Heart Failure

Christ, detail from Crucifixion, by Cimabue (active 1270-1302)

Christ, detail from Crucifixion, by Cimabue (active 1270-1302)

It was about noon, dark everywhere, as the sunlight was failing, until three in the afternoon–the hours up to the moment before the moment Jesus died.  He cried loud “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” according to the Gospel of Luke, before he breathed his last.

To get that last breath, to say those last words, Jesus had to put all of his body weight on the nail between the bones in his feet, according to a medical account of the crucifixion by Dr. C. Truman Davis.  Jesus had to straighten his legs to exhale, because the muscles between his ribs could not act, because he was hanging by his arms.  He couldn’t breathe out until he pushed himself up–spasmodically pressing his feet against the fixed nail, so he could expand his ribs so he could breathe out, so he could breathe in and say “into your hands I commend my spirit.” What happened in Jesus’s body between saying “my spirit” and breath[ing] his last?  Davis says the blood and water that came out (according to John’s Gospel) when the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side, was an escape of water fluid from the sac surrounding the heart–”postmortem evidence that [Christ] died…of heart failure (a broken heart).”

Looking at a diagram of Jesus’ heart and lungs, the arrows indicating the flow of his breathing during crucifixion in a study by the Mayo Clinic, I cried “my father!” It was from my dad that I first heard the words aorta, ventricle, pleural cavity.  More a cardiologist than a Christian, my dad’s sources of truth are the Mayo Clinic and Journal of the American Medical Association. And physiology is our language of pain.  My dad tells me the “bad news” that he’s dying in diagnoses: coronary artery disease, end-stage renal failure.

I held my breath at the sight of my dad the day after he almost died of fluid filling his lungs, until I could see his abdomen moving.  He was breathing, steady now on a respirator.  When the paramedics came the night before, I watched his stomach pushing out and out, trying to breathe, frantic like a child after almost drowning.  I saw his scar tissue, a long incision line where his heart had been opened for bypass surgery, and another one, scythe-shaped, under his shoulder blades.

What to do at these sights of pain, with these images of the body failing?  I turn to one that doesn’t hurt me as much–an icon of Christ, torso slanted, on the cross, a side view of the blank between I commend my spirit and he breathed his last.  Christ’s head is resting on his own shoulder, jaw line to collar bone, cheek to joint.  I try to hang my head like that.  I let my neck go limp and feel how heavy the head is, the strain of holding and resisting its weight all down one side of my neck, like a bow about to break.  But it doesn’t.  And my cheek won’t reach my shoulder, and I realize it’s because my arms are not outstretched, because my hands are not nailed to a cross.  I can’t feel the pain from the nails in the nerves of his wrists shooting up his arms.  And I don’t want to.

I don’t want to suffer like Christ.  But I will not turn away from that dying face or from my dying father, from the blood-and-water fluid accumulating in hearts and lungs, from the straining moments between words and breaths.  How to abide in all that pain?  I try and stand and rest in that hard place for a long while.

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.