The trees shed hues like butterscotch on the day we learn our son has a congenital heart defect. Soon, only a skeleton of the summer’s body will build the countryside. I find a diagram of a human heart online, the tubes and channels and muscle held together with tissue and blood, shaped like a sea creature, a tulip maybe, something you could only find deep in the ocean. We know: the heart has four chambers. We know: an atrium is an open space for which light can illumine. We know: the ventricle can only hold for so long without air. We know: the heart is a strong muscle—it beats and beats, but every day, it breaks a million times an hour. My son, at nine, is a difficult boy in temperament, though he radiates a force within, as if he contained some old song of war or might. His name, Everett, as in brave, as in tough. Like me, he sees that summer is over now, just a precipice away from declaring a new season, that with this end, there is a start he’ll know as fresh and curious. It’s apt, I think, that on this same day, a kitten of bones carpeted in raven, follows us home to reside in the barn, our children feeding him tins of sardines each morning before school. We name him Mo, of Hebrew and Latin derivation, associated with savior.



My son’s aortic valve is narrowed, restricted, what the doctors call a coarctation, like a pressing or drawing together. I picture the tube slim and troubled, the oxygen suppressed, the blood flow reduced. I watch my son jump and run, then tire as he sits and complains of a headache. I see the worry lines across his forehead. I think then of the heart’s chambers, of the rhythmic contraction and dilation. We hear its sonic echo over the ultrasound machine, the dark room lit up only by medical devices and the television playing cartoons of Beethoven pounding out songs on the piano. I watch his heart on the screen and imagine him in surgery: sleep drugs coursing through his body, strangers in scrubs surround him, the blade slicing his leg, the catheter snaking his vessel in search of the aorta, then ballooning the walls to fortify with stainless steel, all to widen for blood and oxygen. For life. So many ways for the body to perform. So many ways for the doctors to fault and error. So many ways to__{Insert your pain here}.



Coyotes are song-dogs, something I learn at five a.m. while reading of the howl that wakes me from sleep. At first, I hear just one coyote, followed by a harmony and pitch of howls, then a low moan—repetitive, succinct, steady like some tired song on the radio. I rise from my bed, crack the window. Listen. Coyotes will leave behind their own when wounded or dying, a kind of desperate choice made for the collective, I suppose. I listen for a long time, think about going outside to follow the sound through the dark, but I don’t. I close the window. Go back to bed. Soon the howls, muffled from the shut window, slow, then either I fall asleep, or the coyote does, or something finishes in a moment, perhaps death. I hear in the next room my son shift in his sleep, kick the wall, startling the thick bedroom air, something like a thump of percussion, of heart gallop, of recognition.



It’s soon I become haunted by paintings of bodies by Noor Bahjat, the portrayals a motion of color and intimacy of gesture, figures shaped into impressions: twisted arms, extended legs, hands in wallow, the fusion of the corporeal with emotion of skin, curve, and bone. As in Bahjat’s acrylic and charcoal studies, there are four in my family, a democracy, and we are shaped as chambers of form and thought, sentiment. We live together in a small house with a fabric of grass and bramble shaping the yard. As in any family, there are good days and there are bad. Nothing in particular makes us special; we all yearn for the same moments of warmth and stay, but as all mothers, I like to think my son is remarkable, extraordinary, or that because he is a part of me, stitched together with his complicated heart, that his resonance will catch on my breath if I so wish it, that I might slim my oxygen so he can have more.




Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, River Teeth, Sweet, Split Lip, Terrain.org, Wildness, and Hobart among other publications. Her work has earned an AWP Intro Journals award and has been listed as notable in Best American Essays. She teaches writing at Southern Oregon University as well as teaches Zumba dance classes and runs an organic vegetable farm.