Hearts and Bones

By Kelly McMasters
Sunday, April 22, 2007

MY HUSBAND MARK AND I WERE FOUR MONTHS INTO OUR MARRIAGE when we first stood in the long dirt driveway of the Pennsylvania farmhouse that would become ours. It was the 27th place we had seen, with the sixth broker we had used, and it was perfect: an 1860s eyebrow colonial on a healthy 10-acre plot. There was a sturdy English dairy barn that we could transform into Mark's painting studio, and not a neighbor in sight. The house's interior needed a complete rehab: The wide plank floors were painted a gymnasium gray, the walls were covered with buckling boards of knotty pine or sheets of paneling, and the kitchen -- well, there was no kitchen, just three old appliances in an awkwardly shaped room. But that was one of the reasons a writer and a painter could afford it at all. Plus, the old fieldstone foundation was strong, and the hand-cut support beams were solid, as were Mark's handyman skills. In the morning light, the home that this could become -- furniture from local barn sales, space enough for a dog (or two), rooms stuffed with books and paintings -- shimmered in front of us like a mirage. The old couple selling the house proffered a new metal roof, and accepted our offer within the week. Before we knew it, Mark and I -- both lifelong renters -- were piling papers across the living room floor in our small city apartment in preparation for our closing the next day.

It was after 5 o'clock when the doctor telephoned. Just a few days before our May wedding, Mark had suffered what the EMTs who answered our 911 call judged to be a panic attack. Fit-looking and, at 37, still relatively young -- not to mention uninsured -- he had delayed for months the doctor's appointment that would confirm or deny that diagnosis, choosing instead to follow the EMTs' advice of resting and drinking a gallon of water a day. We'd wanted to focus on the rhythm of our early marriage -- the pageantry of the wedding, our honeymoon, our house-hunting. Now he'd finally gone for a checkup, and the doctor was calling.

My husband's eyes were faraway while he listened. "Well, we're closing on a house tomorrow, so we won't be back in town for a few days --" The doctor cut him off. Mark sat down, motioned for a pen. He scribbled a few notes and then hung up.

"They found something during the stress test," Mark said. The doctor thought the results must be a mistake -- a shadow from his rib or something -- but wanted to be sure. He wanted Mark to see a cardiologist the next day, and offered to call the offices himself to expedite the visit. I must have looked frightened.

"The doctor says that if it were a true read, I wouldn't be standing," Mark said. "I'll just call tomorrow before the closing, try to get an appointment for early next week." And we went back to putting our papers in order.

THE NEXT MORNING, AS WE PULLED INTO THE DRIVE-WAY FOR THE WALK-THROUGH, the house looked different. We had last seen it during high color, and now the fruit and ash trees dotting the property seemed gnarled and gray. The fascia board that trimmed the roof's edge was too short, like a skimpy miniskirt riding up on too much leg, and wasps were filing in and out of gaps at the corners. Inside, without posters and furniture to cloud the view, cracks that we had previously missed were suddenly in view. Why did the wooden floor of the bathroom have linoleum just around the toilet? What were those small circular stains on the ceiling? We realized that under each strangely placed plastic welcome mat -- an oddity we had noticed but not thought much about -- was a dip or hole or soft spot in the floor. There were so many welcome mats that we began to feel unwelcome.

That evening, we circled the empty rooms of our new house, then settled shivering onto an AeroBed mattress in the corner of the living room. Our eyes blinked blindly in the dark at every scratch and bump. We would later discover a brood of rabbits living beneath one portion of the house, but in the depth of that night, their thumps sounded like the thudding footsteps of some dead farmer. We hardly slept at all.

There was a lot to do, and we wanted to get started right away. The next morning, as I jogged in front of the meager heat given off by our pellet stove, Mark strode down the long dirt driveway to the barn, the white trail of his breath chugging behind as if he were a locomotive. He returned with a table he had fashioned from two-by-fours and an old door. The door had a cloudy wash of white milk paint across most of it and a bright red stripe down the middle -- a ready-made runner. He shuffled two white wicker chairs off the porch and through the door, spreading a couple of throw blankets across their seats. Our first renovation was a success: We had a new kitchen table.

But when he began to sand our bedroom floor, Mark could work only in 10-minute spurts. In between, he would lumber down the uneven stairs and sit on the creaky wicker, gulping down water as if it were air. I primed the knotty yellow walls until my arms ached, moving my step-stool around him in an arc. "The paint on the floor's too thick," he said. "It's just too difficult." His stamina didn't improve when he joined me in the kitchen to paint. "I must have really tired myself out," he said, pouring another glass of water.

In the city a few days later, the heart specialist's echocardiogram showed the same suspicious shadow that our doctor had seen.

"We should do an angiogram just in case," the cardiologist said. "You might be 10 or 20 percent blocked, and this way we'll be able to see exactly what we're dealing with." But Mark wasn't 20 percent, or even 60 percent, blocked. When the cardiologist inserted a tiny camera into an artery in Mark's groin, threading a long cord up into his heart, they found a 98 percent blockage, with a large clot forming that would close off the last 2 percent of space in my husband's right coronary artery. "We have to push the clot out," the cardiologist said, circling a spot of the grainy photocopy he held out to me, as if this hazy bloom and stem would explain everything.

So that day, the day before Thanksgiving, instead of preparing a turkey and corn bread stuffing, I was in an ambulance on the way to a hospital, Mark's quiet head, black hair fuzzed and matted, at my knee, the soft triangle of his chest pouring forth wires like a clump of twisted marionette strings. I balanced myself carefully over him, one hand gripping a steel box bolted to the wall beside my shoulder, the other hand splayed against the cool glass of the ambulance window. At the loading bay of the ER, one of the EMTs asked if I would walk ahead and hold the electronic doors open -- they were always broken, he explained. I shifted the clear plastic bag I was carrying -- full of the clothes Mark had worn to his appointment that morning -- and stepped ahead as the men rolled my husband out on his silver cart, as if he were a limp fish. Pushing open the heavy double doors, I thought about whether it was a good idea to let them take my husband into a hospital that couldn't figure out how to keep its ER doors functioning. How would they make his heart work?


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