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The Heart of the Matter


hands holding red heart image

Having spent seventy-seven wonderful years on this planet, my amazing aunt died peacefully in her sleep earlier this month. Although she carried a number of painful medical conditions and her memory was beginning to fade, it was still a brutal reminder of how fragile and delicate life truly is. This experience was also compounded with the death of her sister, my mother, less than two months earlier. My aunt’s life was filled with a series of fundamentally linked episodes which I only recognized after she died. Isn’t that always the case? I’ve broken those episodes down into four types of hearts.

Broken Heart
Over 50 years ago, my aunt was engaged to be married to a student navy pilot, who was assigned to a local naval air station. My only memory from what little my own mother told us, was that his name was Philip and that he was killed in one of the training missions. My aunt never dated again and obviously never married. She gave her heart to this man and walked away from the events of a young woman with a broken heart. Only once do I remember asking about him and she quickly changed the subject. I got the message.

Open Heart
A few years later, the world witnessed the very first open heart surgery which impressed her to begin her career in cardiac nursing. Thus she did and became quite proficient. I remember seeing several awards and commendations on her desk as a little boy and thought she must be very smart. Later in her life, I was able to sit next to other student nurses watching an open heart surgery from an above, glass-enclosed operating suite. What an experience!

Heart of Jazz
During a shortage of nurses in New Orleans in the early seventies my aunt responded almost immediately. I remember that there was deep concern from my elders about her safety but she kept telling them that she had to go and fulfill her dreams and off she went.

Sacred Heart
I remember many wonderful visits to New Orleans, especially during my college years. As if it was just last week, I remember standing twenty hours in line to see the first ever public exhibition of the treasures of King Tut. She was adamant about pointing out that the Ancient Egyptians held tightly to a belief in a resurrection after death and that life was indeed a journey of which death was not the final stop. Amazing. After college and well into my professional life, I kept going back to Louisiana and realized what a devotion she had of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and how she kept reminding me of how much He suffered for each and every one of us. Her faith was not reduced to a Hallmark card either. In 2000, my mother and I took my cousin, their grand nephew, to visit my aunt in New Orleans. I vividly remember a particular incident in the Chapel of one of the Convents. My little cousin had a form of Turrets Syndrome which manifested itself as constant blinking of the eyes. It was close to his twelfth birthday, and during our visit to that grand city, my aunt asked him what he would ask for in such a significant moment. He told her that he really wanted to stop this blinking as it was bothersome. She calmly escorted him into one of the chapels and remained there with him for about forty-five minutes. My cousin’s mother recalled how he called her that night very excited about praying for a miracle. Since then, there were no other signs or symptoms of anything neurologically astray with him and I believe I know why.

“Life is not a Hallmark Card, nice, neat and predictable. I don’t want a card life; I want one that is real,” she would often say to us, and I believe she led that kind of life that underscored her belief and life ethic. If we put all this together, it makes perfect sense why we all came to believe that she enjoyed a very special birthday, The Feast of St. Valentine, the fourteenth day of the second month of every year until she went home. It makes sense now that I look back on it all. It makes perfect sense that she would have been born on a National Heart Day when love, for good or for ill, is highlighted by many. I know for many of us, it will always be remembered for an additionally warm and comforting reason. My aunt taught me many significant lessons that I pray I will never forget. She said that the two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you discover why. The two most important moments of your life are now, and the hour of death. Amen.

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