Rhythms

by Marni Asplund Campbell

My father’s heart is strong and scarred, bound in spots by
thread, a delicate patchwork of veiny fabrics. I imagine, when
I talk to him on the telephone, his physical presence. I can hear
his breathing in the brief pauses before he answers a question-
a necessary affectation, no doubt, after years of playing the
law professor, gently withholding wisdom like a tweed-coated
Socrates. He always signals the end of the conversation with a
heartier tone, “Well, we love you Marni,” and it is at this
moment when I think I can hear his heartbeat-slow, deliberate,
like his golf game, or the way he plays “Laura” on the piano.
It was my lullaby, as he nursed me through cold Edmonton
nights, his first pink daughter, a rhythm of protection, quiet
reassurance.


While he was a bishop for ten years, his heart must have
absorbed the shocks of a hundred lives’ worth of infidelity,
drunken, angry hatred and poisonous despair- absorbed them
well on the outside, never showing the pain that threatened to
burst its walls, like Milton’s cannon, with the combined combustion
of saltpeter and sorrow. A father for twice as long, it must
have torn and bled with each scrape and sin. He taught me once
how to skip, step-hop, step-hop, in front of our house. An
uncommon moment for a man, tall legs moving to a child’s double
rhythms. But I tripped when I tried, and fell on my nose, making
it bleed. He carried me to the bathroom, and cried, just a few
small tears that got lost in my hair. I was secretly thrilled with
the glamor of the injury and impressed by his emotion.


His father’s heart was no less strong, but grew fat on Alberta
beef and fried bread. It sent him signals, tiny bursts of hot
semaphore-stop, slow down – but they were silenced by ignorance
and a glass of bicarbonate of soda. A heart as wide as the prairies,
but still one day in the church cloakroom by the chapel, it
stopped. Just stopped. In a glorious seizure it ceased and settled,
my grandfather falling on the floor by the dripping winter boots.
Dad, still in college, bore the loss. But his heart also bore the
hereditary weaknesses- the too-tender empathy that made it
shudder at pain and ugliness, the fierce integrity that made it
tremble at avarice, that luscious longing for meat and gravy. At
the end of his meal, Dad would go to the cupboard for a piece
of soft white bread, and slowly sop up the last of his gravy, winking
at his pleasure. And that germ of weakness that pulsed
through his veins spoke to him one day. Stop. Slow down. He
called the ambulance himself and waited for it in front of his
office.


I told my little sister when she came home from kindergarten,
“Emily, Dad had a heart attack today.” I don’t remember how I
knew. Was there a note on the fridge, by the picture of Mark in
Brazil? Did Mom call? Emily sat on my lap and cried silently,
like a woman.


Dad spent a month in the hospital, waiting for the slow revelations
that could chart the waste of flesh, the hardenings and
softenings of chambers and tissues. The worst test, said Dad, was
the angiogram. You were conscious so that you could cough and
make the muscle jump for a more lively picture, and it was more
painful than the attack, like having fire shot into your veins. And
there, in the basement of the Hotel Dieu hospital, lit up like a
crazy neon roadmap, was the impasse, the heart-plug, the 45 years’
worth of saturated fats and silent anxiety. It was a quadruple
block, and needed to be removed.


The night before his surgery, we all went to the hospital and
sat in a room at the end of the cardiac wing. Beautiful-
surrounded by windows, on the eleventh floor, where we could
see miles of Lake Ontario, dull grey and silver. It must have been
January, because it wasn’t quite frozen . From that height, the
waves looked like a relief map, the continent of Europe in
motion. We sang some hymns-we’d never really done much with
Family Home Evening, but this seemed an appropriate time to
approximate the form – and each one of us said something about
Dad. But the miracle came when he, like Abraham, silenced us
with his presence, and told us simple stories about his love and
gratitude for his children, his wife. We have no promise of a
painless life, he said, or even the presence of beauty to temper
the suffering. All we know is that it is good to love. Then we
prayed, kneeling by the windows, and left. I slept with my
mother that night. She couldn’t stand to be alone with the extra
pillows and the telephone.


I also stayed with her during the surgery, when I wasn’t in
school-10 hours that I remember in small bursts. Friends brought
sandwiches, jello, ice cream. Mom ate nothing. Another family
was waiting for their father in surgery, and at midnight a nurse
came to tell them that he had died. And I learned then that
death was nothing, really nothing, and that was the awful, leering
injustice of it. Just a word and an absence -he is no more.
Mom and I cried like it was for us, and we were alone.


Another friend came – she took me to the cafeteria; Mom was
immovable as a sphinx, convinced that her vigilance would speed
the miracle. When we came back the nurse had been there. The
doctor had asked if we wanted a priest-the operation done, Dad’s
heart, romantic little organ, insulted by the thoughtless vivisection
of the scalpel, refused to beat again. I found a quarter, called
my father’s bishopric counselors. As moments crystallize into
permanence, they acquire unnatural dimensions. This one seems to
me now gigantic, the time drawing out like Einstein’s light-speed
clock, aging more agonizingly than the bean I planted in Primary.
They came and washed and anointed their hands, then his head,
surrounded by green nurses and the surgeons, with the ghastly
chest exposed, ribcage casually set aside like kindling. His heart
began to beat. I asked him later if he’d had a near-death
experience, and he said, “No Marni, just a damned painful one.”


I suppose a girl always harbours a peculiar love for her father,
a subtle fascination with his tallness and inherent opposition to
her substance, but this is not really going to be about Dad. For
I learned, during the hours in the waiting room, when we sat
holding hands just for warmth and the reassurance of vitality,
during the weeks after, when she lost twenty pounds, and let me
drive the car, even though I was still fifteen, when she finally ate
with me, a whole strawberry pie with cream between the two of us,
that my mother was a woman, enigmatic. Not a monolith of power,
dictating piano practice and clean the bathrooms, but a wife and
lover, who knew much more intimately than I the rhythm of my
father’s life, the rhythm of my own creation. Her frantic energy
was an expedient counterpoint to his soft sureness, the two bound
endlessly together by mysterious ties of blood and bone. And last
week, as I lay on a paper-covered table in the Health Center, I
heard a new rhythm, an insistent swish-swish twice the speed of
my own, transferred through jelly smeared on my stomach and
a tiny microphone. It filled the room with a mystical presence,
stronger, it seemed, than my own life, more lovely than my
husband’s eyes as he smiled.