The Strongest Muscle in the Body by Cherish Galvin-Bliefernich

The best and most beautiful things
in the world cannot be seen or even touched
– they must be felt with the heart.

_Helen Keller

 

 

After the accident, some of the moments I missed most during the first four months of recovery were the “car conversations” the kids and I would have whenever we were running to the grocery store, doctors’ appointments or the holy grail of stores, Target.
The conversations had a wide range of topics, jumping from one random question (“Mama, did you see the dinosaur in the cloud?”) to another (“Mama, how did they get the door off of you? You had no handle.”)

Being told that I had to wait until almost November to drive was hard – hard on my nature to be on the go and independent, hard on the routines I used to love doing with my eight-year-old daughter, Aly, and my five-year old son, Jacob. In what felt so long but was really not long at all, we were back to driving together: changed, but embracing time spent making observations and asking questions.

Our “car conversations” restarted hesitantly, wedged between hyperawareness and physical memory, but then quickly returned as we became more relaxed and settled into routines again. By January, Jacob had sparked one of the most interesting dialogues I’d ever had with him.

It began with a song. I still had a few favorite Christmas jingles on my playlist, and an a cappella version of “Go Tell it On The Mountain” had come on. Apparently, Jacob was listening.

“Mama, how old is Jesus?”

About 2000 years old, I told him.

“Wow! That’s old!” Quiet in the backseat as he ruminated over this information. Then, “Mama, how old is God?”

Oh, dear Lord. I took a deep breath and said, “As old as the universe, Jacob.”

Wide, blue eyes stared back at me in the rearview mirror; blonde eyebrows arched in surprise and a look of shock spread across his young face. “Wow! God’s got some serious magic to live that long!”

His response prompted my heart to giggle at his sincerity. I love when these big questions come during mundane tasks, lighting up my days with perspective and wonder.

Valentine’s Day was no different. On the way back from school, with brownie hearts on our minds, Jacob asked, “Mama, do you know what the strongest muscle in the body is?”

I smiled to myself and remembered all the conversations I’d had with my sister, Teka, who has worked with the hearts and lungs of babies for over twenty years, and obligingly said, “The leg muscles?”

“No!” Jake replied. “The heart!”

He proceeded to tell me that it is about the size of a fist, and I realized that Mrs. Steimle must have talked about the heart in class.

The heart is the strongest muscle in the human body. It should be. I know that it has a physical job, a really important one. The day of the accident, the only artery that hadn’t collapsed in me was between my heart and my brain.

Which one kept the other going? When my immobile, trapped body and unseeing but open eyes could not tell me if both of my children were okay in the back seat, my heart was pounding, and my brain was trapped between a memory and a dream. I needed to hear the voice of an angel, in the human form of our local fire chief, Ann, to tell me that my “kids were fine” in order to let go and leave my life in the hands of EMTs and doctors.

When I met with Dr. Policastro in a follow-up appointment one day in August about six weeks later, he told me that a person on his operating table who did not have a family to live for would not have survived the first two surgeries I had had to repair the trauma done to my abdomen. So I feel pretty confident that my heart kept me alive.

Then again, maybe what kept me alive was all the germs from my children and the hundreds of children I have taught. Dr. Aspirinio, who performed my third surgery a week after the accident, told me, “I think your immune system saved you.” According to him, I need to thank every sneeze that has ever exploded onto my face, every midnight vomiting over the last eight years, every sloppy kiss on my cheek.

Though my immune system may have helped, I disagree with him. I think it was the versatile heart, the physical and emotional stubbornness of the heart, that saved me.

The heart. The heart that is filled with anxiety over health insurance battles and, yes, an unknown future, accepting that my life has changed. The heart that cringes from criticism, beats with outrage and leaps with fear. The heart that aches with grief for parents who have lost their own children to tragedy, yet is laced with thankfulness and tinged with guilt because I still have my own.

The heart that fills with laughter when I watch my husband, Matt, bury Jacob in a pile of snow, leaving only a University of Minnesota-clad head poking out from the top, a face-splitting grin on our young son’s face. The heart that glows with pride when Aly spends afternoons creating Lego cities and sewing skirts to wear to school. A heart that smiles when a sister says something sassy and prompts sassiness from my rusty, sassy depths. A heart that, in the critical moments between life and death, leaned on the love and support of a partner to keep beating.

The heart. It has to be the strongest muscle. It has to be, in order to live. Our hearts keep beating through those moments when we think they should stop.

“You’re not finished yet,” Dr. Policastro had said to me that day in August.

Nope. I’m not.

 

Cherish Galvin-Bliefernich is an elementary school teacher living in Sullivan County with her husband, Matt, and their two children, Alyena and Jacob. While recovering from a traumatic car accident, she has turned to writing about her experience in hopes of finding purpose and making a difference in other people’s lives.