It was well known throughout all of the valleys and all of the vales of the Kingdom of the Valley of the Land of the Puppers that Winslow was a good and magnanimous king.
So begins the story Bob and I tell our son, Rowan, every night before he falls asleep. Each evening, we follow Winslow, our dog, on his adventures throughout the magical Land of the Puppers. Winslow, the king of all of the animals, learns how to make friends, how to dance, how not to eat too much frosting. He also meets a little tree that has the most beautiful heartsong Winslow has ever heard:
Winslow ran up the deer path, as fast as he could, and the sound grew louder, and louder, and louder until it was all he could hear—until it filled him up to the very top. And there, with the wind blowing through his fur, he found what he was looking for. It was a rowan tree.
“I’ve never seen a rowan tree before. Is that you making that sound?”
The sound splashed into Winslow’s ears like the ocean crashing against the rocks, echoing through the leaves of Treeton’s branches, and finally whooshing toward his heart in a flood of sound and life.
That sound is the whoosh of Rowan’s heart—not a beat, not a thump-thump, but a whoosh.
You see, our son was born two months early with two holes in his heart. His heartsong is the sound of too much blood going the wrong way—enlarging one side of his heart and making his little body work too hard.
When he was born, everything looked okay. Then, three days in, the sound of his heart exploded through his chest. The doctor rushed in, and the technician pulled out a little tube of jelly, rubbed it all over his chest, and said nothing as he took pictures of each little whoosh. You didn’t have to have years of medical training to see the problem. You could hear it if you placed your ear to his chest. You could feel it underneath your hand. It sunk down deep into your stomach—the sound of something gone wrong.
But it wasn’t bad enough. Not yet. We’d wait. We’d watch. We’d see.
Then, at one appointment, a surprise: one hole had closed. Tissue had built up around the hole, creating a block, which eventually created a barrier. The blood found a different path, and the sound of his heartsong quieted.
And so we waited again. But, each appointment showed the same hole, the same sound, and the same steady enlargement of his heart.
Now, after five years of watching and waiting and hoping and wishing, we’ve run out of time. The hole has not closed, and his heart is enlarged; his heartsong is strained. We cannot wait any longer: he will have open heart surgery.
It is not an easy choice, but we know it is best to close this type of hole before he starts kindergarten—before he learns to run harder and sprint faster. Before his lungs are scarred—permanently damaged by the extra pressure on his lungs’ blood vessels. Some holes can be closed easily in the cath lab, when the cardiologist puts a long thin tube through his vein to reach his heart, but some holes, like his, require surgery.
This is where we are now—telling Rowan the stories that will help him make it to the other side of the hospital bed. These stories are not easy. This column, Heartsong, chronicles our journey. The title is the music of his story—the one we’ve told him a thousand different ways to explore a thousand different feelings and ideas. His story begins with that simple song, then launches into a world of childlike wonder, tempered by grief and buoyed by hope.
This is some big stuff. But it’s also all the beautiful moments in between (and the weird and wild ones too). As a folklorist, I’ve studied stories. I know how, as humans, we can’t help using narrative to frame our world and understand the universe. So now, I’m sharing a few of my own stories, hoping you’ll find in them some little spark that will help you understand the unknown.
“Well,” Winslow barked, “I am very happy we met. Would you like to go get some tea and cupcakes?”
“I’m afraid I can’t,” the rowan tree said, his branches sagging toward the ground. “I’m rooted to this spot, right on top of this hill, and my roots go deep. This is where I stay.”
Winslow’s head drooped. He was sad for his new friend. What a terrible life—to not have tea and cupcakes. He couldn’t even imagine the emptiness. He barked twice, then sniffed the air and wagged his tail. He knew what he had to do.
And so Winslow ran down the hill, and off into the forest, in search of tea and cupcakes to fill his belly and to share with his new friend. As he ran, the gentle whoosh of the rowan tree’s heartsong filled his ears.
And he was happy.