Straight From the Heart

Written By: Elyse Barbell

It was exactly seven days before the wedding of her precious granddaughter. The two of them had clicked like soul mates almost from the minute they laid eyes on each other, and now, eighteen years later, the day had finally arrived. Sarah was getting married.

My mother awoke that morning with a terrible pain in her chest. This wasn’t the first time — there were other heart attacks years earlier, but this one was different. She’d been keeping the pain a secret, hoping to hold out until after wedding, but it finally caught up with her and could no longer be denied.

My parents raised my sisters and I in Queens, but we always spent a lot of time at the beach. We started out summers at Rockaway Beach, then worked our way over to Jones Beach and Robert Moses on weekends. Once we were older, we spent family vacations at one beach or another, but once we discovered Montauk there was no going back. The beach there was so delicious, the sand so pure and clean and fresh that if you didn’t know it was sand you would want to eat it. The ocean was wild and raucous one day, placid and calm the next. You never knew what the day would bring but one thing was for sure: it would be beautiful.

A few years before their retirement, my parents started looking for a house on the East End, anxious to spend their “golden years” on the beach. After a rigorous search, they bought a condo in Westhampton Beach, going back and forth on weekends until they moved out permanently. My father, formerly a Manhattan business man who was unfailingly dressed in a suit, tie and jacket, could now be found almost exclusively in Docksiders, shorts, and a baseball cap. He’d trot off to Rogers beach with his fishing pole, a thermos of coffee and a beach chair and spend a few hours reeling them in and tossing them back out. He’d go back home, have breakfast, and he and my mother would return to the beach. My father likes to say that everyone is happy at the beach, and when you look around at the faces, you can see that that it’s true. I started calling my parents “the rechargeable batteries,” because every time I saw them they looked younger instead of older. Most of all, and best of all, they were blissfully happy.

My sister rushed my mother to the hospital, actually driving the car into the emergency room through the wide automatic doors (you have to know my sister to understand this!). With only moments to spare, and before she knew what was happening, my mother was on the operating table. So many of her coronary arteries were blocked that it was a wonder she had lasted as long as she did. I often think they don’t make people like those of my parents’ generation anymore — they just don’t fall apart so easily. My mother simply willed herself to keep going until she couldn’t anymore.

It took her a long time to recover from the surgery and the general weakness that comes after a heart attack. We didn’t know what hurt her worse: the pain from her heart, or the pain in her heart from having missed the wedding. We sent pictures and videos, but how could it be the same? The day of the wedding she even tried to leave her bed, determined to get there one way or the other. She didn’t get far, and that was when it really hit her, that she was going to miss the wedding. Her tears could not be stopped; she cried for days.

So my father did the only thing he could think of to do: he brought my mother to the beach. Day after day they sat together on the boardwalk, his fishing pole abandoned, my mother bundled up even in the warm weather. They didn’t talk much; mostly they spent the time gazing out at the water and inhaling the sharp salt air. The sun and the air did its work, seeping in through her nose and her mouth and her skin, finally working its way through her ragged incision and into the heart of her heart. The scar itched and pulled until it didn’t; her eyes were filled with pain until they weren’t, and slowly, my mother’s heart began to mend.

A year later, my daughter (who had moved abroad) came in for a visit with her husband and their six week old baby. The tears started again, but this time, they were not for what she’d missed. The wedding was just a day. A marriage was for life, and she’d lived to see it bear its first fruits.