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One of my earliest childhood memories is of a visit to our doctor in a village near the farm where I grew up. It was during this visit that I first learned I had a heart murmur.
Like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, the old doctor lifted me onto his lap and listened intently to my chest with his stethoscope for what seemed like a very long time. Then he leaned over to me and quietly said: “Did you know your heart talks to you? It is whispering something and if you listen very carefully, it will always tell you what to do.”
I don’t know that I fully understood what he was saying. But I was sure that my father, whom the doctor had just invited out onto the back porch to have a chat and a cigarette, would understand.
That old country doctor had diagnosed a problem with my aortic valve, and he made his diagnosis without the aid of sophisticated diagnostic tools – no echocardiogram, no MRI, no EKG. Just a finely tuned ear developed over the years spent listening to the hearts of old farmers and old farm wives.
I grew accustomed to the term “murmur” as a child, and for the longest time I was convinced that someone, or some thing, lived in my heart. At the very least, just as the doctor had told me, I believed my heart itself was speaking to me in a murmuring, whispering sort of way, in a language I did not yet comprehend.
Over the course of the next six decades, doctor after doctor would comment on my “defective heart.” But as a kid growing up on the farm, that imperfect heart was my constant companion, my friend.
As I lay in bed at night, I could hear my heart beating through my pillow. Its constant whisper lured my imagination away from fears of savages with tomahawks hiding behind the bedroom door and the unearthly sound of the owls calling in the pine trees outside my window.
My heart’s heavy pounding kept me from following my best friend’s dare to walk across the beams in the hayloft some 30 feet above the wooden floor of the barn.
The quickening of its beat as I took my first draw on a Sweet Caporal cigarette – stolen from under the front seat of my father’s ’59 Pontiac – made that draw my last.
And one hot August afternoon when I was 7 or 8, during threshing time, I learned for the first time that sadness and despair also reside in the heart.
In those days, neighbours helped neighbours with the harvest. That whole day our farm was a beehive of activity; tractors roared down the laneway spewing diesel fumes as they strained to pull wagons loaded with sheaves of wheat, men shouting “Gee” and “Haw” to teams of tired horses over the constant chug of the threshing machine.
Suddenly the noise stopped, and I watched in horror as our neighbours pulled my father, dazed and barely conscious, out of the straw stack where he had collapsed from exhaustion in the August heat.
Thirty years later, that same sadness enveloped my heart and filled my chest the night I learned that my father’s heart had contracted, this time violently, and for the very last time.
We have developed a lexicon of heart terms: a cold heart, a warm heart, follow your heart, listen to your heart, without a heart, a big heart, even a broken heart. And now, after 60 years, my heart was telling me that it was indeed broken, tired.
What had started out as a quiet, guiding, almost inaudible whisper had become a call for help. It was indeed time to “fix that defect.”
I worried that the surgery required to replace the diseased valve would silence the voice in my heart, but a few nights after the operation, when the daytime busy-ness of the hospital ward had finally died down, I turned my ear once again to my pillow to hear what, if anything, my heart had to say.
The hum of the murmur that had been with me since childhood had been replaced with a strong, steady, solid, metronome-like beat.
And as I listened to the new sound coming from my chest, I came to realize that what our hearts offer us is not so much a message as it is an invitation. An invitation to move away from the noise in our heads, to quiet the mind, and to connect to the grace that is life and all that is sacred.
Lying in that hospital bed I understood for the first time the gift that old country doctor had given me.
He had blessed me with what would become a life-long opportunity to embrace that which others had labelled deficient, and to accept it as whole.
He had bestowed upon me the capacity to recognize my heart as a portal to being present. He had taught me to listen to my heart.
Doug Wilson lives in Kitchener, Ont.