An Open Heart

This story was published in the local literary magazine, Rough-Writers INK, last year. Reading it now, I have to say that I’m not very happy with it. I have some ideas on changes to be made, but thought it would be interesting to see what you thought as well. Please comment and let me know what you think.

An Open Heart, by John Marte

“Do you want to go in the water with the rest of them?” I asked Carl.

Carl looked to where the other children were playing in the ocean, beyond the breakers. Looking at them, you wouldn’t have known that they were all dealing with Type I diabetes, needing frequent monitoring of their blood sugar levels and diet. Most were dependent on multiple injections of insulin daily as well. And most couldn’t have gone to summer camp if this program hadn’t existed.

Looking away from the healthy looking children in the water, I braced myself to look over at Carl. Looking at him remained a bit of shock, even after a few days. He was small for his age, and his arms and legs were painfully thin. He looked especially gaunt around the face, where his cheek bones stuck out through thin flesh, and dark circles resided under his eyes. The rest of his skull was also plainly visible, since his hair had thinned considerably; the aftermath of chemotherapy.

He had his shirt off, revealing more evidence of his health challenges. He was pale, and his blue veins were visible across his chest and thin shoulders. His chest was marked by the beginning of a thick scar that ran from his collar bone down across his distended belly. This scar was from the open heart surgery he’d had 4 years previous. The swelling of his belly was not dissimilar from the pictures that had been coming out of Ethiopia recently of children that were starving to death.

“I’m not sure I can make it past the waves to get to where they are,” Carl said, peering into the bright sunlight to where most of the rest of the group was.

I could understand his reluctance, as I wasn’t a great swimmer and didn’t like getting water into my eyes or down my throat.

“How about if I carry you past there?” I asked, almost wishing he’d say no.

This week at summer camp was an opportunity for these kids to be together with others that were like them, kids that they wouldn’t have to explain their conditions to. And although Carl’s was an extreme case, he was just as accepted as the kids that looked normal. They didn’t exclude him, nor did he shy away from at least trying most of the activities that were offered.

“Yes, I think that would be OK,” Carl said, already starting to walk toward the water line. I followed him, waiting briefly while he got his feet wet, smooshing his toes through the sand and small sea shells. When he was ready, he wrapped his arms around my neck as I picked him up. He felt remarkably warm as I walked into the chill water, paying attention to my footing and keeping an eye Carl to see if he got frightened and wanted me to take him back. The water went deeper around my body, the rhythm of the waves and the sound of the water collapsing on the shore almost hypnotic. We were about 15 feet from the other kids and Carl was trusting me to get him that final distance to where they were floating and splashing each other laughing…

And I failed him.

The wave that struck when the water was just over my belly had built more strongly than the ones before, the water surging. Our mutual buoyancy pulled us up, our heads remaining above water, but my feet lost contact with the sea floor. When the wave rapidly subsided, I found my feet were no longer under me, and that we went under the surface. I lost hold of Carl and frantically tried to set myself upright, imagining the worst happening to Carl before I could get to him.

When I got my head above water and my vision cleared, I found Carl among the other children, already laughing and smiling, floating without any problem.

The contrast between my panic and his joyful acceptance was remarkable. In the midst of everything that I was so anxious about, he was simply happy; not happy in spite of his challenges, nor happy because he was overcoming his difficulties. The way we adults think of happiness is so needlessly complicated. He was simply happy, without needing a reason or because doing so was meant to be a victory against tribulation. With that realization, I knew that Carl and those other kids were the real counselors here.

© 2009, John Marte

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