the heart is a furious muscle

My daughter nurses so voraciously, small white blisters erupt on her lip. In the early days, I cry, my skin so tender. The flesh cracks and tears, but she persists, driven by her hunger and I lay my head back, close my eyes, tears running down my cheeks until finally, she drifts to sleep. Even in sleep, her tiny jaws and mouth continue their rhythmic motions. She dreams of milk. 

I watch her sleep. Her mouth falls open. I lean down to inhale her sweet breath. 

We choose a high table by the window facing the park. I am giddy with it all - the warmth of the evening, the soft fading light, the unexpected hours together and I chatter and laugh loudly. I am high-pitched and spilling out all over us. M. lets me go on, takes my hand across the table, squeezes it. 

I tell him my stories - the people at work, the meetings, the elevator that goes down to the dark tunnel beneath the building. The parking lot man carrying his orange cones back and forth. How in the afternoons when there is sun, I walk across the street to the plaza and watch the kids on their skateboards practice their tricks in the rink. About the man and the woman on the park bench, arguing the existence of god. 

When we have had our fill, we step back out into the night air, breathe it in. We return home. The house is so quiet. Our bed is rumpled and warm. 

I have the dream again - the one where I am floating. We are at the lake upstate. The sun is bright and hot. My mother is there, her arms outstretched. Lie back, she says. Close your eyes, she says. Let your body drift. You are weightless. 

Drowning or burning? How would you rather die? 

We asked each other these questions, late at night, when we had been drinking. We’d sit on the floor of the lounge in someone’s dorm. It is difficult to recall the configurations of who was paired with whom and it hardly matters now, I suppose. Most of us chose drowning, but C., always the one to recoil at consensus of any kind, chose fire. We pressed her on it. We said how terrible to feel your flesh burn. That heat. That pain, unthinkable. 

I know, she said, finally, and when we stopped our chatter to look at her, we saw that the color had drained from her face. I know, she said, but I am just too scared of water. 

Later, from the news, from the movies, from the history books, we learn all the other ways there are to die. All the ways the body can be broken. 

There is a strange kind of comfort to imagining that death might be a simple choice between elements of nature: Drowning or burning? By water or by fire?

The summer before my mother falls ill the first time is the summer of J. It is spring in New England when we meet and as all around us, the world shakes off its winter chill and bursts into bloom, so do we. 

We take walks along the river. We ride the buses and the trains wherever they take us. 

When the school year ends, he goes back, three thousand miles, to his home. We make our plans. I will visit in late summer. 

We write letters. We send photos. We whisper into our phones as we lie in our beds. 

We count the time - first in months, then weeks, then days. 

In days and nights and days. 

Then in hours - the most excruciating of all. 

There are things that consume us and when they do, it is difficult to imagine being free of their hold. But time passes. Seasons change. The arc of life is long. There are small mercies to be found in the simple passage of hours, of days. 

In her final hours, as my mother drifts in and out of sleep, what is it that she remembers? 

My father, when they met - when they first spoke on that blanket in the shade, each with their legs tucked under them? The way he reached out his hand to her, to help her up when it was time to leave? 

Does she remember me, as a child, in the blue wool coat with the gold buttons that morning I stood in front of the glass doors to the library, crying? 

Or is her own youth she remembers? Her hair long and brown, her arms bare in the yellow cotton dress that she herself had helped her mother sew?

What is it that we take with us, in the end? 

What is it that fills those last moments of silence as the heart, furious muscle, finally slows?

The white blisters on the lip of my sleeping daughter. 

The peony blooms so heavy their slender stalks bend beneath their fullness. 

The gentle snow that fell on us as we stood in the park overlooking the city, making promises, our hearts racing. 

All that is yet to come in the protracted arc of time. All the moments, still imagined that may one day come to pass.