Scrambled Heart, Part 2

{Continued from last week’s essay}

Because of the Hepatitis C diagnosis and subsequent cirrhosis doctors later agreed to evaluate him for a heart/liver transplant, quite rare, but several have been successfully completed around the country. Doctors wanted to do some lung studies first, before sending him to Seattle for a heart/liver evaluation. The doctors discovered his lung functions were extremely poor, possibly due to fibroid tumors, probably from anti-fibrillation drugs: he would need a heart/liver/lung transplant. Although multiple organ transplantation has been successful, the three big guns have been transplanted only once before.

After six months of waiting for results and decisions, a letter from Mayo Clinic arrived stating the “constellation of his anatomy” was in too great a state of disarray and he was pronounced a non-viable candidate. The sand in the hourglass draining, Mike and I began measuring time as though a bomb were set to detonate at the end of the two-year death sentence. We never told Zeke about the letter from Mayo. We told him only that the doctors said “not now” on the transplantation. Doctors agreed to respect our decision.

The two-year death sentence ended. The hourglass emptied. Zeke didn’t die. He is twenty-nine and has out-lived everyone’s best guesses. Sallow-skinned, arms and legs thin as kindling, eyes sunk, bloated belly, multiple chest incisions, ankles deeply scarred from ulcerations due to poor circulation, a tiny scar on his small left index finger from a paint-scraper I dropped on him while scraping porch windows from a ladder when he was three, short, dark-haired going bald at the peak from twisting his fingers in his hair, wisps of hair trying to be a beard, a Polish pickle nose, eyebrows ramping over the bridge, sweet, gentle, soft-spoken, with an IQ equivalent to Forrest Gump, Zeke lives alone with his cat, Tigger, in a low-income apartment in Kalispell, Montana.

He lives alone by choice. After high school he spent a year at a Bible College, living on campus, then moved back to Kalispell and into his own apartment. He had a good job for four years after college as a video-editor for a TV station, until he grew too sick and missed too much work. Now, he wakes about noon every day, sometimes showers, sometimes not, and opens up his lap-tap to connect with his only “friends” – his internet circle. In the past two years he has been scammed by Nigerian sleaze-balls professing true love and the desire to have his babies if only Zeke would send them money for a ticket to come to the U.S. to live with him till eternity. His current “girlfriend” lives in Florida, ten years his senior, has five children that have all been taken away from her by the state, is on welfare, married, living with an abusive husband and his cousin and four children in a two-bedroom trailer.

About three in the afternoon Zeke might drag his disheveled self out of bed for a hot dog with gobs of mustard and mayonnaise and an ice glass full of Gatorade or lemon tea. He leaves the dirty plate on the kitchen counter or the tiny red coffee table in the living room. He might turn on Dr. Phil or a professional wrestling DVD, maybe play a Wii racing game, eat frozen pizza for dinner, instant-message some more. Days I can coax him out of the apartment for a trip to Best Buy or Target or Walmart are scarce. He doesn’t have much energy to get out of his hovel.

I gather his dirty clothes once a week and haul them to my house. He has a housekeeper that wades in once a week and scrubs the toilet, washes dishes, freshens the cat litter, changes the bed sheets, hangs up new bathroom towels and pushes a vacuum. Every month or so I scour, trying to be respectful of his space but filling a personal need to keep him clean. I defrost the freezer, suck out the corners of the rooms layered with cat hair, shampoo the couch and recliner chair, shove furniture around to vacuum, dust, destroy moldy sub-sandwiches left half eaten in his fridge, wash windows, hang scented air fresheners. He prefers canned chicken soup to my homemade variety, frozen lasagna to home baked, bottled spaghetti sauce to slow-simmered fresh tomatoes and spices and meatballs. He likes Kraft mac and cheese, apples on occasion, cottage cheese, melted cheddar on bagels.

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I spend days stuck in grief berating myself for my worries, my wasting of time staring out windows drawing imaginary lines with my index finger on teak table tops, trying to find hope in the face of hopelessness, trying to stay useful. Making-believe life has happy endings, trying to make a life.

I am in Zeke’s apartment for the afternoon. The two of us are watching Charlotte’s Web, sipping sodas; he is laying on the couch, his feet in my lap, socks off, home from his twenty-third or forty-eighth, I can’t remember, paracentisis procedure this morning at the local hospital where they drew off seven liters of fluid from his one-hundred-and-twenty pound frame. It is eighty degrees in his apartment and he is wrapped in a down comforter. I am rubbing his feet and ankles with peppermint cream, massaging the soles, the toes, his hands locked behind his head, his head tilted sideways watching the new flat screen TV Mike and I bought him for his birthday. Tigger is sprawled on his belly kneading his sweatshirt with clawless paws, a great white grin spreads across Zeke’s face as Charlotte writes magic words in her web to save Wilbur’s life: “Some pig.” I smile at Zeke, so grateful to have this chance to rub his feet, memorizing this moment.

Yesterday he asked if there was any information yet from his doctor about transplant options. “No, not yet,” I said. “The doctors obviously don’t think you are sick enough to be listed and isn’t that great?” He lifted his eyebrows, smiled his lips-closed grin and gave a little shrug as I wrapped my arm around his shoulder and gave him a gentle squeeze, dropped my head and silently thanked God for this day, begging for another.

Susan Jostrom holds a MFA in creative non-fiction and has published in local Montana journals and the online journal, She has completed a memoir about her son’s illness that is still seeking a publisher, and is dragging her feet to get back to her unfinished novel. She currently resides in Seattle and Montana. She lives and loves living on a houseboat in Seattle but writes her best work from her 1918 cabin in Whitefish, Montana. Her husband of thirty-three years lives with her, and their son, Zeke, has recently moved in with them. You can reach her at


3 responses to “Scrambled Heart, Part 2

  1. Some day I would like to read the entire memoir about Zeke – I hope it has brought some healing by putting it on paper – then again – maybe it hasn’t.
    Keep writing, sista, your talent is obvious (wish I was a publisher) – what’s the novel about??
    Smooches and bear hugs – Sheila

  2. I don’t know what to say, except that you are obviously a very strong woman and fantastic mother. I hope you have many more days with your son. Best wishes to you and your family.

    (and you’re right, sometimes “good cry” is such an oxymoron.)

  3. i love the details of your writing and emotion. as a mother of two small boys, I love that part your wrote “memorizing this moment”. I think those are the times I am most greatful I get to be a mother, letting the spin of life stop for that moment and just appreciating and loving the air we get to share right then.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s