. But outside a steamroller begins to repave the parking lot and she sits up suddenly, at the noise.

I consider that my family may use me up—maybe I am just another household appliance running unnoticed in the background.

“It’s my turn to break,” I think to myself.

That no one try to put Eros in bondage.
But that no one put a cudgel in the hand of Eros.

I am supposed to be a writer—at least during naptime. So I tiptoe into the living room, computer in hand, and step on a small yellow truck with blue wheels. I pitch forward, clasping my laptop to my breast.

I take a deep breath. I decide it’s more important to clean up.

That our loyalty to one another and our loyalty to our work not be set in false conflict.

Next door, an eighty-seven-year-old woman lives quietly. She too was married to a heart surgeon who worked all hours while she raised their four children. She too waited, looking forward as best she could.

“And then we were separated, and that was very sad,” she tells me. I suddenly remember that I have not lost my baby weight. That most nurses are women.

That our love for each other give us love for each other’s work.
That our love for each other’s work give us love for one another.

But this erect and graceful lady takes my daughter’s hand and swings it so that they both laugh. Though her life was solitary and full of the daily tasks of children, I’ve seen her reading on her porch beside red geraniums. A bird feeder hangs behind her while the breeze gently lifts the white hair off her forehead.

“What do you do?” she asks one day.

I look down at the ground and see the tar, still glistening, on the newly paved asphalt. I don’t have any books published. But I fearfully open my heart.

“I’m a writer.”

“Oh, that is marvelous,” she says, her blue eyes shining. “With a talent like that you will never be lonely.”

“You are right,” I say, because I don’t know what else to say.

Afterward I scrape oatmeal off the kitchen linoleum with my fingernail and envision the story in my head. A fictional woman is with me—a woman who could live and be alive if I would let her. I imagine her cleaning her own kitchen. Then my phone rings.

“I can’t talk long. We’ve got to take the kid back again, he’s still got a leak.”

“When are you coming home?” I ask.

“Midnight, maybe one. I’ve got to go.”

That we endure absence, if need be, without losing our love for each other.
Without closing our doors to the unknown.

Our daughter is down for the night and the steamroller is quiet. Dirty dishes sit in the sink, but the lonely woman is in my heart; it’s time to let her out.

Though my calling doesn’t demand like a clicking sternum, love alone cannot sustain my life of small, solitary tasks. I must expose my own heart, despite the danger of unfinished tasks.

My work awaits, and no one has asked me to leave it. I am the one who has left.

Later, I wake to find my husband settling into bed. His eyes are already closing, but he mumbles, “Did you get some good writing in today?”

He’s asleep before I can answer, but I wrap my arms around him and realize that what my neighbor says is true.

Jessica Eddings-Roeser is a writer and mother who currently resides in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband and daughter. While she has a background in education, she is presently home and writing while her family sleeps. Jessica has an MFA from Seattle Pacific University, contributes to Magical Teaching, and has work in Rock and Sling and Art House America.

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  • Dyana Herron

    Amazing, Jessica.

  • Lovely–thank-you.

  • Betsy A.

    I love it. Thank you. Can’t stop the crying.

  • Lovely and difficult. I am glad for all the loves in your life.

  • Beth

    You really capture well the haunting loneliness of a life of small tasks. I love your use of Levertov’s prayer throughout this piece. It speaks of hope, but hope with gritted teeth.

  • Oh oh. This is beautiful and full of love. Thank you.

  • Jessica Eddings-Roeser

    Thank you for reading. Prayers written by others are often so much easier to say than my own! Much love to everyone doing small but difficult work.

  • Dear Jessica,
    I am a physician who well remembers the long days and nights I spent away from my family. Medicine is a harsh and jealous mistress. She gives and she robs you at the same time, but do not despair writing does the same. I recently published my first book after writing it for 2 1/2 years and I am 62 years old!
    Your writing is good and you will do better than that but you must be slightly selfish in order to do it. Don’t lose yourself completely in your husband and child. Try to save a little space just for you. Good Luck!

  • This is exquisite, Jessica– powerful tone, powerful questions.

  • Cheryl

    This is tremendous, Jessica! I’m so glad I read this tonight. I didn’t know it until I read it, but I think I needed to hear this. Wishing you courage in the small tasks, xoxo

  • Jan Barfield

    Thank you so much for revealing what many can relate to, even through different circumstances. Our HOPE in Christ can carry us as we reveal our heart to Him. You have done so beautifully. Love to each of you!

  • Jessica, you are a stronger, more generous woman than me in the giving up of your husband. Perhaps it helps the need and call is more evident. As others have said, your writing is excquisite.

    The lofty words of Levertov’s poetry differ from the reality of trucks and blocks we step on. I read her words of exhortation as ideals she may or may not have lived up to, as ideals that a particular individual may or may not be capable of living up to.

    I’ve found my mind and spirit need a certain degree of order to free me to dive deep and creativity to spring forth. Uncluttering a desk allows the pressed down spring of creativity to vault forth. Yet, the call of housework can be a need or unexamined compulsion, spiritual laziness, and fear of the unknown.

    And for me, I struggle to stay upright on a different, but related edge : the desire to be of tangible, practical or spiritual help in the here and now versus investing myself in words that someone may or may not read–that is the beam on which I teeter on, groping for an elusive balance.

  • Amy Wood

    Hi Jessica,
    My husband is 2.5 months into his pediatric surgery fellowship….a friend read your post, thought of me, and forwarded this along. I wept as I read the whole thing. Wept as much the second time thru. So painfully familiar.
    I try to tell myself, other women have husband’s at war and that at least I see his body, warm and resting. But I also have felt the guilt of waking him up just so I could cry a little.
    Then today, I sat next to a woman named Jenny at our new church. She asked what brought us to Dallas and then said, “oh my best friend just moved to Virginia for her husband’s fellowship.” I don’t know anyone at the church……so odd….so I am commenting on your post, “thank you for sharing with me.” And I have begun to pray for you: for more strength, for more hope, and that you listen so closely to the Savior’s voice that ALL of the other’s seem strange…as strange as they really are.
    With affection, Amelia
    PS – Today I am trying to be grateful that my husband is not a professional musician! 🙂

  • Jessica Eddings-Roeser

    Much love to you, Amelia! I have guiltily woken my husband in order to cry, too. I understand. There is a quote from Frederick Buechner that I think about daily, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I know that’s true for my husband, and I know it’s true for me, too.

  • Julia

    I love the prayer “That our love for each other give us love for each other’s work.
    That our love for each other’s work give us love for one another.” I think I will need to be praying this a lot in the future. Thank you for exposing your heart.