Iowa Writes

GEORGE ESTREICH
Textbook


      In the weeks before Laura's surgery, I studied the heart. I explored the Latinate-mathematical wilderness of gated ion channels and fluid dynamics and QRS complexes and Purkinje fibers. I read as if reading could change things. There was, however, no optimal depth of knowledge. If I saw the heart as a simple matter—as plumbing, a pump—then the plumbing could leak, the pump fail. If I delved into the details, then each one made the heart seem more fragile. I could be lost at sea, or lost in a labyrinth. It didn't really matter.
      As the date neared, we tended to the minutiae of waiting, submerging ourselves in a life now normal, now utterly surreal. We bought a plane ticket for Ellie; Grandma, Theresa's mom, would take care of her, first here, then for a week in Pennsylvania. We filled out unpaid leave forms, set up an Internet account in Portland. We ate takeout Chinese off paper plates; Laura ate with us, the infusion pump whirring breast milk into one nostril. We exclaimed over Ellie's newest drawing; we forbade her to touch her sister. We listened to Laura's breathing, we watched the color of her lips.
      We broke down and got cable. We said it was for Grandma, but it was really for us. We were tired of poor reception for everything but PBS, and felt strongly that we needed the gentle, healing glow of mainstream stupidity to get us through this rough patch. It was one of the perks of our situation, along with not returning calls or e-mails if we didn't want to, ignoring the wrecked upstairs bathroom, and for me, the crowning glory—canceling the extraction of my wisdom teeth. Having a child with a heart defect has little to recommend it, but it is an excellent all purpose excuse. Ellie, who regularly went days or weeks at a time without TV, was agog before the hyperkinetic wonders of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. Theresa, watching ER, was glad to see the expressions of the doctors, free of static at last.

      In the weeks before Laura's surgery, I studied the heart. I explored the Latinate-mathematical wilderness of gated ion channels and fluid dynamics and QRS complexes and Purkinje fibers. I read as if reading could change things. There was, however, no optimal depth of knowledge. If I saw the heart as a simple matter—as plumbing, a pump—then the plumbing could leak, the pump fail. If I delved into the details, then each one made the heart seem more fragile. I could be lost at sea, or lost in a labyrinth. It didn't really matter.
      As the date neared, we tended to the minutiae of waiting, submerging ourselves in a life now normal, now utterly surreal. We bought a plane ticket for Ellie; Grandma, Theresa's mom, would take care of her, first here, then for a week in Pennsylvania. We filled out unpaid leave forms, set up an Internet account in Portland. We ate takeout Chinese off paper plates; Laura ate with us, the infusion pump whirring breast milk into one nostril. We exclaimed over Ellie's newest drawing; we forbade her to touch her sister. We listened to Laura's breathing, we watched the color of her lips.
      We broke down and got cable. We said it was for Grandma, but it was really for us. We were tired of poor reception for everything but PBS, and felt strongly that we needed the gentle, healing glow of mainstream stupidity to get us through this rough patch. It was one of the perks of our situation, along with not returning calls or e-mails if we didn't want to, ignoring the wrecked upstairs bathroom, and for me, the crowning glory—canceling the extraction of my wisdom teeth. Having a child with a heart defect has little to recommend it, but it is an excellent all purpose excuse. Ellie, who regularly went days or weeks at a time without TV, was agog before the hyperkinetic wonders of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. Theresa, watching ER, was glad to see the expressions of the doctors, free of static at last.
      As the family Puritan, in spirit if not in heritage, I would set stern limits during the day, then grant myself slack-jawed hours at night. Slumped in blue light with a biology textbook, surfing the five hundred-plus channels of the Digital Silver Package far into the wee hours, I illuminated the cardiac cycle with Top Ten Lists, sports bloopers, Seinfeld episodes, and the interminable scrolling of the TV Guide channel, its numbered boxes advancing like the visible edge of an enormous gear. I'd hit the MUTE button and let the listings cycle through, reading about less evolved creatures that had no need for a four-chambered heart. The sea sponge, for example, which simply rooted itself in nutrient-rich waters, and absorbed whatever the currents brought it.
      By midnight, the commercials got noticeably shabbier, as slick, effects-laden microdramas for cars and soft drinks yielded to amateurish spots for mattresses, recreational vehicles, debt consolidation loans, and 1-900 party lines. Around two, the infomercials would begin slithering into view, flashing their white teeth and rock-hard abs, and at last I'd turn the TV off. Padding into the darkened bedroom, I'd step over the oxygen and feeding tubes. I tried not to wake Theresa or Laura, shutting the door behind me.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


GEORGE ESTREICH

George Estreich has published a collection of poems, Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, and a memoir, The Shape of the Eye: Down Syndrome, Family, and the Stories We Inherit. He lives in Oregon with his family. He is a presenter in The Examined Life conference held in Iowa City.

The Examined Life is a three-day conference in April focusing on the links between the science of medicine and the art of writing and sponsored by the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine.

This page was first displayed
on April 18, 2011

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