I was the cutest baby in Queens. Somehow none of the fated genes had stuck, doubtless helped by my mother’s daily prayers and the hefty dose of sesame seeds (turns the eyes blue! makes the hair blond!) that my father sprinkled on everything they ate, hoping for an Aryan miracle. Platinum-haired and green-eyed, I was not what the spawn of two black-haired Iranians should look like. I was lucky.
Sometime into my first year my luck ran out. I turned blue. There must have been trips to the hospital, to the pediatrician, a whirlwind of sterile smells and tests I can’t remember. A tiny pin-size opening between my atrium and ventricle. A hole in my heart.
There was nothing they could do, at least not yet; I was too small to have the operation. In the meantime, my father learned everything there was to know about atrial septal defect and called all over the country with his passable English to find the best doctor, all the while working three jobs and finishing his PhD in psychology.
I don’t remember a thing.
What I remember starts in the car outside Boston Children’s Hospital, when my father crashed the Cutlass Supreme into a parking lamp and my parents started fighting. My mother said we were at a hospital and there was a surprise waiting for me inside.
My three-year-old mind raced. There was a tense moment of endless waiting; then I was brought into a book-lined room that didn’t smell like the rest of the hospital, and there was Mister Rogers. Mister Rogers, from TV, was standing there in front of me. It was like meeting God. My television universe had exactly two shows in it, 3-2-1 Contact and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Three if you counted Dallas, which I watched while pretending to be asleep on my mom’s lap. Later I learned that my mother had called Fred Rogers in Pittsburgh every day for a year. Finally, he relented: I’ll send a personal letter and a photo. Not good enough, she said. She won.
Mister Rogers explained why I was there. I don’t remember the words but instead the hushed calm his voice made when it mixed with the air in the room. His hands were restful and clean, and his fingers were long and white. He had perfect nails. I wanted to poke him and see if his skin was made of wax. He assured me I was going to be all better soon. Then I took him to meet my boyfriend Richard from the heart-surgery ward. We had cookies and juice on red plastic chairs. I don’t remember for sure, but I think he was wearing the loafers.
I had met Richard in the common room. He made me a paper crown and put it on my head. Then he made himself a crown, declared himself king, and said, “Now you are my wife.” (It occurs to me that this is what my boyfriend, Brian, said to me, too, six years ago, before we decided to spend the rest of our lives together. Before we were together at all.) That might have been when my dad told the staff, “We are not villagers,” and demanded a private room; I was moved that day.
I remember being wheeled into surgery and the nurses talking about the Mets game as bright lights in the ceiling flashed by. When it was over, two people dressed in white stood over me and chuckled and told me that I had asked for ice cream in the middle of surgery. They gave me a lot of ice cream after that. I was in intensive care for twenty days, and then we got out of there as quickly as possible. I never did get to say good-bye to Richard, but I knew things were over. There was talk of Disney World. I was ready to move on.
At Disney World a month later, my mom bought me a straw purse that I liked to hit the Disney characters with, especially Goofy. One morning I saw Minnie, Donald, and Pluto eating breakfast together. What kind of world was I living in, where I could have apple juice with Mister Rogers and breakfast with Pluto? Minnie’s eyelashes were six feet long and indestructible. Every time I saw her, I tried to climb up and pull them off.
A few years later, I spoke to my mom about my surgery. I asked her why we had gone to Boston and what was wrong with me now.
The doctor, Dr. Riteman, was the leading heart surgeon in the States and the only one using natural tissue to mend the heart.
You mean he used tissue to close up the hole?
Yes, he did. All the other surgeons are still using synthetics. There’s a history of the body rejecting the material, so we searched for an alternative. Dr Riteman only uses tissue from your own body.
He used my own tissue, from my heart?
Well, not exactly from your heart, but, yes, he used tissue from you. Where was it from, then?
From inside of you.
From where inside of me?
From your vagina.
Oh, I said.
I hid this disgusting information well. It was bad enough to have a scar that cut me down the middle like a dissected frog. I wore strategically chosen bathing suits, shirts that came up to my chin.
When my first real boyfriend asked me what had happened, I embraced my defect for the first time. I have a piece of my vagina on my heart, I told him.
So that’s why I love you, he said.
One time I read an interview with Fred Rogers where he talked about religion. He said that he didn’t really have a particular belief system, but that he thought that there is a heart beating at the center of the universe, and it cares about us all.
When I was sixteen, I got my belly button pierced on Newbury Street in Boston. I was visiting a friend who went to college there. We went to a clinical-looking tattoo parlor, where I filled out a form, took off my shirt, and got on a platform. The piercing technician paused, kneeling, needle in hand. He stared at my scar and then at me.
Did you have heart surgery?
Yes, I answered. What a genius, this tattooed man on his knees.
Atrial septal defect?
At Children’s Hospital? Dr. Riteman?
I couldn’t breathe. I stared back at him.
I was your nurse, he said, grinning. Your parents are crazy! Your dad called us all villagers, and your mom kissed our hands when you left. How are they? How are you? How’s it going under there?