A Matter of the Heart

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Winter 2017

W2017_AMatteroftheHeart_Inline300 By Toni McNaron

We live in an intensely skeptical age, but miracles still happen. Not the Damascus Road sort, full of bells and whistles, but tiny ones that might go unnoticed if we are moving too fast. I have been blessed with such a miracle and have not let it slip by me. On April 20, 2015, I underwent surgery to replace my aortic valve that had shrunk to an alarming degree. Because I did not identify any symptoms, my cardiologist told me I might well have wandered around until I keeled over, either to die or make a severely limited recovery. Instead, a year later I am able to do all my favorite activities, e.g., walk a mile and a half each morning, rain or shine or snowstorm; take aerobics classes twice a week; and garden actively as many months as Minnesota allows.

Each morning upon waking, I begin by thanking those who made this recovery possible: God; my cardiologist, cardiac surgeon, and caring nurses; an old friend who came from New York City to be with me in the hospital; an old friend who came from Grand Marais to help me settle back into my house when released from the hospital; neighbors and friends who got me groceries, slept at my home as I was beginning to be more independent, drove me places, read me stories, brought me communion wafers until I could return to church, and listened as I tried to speak about how blessed I was.

Now I am not just back to where I was before the heart scare—I am more deeply connected to friends and more empathetic with people facing serious health challenges. So once I’ve given all that thanks in the morning, I pledge myself to keep pondering why I have been given this extra time. What might I do with this part of my life? I’m 79 and am sporting a cow membrane in my chest so that I am still in the land of the living. Who or what am I to serve? How might I convey my gratitude for breath itself and the ability to embrace life?

While I seek some major foci for my energy, I am working on simple acts of connection. As a lesbian woman, I know what it’s like to feel invisible. So I am making sure I reach out to people who are not white like me as I pass them on the street, stand in lines with them, or conduct business with them. I want them to know that I see them, wish them no harm, and do not intend to shoot them. I cannot know what those to whom I speak feel, but I know I am practicing what I believe. And, because my country is veering dangerously close to nativism, these tiny recognitions may not be as insignificant as they seem. The heart of the matter of racism and cultural xenophobia lies in not “seeing” or listening to those who are visibly different from us. While I have done enough work not to make overt racist stereotypes, I can be guilty of banal thoughts and remarks about that “other” someone on grounds over which neither they nor I have any control. What I can control are my own responses to whomever is in front of me. So I will take my newly helped heart and open it wider and wider.

- Toni McNaron taught literature and women’s studies at the University of Minnesota from 1964 until 2001. She is an educator, memoirist, and lesbian feminist critic who lives in Minneapolis.


See All Stories

Stay Connected.