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My heart transplant was there in the lines of my father's palm. Madame Clara saw it right away. She was not just another fortune-teller with a shack along the Atlantic City boardwalk; Madame Clara was a gifted seer (or so her sign said). She knew that a man like my father, middle aged with a fine leather belt and Gucci shoes, along with my stepmother, Beverly, a well-kept blonde with country-club good looks, would be likely to doubt her psychic advice even as they sought it. They were casual drop-ins: the kind of customers who wander in on a lark, husband pushing wife or vice versa, with a playful nudge. "Aw, come on. ... It'll be fun." If people like this were ever going to take her seriously, Madame Clara figured they would have to be eased into believing. She'd first have to dazzle my father and Beverly with some facts, things only a true fortune-teller could read in the crisscross lines and intricate folds on the underside of my father's right hand.
"You are in a family business. There is stock involved," she said, offering up the first evidence of her clairvoyance.
"Well, you got me there. Score one for the great Madame Clara!" My father was in a playful mood as usual, ready to challenge the dark-haired woman sitting opposite him with fast quips and charming good humor. "Seems you know me like the back of your hand — or my hand, as the case may be."
She continued intently, her black eyes unwavering. "You have an important deal in the making; it will fall through. Do not feel distressed when this happens. Something bigger awaits you."
"Bigger than a bread box?"
Madame Clara laid her pointer finger on the center of my father's palm and traced a diagonal line slowly, stopping at points to whisper their significance. "Respect. The rewards of hard work. Bounty."
"Await me, right?"
She looked up from his hand. "Yes, but only after a disappointment. You will not get what you have been seeking."
These words had significance for my father. The year was 1984. He was in the process of trying to sell the family business that his father and uncles had started some forty-five years earlier, which had grown to become a publicly traded company on the Stock Exchange. On the day my father offered his palm to a fortune-teller for the first time in his life, he believed he held in his pocket a firm offer from a large conglomerate to buy the business for a share price that was more than respectable. It was an imminent coup; the company had fallen on hard times and my father was one of the major forces to save it, with tough decisions and careful maneuvers that included firing every last family member who had long become a useless fixture. He was not a popular manager at first, but his efforts breathed not only life but unprecedented productivity into the company. To pull off a sale at this point would yield a profit for shareholders, including the cousins he'd sent out the door.
Did Madame Clara just tell him that the deal would fall through?
My father grimaced.
"Oh, Arthur, don't be ridiculous," Beverly said. The sudden furrow in my father's brow told his wife just what he was thinking. She grabbed his forearm and gave it a little shake, followed by a couple of reassuring pats. "Well, for Pete's sake, there must be something else in that hand of his, Madame — ah ... Clara?" She forced herself into a grin but there was nothing cheerful about it; Beverly's expression was flat-out imploring.
It was time to change the subject, and Madame Clara was ready. She had been holding back but would now reveal the prophecy she may have seen and had been reluctant to mention: that one of my father's two daughters would become very sick.
My father had not told her he had any children at all, let alone two daughters; the fortune-teller had hit upon another truth. There was Jodie, who'd just graduated from college, and her younger sister, Amy, who still had two years to go. Both were healthy young women.
"There will be a surgery — a serious one. And a miraculous recovery. The daughter will be okay."
"Splendid," my father said. "Next time, let's stick to the collapse of my business deals. It's more fun."
Madame Clara shrugged. "I see what I see — dark and light."
"Maybe I should have washed my hands first," he said. My father reached into his pocket for a twenty dollar bill and handed it to Madame Clara with a wink. "Thanks for the memories!"
Or at least that's how I pictured it. My father had recounted his fortuneteller story so many times it ran like a movie in my head. The first time I heard it, Madame Clara's prophecy about the sale of the family business had already come true: the original deal had fallen through just as she said it would, only to be replaced several months later with a different buyout arrangement for nearly double the price. Dark and light — that's what she'd told him. Oh, she was right. Madame Clara was the real McCoy. What a story!
And what a nightmare: there had also been a prediction about an illness. My father had to keep this part quiet and hope with every bit of the skeptic still left in him that it would not come true. But the amazing Madame Clara had turned him into something of a believer. The best my father could do was push the sick daughter prediction to the back of his mind, stay silent about it, and wait for the passage of time to prove that the fortune-teller's insights had been imperfect.
Three years later, illness hit me hard and fast; I would undergo the serious surgery that Madame Clara had foreseen. My sister, Jodie, would remain healthy. In time, I would move on to a recovery that was every bit the miracle that had shown up in my father's palm. But the fortune-teller had also said that I, the sick daughter, would be okay; this part of her prediction was flawed. While I would, in fact, survive for a surprisingly long time after surgery, nothing about living with a fragile heart would ever be okay with me. This is not to say that Madame Clara was wrong. She was, after all, reading my father's palm, not mine, so whatever she drew from it would naturally reflect his perceptions and experiences to come. My father, like nearly everyone else in my life, would always see me as okay in my post-surgery body. Perhaps Madame Clara had not misread his future at all.
But she'd misread mine. Months before I would sense the first inkling of a heart problem, I took a short trip to Atlantic City with my boyfriend, Scott. On my suggestion, we sought out Madame Clara's shack on the boardwalk and there it was, right where my father said it would be. Scott was reluctant to go in. The whole fortune-telling thing gave him the creeps, he said, even while parting the glass beads that served as the door to the reading room. As Scott took his first tentative step inside, I reached down and pinched his butt cheek, hard and quick. Into the air he flew, with a gasp.
"And I didn't even have to yell boo!" I teased.
"I'll show you boo!" He spun around and grabbed the sides of my waist, squeezing in spurts that brought me to breathless laughter within seconds.
Madame Clara emerged from behind a makeshift curtain and sat, annoyed, behind her crystal ball. I squirmed out from Scott's clutches and brought the fun to an end, knowing I was in the presence of the great seer who'd predicted, with amazing precision, the fate of my family's business. It excited me to think of what she might say about my own destiny; I'd just finished my first year of law school at NYU, and I was in love — real love — for the first time.
I offered up my palm. This had to be good.
Madame Clara fell silent. Her eyes went soft and out of focus, almost as if she were refusing to look closely into my hand.
I felt the urge to help her along. "Um ... will I have children?"
"I see four," she said.
"What about health?"
She turned my hand over and patted the top of it. "Health looks good. You will live a long life."
This was the end of my reading with Madame Clara. She charged me only five dollars; it lasted less than three minutes. Scott kept his palm to himself.
A good fortune-teller is focused on the hand in front of her. Hands contain lines; they are simple to read. But faces — especially young attractive ones — are more complex. And when they're attached to lean, youthful, unblemished bodies, faces can be misleading. Even obscuring.
The diagnosis of my illness might have come about differently had my family doctor studied a little palmistry. Or maybe if he'd closed his eyes and just listened to what I was telling him instead of being blindsided by the pretty first-year law student sitting on the exam table wearing nothing but a light blue hospital gown. It does not take tremendous beauty to throw an Ivy League–educated physician off the scent of a menacing illness. It's the coming together of circumstances that will do it — with or without a mane of long wavy hair and a perky bosom. Take an admittedly studious, overachieving twenty-three-year-old woman at a highly competitive law school; give her tightness in the chest and a couple of episodes of passing out; send her to the doctor's office, cheerful and bright-eyed, with a bounce in her step; and have her giggling at his jokes and at the first touch of the cold stethoscope on her back. Together, these can be enough to make any doctor assume, at first blush, that there is nothing terribly wrong with this young woman.
Dr. Clark gave me the obligatory exam. He looked into my eyes with a light and my ears with a scope. He asked me to touch my nose and walk in a straight line. Then, after listening to my heart for a few seconds, he mentioned casually that he'd heard a slight clicking that I "might want to get checked out sometime." He was thinking mitral valve prolapse, a generally benign condition that could possibly explain the sound he'd heard. Then he took my blood pressure; his eyebrows shot up almost to his hairline. "Wow, that's low!" he said.
"Aw ... what's too low?"
I didn't know what was too low. That's why I was asking.
"Could it be why I've been passing out?"
"Sure! You should salt your food. Lots of salt. Salt it all, if you like." He told me I should consider myself lucky to be one of the people who didn't have to feel guilty when they reached for the salt shaker. Dr. Clark was an old pro at seeing the bright side.
Later, in his office, with me now dressed in my street clothes and sitting opposite him across a paper-ridden desk, my doctor pronounced me well, saying he couldn't find anything wrong except the low blood pressure. The stresses of law school were getting to me, he said. That's all it was. He gave me an empathetic "It's tough the first year, isn't it?" followed by "But not too tough for a girl like you, I bet!" Then, just before I slipped out the door, Dr. Clark held his arms out to me, just as he did for all his patients, and I knew I was in for one of his signature bear hugs, with that barrel chest of his so solid against me it hardly seemed to yield at all to the pressure of body against body. His hugs had been taking my family's breath away for years; and today especially I was glad to have the familiar comforts of Dr. Clark so close by — at New York Hospital, just a fifteen-minute cab ride from my law dorm at NYU.
On my way back downtown I bought a large blue container of Morton's salt and poured a good-sized mound of iodized blood pressure lifter into my palm. I licked it off in one swipe; I really didn't want to pass out again. But I did pass out again. And again — in the shower, waiting for an elevator, brushing my hair by the mirror. I didn't call Dr. Clark to tell him his salt cure was not working for me, and I never went to have that little click checked out either — not even after I started vomiting blood. I felt at fault for these body symptoms and was embarrassed that I couldn't bring my stress level down to the point where they would just disappear. Dr. Clark had told me I was healthy, right? I could only blame myself for not feeling well. Nervous law student. Must calm down. Eat salt.
I would look back on the early stages of my illness and wonder how many other young women had ever stared into a toilet bowl full of their own blood-streaked vomit, flushed it down, and dashed off to a two-hour seminar in Constitutional Law. Probably none. My brushing aside of symptoms was uniquely stupid. There must have been something — what was it, what was it? — that led me to ignore the obvious. Only in retrospect would I recognize that it was youth, coupled with the absence of serious childhood illness, that could dull down the medical-danger radar in a girl to the point where peril hardly registered at all. Add to this an obliging physician with the same defective detection system, plus a penchant for the jolly, and what you've got is a recipe for massive denial that cooks up into a ticking time bomb.
Back in Dr. Clark's office one year later, I would find my blind optimism blown to bits. This time my symptoms were different and more serious: I couldn't breathe. But strangely enough this was not the main focus of my complaint. It was more my chest that was the problem, or so I believed. It felt heavy and uncomfortably full, as if I'd eaten three years worth of Thanksgiving dinners in one sitting. I told Dr. Clark that there seemed to be something wrong with my stomach; food didn't want to go down. It felt worse at night when I lay in bed. I'd even heard a gurgling deep down in the center of my chest — like there was water in there or something. "My digestion isn't right. I feel it here," I said, placing my hand over my left breast without the faintest appearance of worry. There was nothing about my twenty-four-year-old life that would prompt me to make a connection between the location of my hand and the heart that lay beneath it.
The heaviness in my chest turned out to be due not to poor digestion, as I'd thought, but rather to a grossly enlarged heart that was literally bursting out of me. And the gurgling sound I'd heard? That was water in my lungs. I'd been listening to it night after night as I lay in bed, a crackling that came with each exhalation; it didn't scare me at all. I figured it must be part of that food "caught in my pipe." Such simple words and innocent explanations came naturally from a young woman who hadn't been sick since her childhood ear infections. I was understandably naïve. My medical vocabulary was nonexistent and my self-diagnostic skills immature. Pipes and stomach trouble — that was the best I could come up with. My imagination could only go so far as a bellyache.
But Dr. Clark was probably able to conjure up a range of possibilities — and perhaps one horrifying probability — from the obvious severity of my symptoms. A quick step up on his scale showed I had gained eight pounds since weighing myself at home two days earlier (a sure sign that my body did not have the strength to expel water as it should). A blood-pressure check proved that a whole year of salting my food hadn't helped my numbers to rise one bit. An external palpation of my abdomen was normal except for one troubling discovery that had nothing at all to do with my digestive system: I wasn't able to catch my breath while lying down on the exam table. Even before he put his stethoscope to my chest, Dr. Clark had an idea of what he was dealing with, although he could hardly believe it. From what he'd seen so far, the young woman on his exam table seemed to have congestive heart failure, a disease found mostly in the elderly or in middle-aged people who'd suffered several heart attacks. A diagnosis of this disease usually meant that at least some portion of vital heart muscle had been damaged beyond repair.
The cause of this damage varied case to case in congestive-heart-failure patients. Dr. Clark could not imagine what might have been the cause of mine, but at the moment it didn't matter: left untreated, congestive heart failure could be fatal.
It must not have been easy for him to put his dark suspicions to the final test. "Let's take a listen," he said.
I opened the front of my hospital gown and lifted my chin into the air. Dr. Clark leaned his head toward me as he concentrated on the sound of my heartbeat. It didn't take long for him to realize that the little click he'd heard only one year earlier had turned into an ominous thud. Instead of the bright sounds doctors typically hear when listening to a healthy heartbeat, there were gallops — spurts of effort followed by a run of chaotic aftershocks — and then a short period of tortured lumbering. Dr. Clark knew he had just listened in on a sick heartbeat that was out of his league as a general internist. "Why don't you get dressed and meet me in my office. We'll talk, okay?" he said, without a hint of anxiety. It was important not to get me upset or excited — not with the way my heart was beating today.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sick Girl"
Copyright © 2007 Amy Silverstein.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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