A Rat Heart

One moment stands out in my unremarkable youth as a subpar high school science student. I recall the day we were tasked with dissecting a dead rat in biology. While convincing my obliging lab partner to perform the ickiest job—making the actual cuts, this squeamish teenager, standing a safe 3 feet away, made an obvious, yet disarming observation. Well, two observations. First, I would never work in the medical field in any capacity—ever. Second, as we (I mean she) peeled back the last layer of tough, unyielding rodent skin, my imagination glimpsed what once had been. Taking in the big reveal of that little gray lifeless heart, I comprehended that a physical and mystical transformation had taken place, from life to death. Not that I had a notion of this specimen being anything but dead as a doornail, but a sharp reality suddenly pierced my brain’s thick perimeter to reveal that this was once a living breathing thing. A theory was made concrete and it stopped me in my tracks. My mind was rattled with the thoughts that this bloodless organ was once pumping to sustain life. Never again.

“Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.” This Sunday at Mass, as the priest beckoned us to offer our hearts and join in Christ’s perfect sacrifice to the Father, my heart felt dead and lifeless. I pictured my heart on a plate on the altar, shriveled, gray, and still as that rat’s. Everyone else’s beating and robustly pink—mine was pitiable, the cautionary “after” picture that warns the effects of chain smoking. I’m not a smoker and never have been. But, it has been a tough few weeks filled with lots of coughing. My husband had Covid last month and a few weeks later, my son got hit with a different virus that led to multiple trips to the doctor and various diagnoses, one of which was pneumonia. 

Sickness is my Achilles heel as a mother.

I’ve never really feared sickness for myself. I used to scoff at those former work colleagues who would wince and step back when someone sneezed or coughed. This was a decade before the pandemic. But when my children started getting sick, contracting flu, spiking high fevers, or coughing so hard I worried they weren’t getting oxygen, seeing them suffer and not being able to alleviate the pain and discomfort…Oh, how I’ve died a little each time. This most recent bout affected me deeply. It hit a vital organ you might say. 

Just four years after that biology class, a doctor was tasked with removing my mom’s bad lung—it contained a lemon-sized cancerous tumor—but during the operation, the surgeon accidentally nicked her good lung. My mom survived only a few days after a surgery that we had been told would be life-saving. Her non-smoker’s heart gave out at the age of 51. I was a senior in college. My classmates and friends were contemplating their future careers and love lives. I became consumed with death. I’m not sure I’ve ever completely gotten past that fixation, though it has faded. At some point, God took hold and jolted my heart. 

Stand back! Clear! 

He miraculously brought it back to life. Over time, I learned to laugh again and to feel genuine happiness. I felt my heart beat again… on the first date with my husband, our wedding, at the birth of each of my children. My life has kept beat with that rhythmic pounding. But when my kids get sick, or I hear about other children’s pain and illnesses, I find myself back there. A dead rat heart. It’s apropos that this “suffering” has been during the penitent season of Lent. Many of us are walking around with hearts that have seen better days. But I know that’s not the end of the story. Our life doesn’t end with suffering. God desires to breathe new life into our deadened emotions, our tired souls. He is the only One who can truly resuscitate—over and over.

I put my lifeless heart on the altar. It’s all I have. But it’s good enough. God heals it in His blood. 

Lent will end. Suffering will end. The Resurrection promises a new heart, a new life in Him. Sickness and death are not the last words. Never again. 

Let’s keep praying for each other. 

*Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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