Mysteries of the Heart

Learning From Heart Disease

Inextinguishably Alive

In a lifetime a typical human heart accrues 1.5 billion heartbeats

The human heart has four valves. They control the electrically-timed-and-patterned one-way movement of blood that courses through the heart. As blood collects in the left and right atria, two entrance valves (A and B) close. A moment later, A and B open and the blood drops into the ventricles. At the same time, two exit valves (C and D) close so that the blood remains in those ventricles. A moment later, C and D open, and the ventricles squeeze the blood up—eject is the term—into the pulmonary artery, the lungs, and the aorta. The blood is then dispersed throughout the body and returns via the coronary arteries to the atria.

When A and B close together, the sound is lub. When C and D close together, the sound is DUP. This companioned sound, which the doctor listens for with her stethoscope, is lub-DUP, lub-DUP. Each pulsing pair is a heartbeat. I’m curious—what meaning (for the essayist) comes through in this heartbeat?

A typical human life, in twenty-first century America, accrues, roughly, 1.5 billion heartbeats. If we isolate the first 500 million lub-DUPs, the first third, what can we say about the next third, another 500 million beats? Will they be like the first? Sure, why not. Greater wear and tear but predictably the same. But there is change: that additional 500 million beats, all told, lengthen the function, enforce the pattern, create a new totality. Life is ever-additive.

Via this accumulation, time determines that the amount of every adding up is always different than the amount of every previous adding up.

Imagine the universe as the number of seconds added together to get to where the universe is now. In the second it takes you to imagine that accumulated universe as a singularity, it just got one second older. No matter how you calculate time, time always clocks in a tad more than what you’ve just computed. If the number you imagine is always subverted by the addition of another number (the next heartbeat), it’s impossible to isolate the (or a) present. (Atheist Sam Harris’s step-behind-himself definition of time is, “It’s always now.”) The one thing you can count on is the ongoing passage of time and its accumulation.

I realize death (my three heart attacks have made me rather rueful about all this counting) upends the pattern of all-of-it-so-far plus one. But really, it doesn’t matter. As long as I’m alive, the seconds of my life must accrue. Even though another person may, after I’m gone, figure the number of seconds I did breathe-in/breathe-out (typically we tally the whole in years: he lived a good 87 years), my life to me cannot end. I repeat, to me. My life feels infinite, is experienced, whether computed or not, as an unimpeachable equation: now + one. Which, you may deduce, results in a dynamic (me) vs. a static (end of me) distinction, one I cannot make. I cannot know the end of me.

And so, isn’t this another reason not to fear death? (Dying’s another story.) Death is the final redesigning of the pattern of live events I will reach, unknowable at the end of my conscious ongoingness, my most unmemorable moment. Which is one way of grokking what Wittgenstein was driving at when he wrote at the end of the Tractatus: “What we cannot speak about”—the extreme improbability of recollecting our last ping—“we must pass over in silence.”

Such a silent passing over, however, is not the hard part. The hard part is forgoing the delusion that insists we can speak of death and thereby understand/experience it a priori. This is what each heartbeat seems, in part, to be saying. And yet lub-DUP expresses only what lives. An absent heartbeat spells death, which, whatever it may be to us, is not lub-DUP to the body.

What’s more, the heartbeat along with the rest of the body’s functions—blood coursing, neurons firing, memory constellating—seem by their ongoingness, a running-fence to and into the sea, to appease the mortal terror they generate. We’ll handle your death. You don’t have to. Obviously (dear boy), it’s too big for you to make sense of. So relax. We’ll go. Not you. You can imagine your undying self via your writing and your books and your website and your sons’ inheritance and your belief in molecular life everlasting or whatever comforts you.

That psychic separation the body makes with the self, the inextinguishable one, is what every lub-DUP of the heart announces and denies. Enough times until we hear it, speak it, and pass it over in silence.

Thomas Larson is a journalist, critic, and memoirist. He is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader and teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University.

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