“Are you sure you read the right chart?” Anita Swanson Speake asks her cardiologist.
“Are you Anita?”
“Then I have the right chart.”
It’s a moment so unreal, so unimaginable, that one has to question whether a top-notch medical professional used to sharing delicate information somehow got her paperwork confused.
“With one simple statement,” writes Speake in her touching memoir, Heartsong: Living with a Dying Heart (She Writes Press), “my mind slipped into gridlock, and within a matter of seconds I’d lost all ability to think. I saw Petite Cardiologist’s lips moving but I couldn’t hear a sound coming out.”
Fortunately, Speake regains her ability to think — and expresses her thoughts with intelligence, perception and humor as she chronicles the ensuing years of her life with a serious, life-threatening heart ailment.
My colleagues at BookTrib skimmed the book cover and felt the book sounded sad. But I would hesitate to describe this narrative as sad at all.
For Speake herself, this book can be cathartic, a therapeutic opportunity to vent her feelings as a professional writer. It also might help others cope with similar illnesses. I thought of my 86-year-old mother in law who wears a pacemaker and travels in and out of emergency rooms, primarily from anxiety and not so much physical malfunction. She could probably take comfort in Speake’s easy-flowing words.
Speake has a way of writing that draws you in and makes you feel you are facing her life or death moments right along with her. This is hardly an adventure story, but your mind and body tense as you await the next diagnosis and root strongly for the treatment du jour to succeed. I also found myself wondering that when I got to the end, would the final chapter be written by someone else?
You live along with the author as she says, “My fear of dying kept darting in and out. One minute I was fine and the next I wasn’t.”
Speake asks her physicians whether anything that happened to her in the past – either physical or emotional — might have prompted her current condition. She offers some glimpses, and one in particular stands out, regardless of its effect on her plight. It involves Speake’s relationship with her mother, who she says did not love her. What mother tells her daughter this: “’No one cared about you on the night you were born, you know. The country was at war. Dad was in Italy. Everyone cared about him, of course, but you? ‘Call me when it’s over’ was all your grandmother had to say to me when I went into labor.’”
As Speake’s condition goes from bad to tolerable, her medications and instructions constantly change. She lives in a world of six-month segments; each time she switches treatment, she is told to give it six months to see if it works. It’s a new program each time. At one point a doctor tells her, “Essentially your heart is too sick to ignore and too healthy to treat.”
Her husband George (referred to throughout as “G”) is her rock – a calm, conservative influence who usually finds a positive thread to hang onto through Speake’s rollercoaster ride and its side effects.
But even rocks can chip. A funny but touching moment is described when G calls Speake from the supermarket clearly troubled that all the bananas were green and wondering whether he should try another store.
“Do you think that if you buy green bananas that I won’t live long enough to eat them?” Speake asks. The pause on the other end of the phone says it all.
Throughout book, Speaks seeks solutions. As she tells what will be her Reiki massage guru, “Is this it? Is this how I’m going to feel the rest of my life? I don’t think I should be like this. I keep thinking if I changed something about myself…”
Interestingly, Speake tries so hard to find inner peace that she explores places and ideas that everyone should be so motivated to try without needing an ailing heart. She finds great relief in her Reiki treatments, as well as mindfulness exercises. She enjoys and partakes in much travel with G, even being so daring to encourage crooked turns off the planned paths. She is one with the mountains and her cabin in the middle of nowhere.
She reaches a point where “for the first time in a long time my heart didn’t feel so heavy, my head didn’t feel so foggy, and the feeling of dread that up until recently had accompanied even the brightest of summer sunlit mornings had begun to diminish.”
While you might not expect it, Heartsong is a fast-paced read. It’s a story of how one person laughed and cried her way through a life and death situation, found a connection with God, and was able to express her feelings so succinctly that one can only marvel.
It’s living proof of how the written word can heal.
Heartsong is now available for purchase.
About Anita Swanson Speake
Anita Swanson Speake was born and raised in Minnesota. She completed her nurse’s training and began her nursing career in Minneapolis before moving to Los Angeles. She spent 31 years working as a registered nurse in emergency rooms and intensive care units. As she finished her career in nursing she was looking for something a little lower in stress and found exactly what she was looking for at the UCLA Writer’s Program and the Iowa Writer’s Summer Workshop. Her first book, Slow Hope: The Long Journey Home, was awarded 4-1/2 stars by Writer’s Digest. Speake currently lives with her husband in Southern California, where she writes and tries to stay fit enough to keep up with her eight grandsons.
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