By Kristina Kelvy

Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist.

I Googled this sentence the other day. Real scientific, I know, but the sense of déjà vu as I repeated it in my head irked me. Like the itch you can’t quite reach on that one patch of skin right in the middle of your back. I knew I’d heard it before, that the neurons in my brain had somehow attached this meaning to it, that it stirred a rather undefinable response somewhere close to the unsettled nausea of simultaneous hope and despair.

Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist.

Google returned a nice plethora of results: it’s the title of a 2011 song for a punk rock band; it’s the title of a protest novel following the events in 1999 of a clash between police and protesters outside a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle; it’s an often quoted (and often reproduced on Etsy) line from a memoir by an author compared to Kerouac. None of those felt right. None of them satisfied this constant repetition in my head.

Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist.

I held a human heart in my palm for the first time in December. Fitting perfectly in my hand was this collection of vessels and chambers, removed from its rib cage shield and held in delicate display. And for nearly a century, it felt every miniscule notch on the spectrum between happiness and sadness for my donor. Within its arteries, I could trace the remnants of blood that rushed through in excitement; I could see the muscle fibers that wrenched tightly when aching.

Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist.

Now, I’m perfectly aware that your heart feels no emotion, that it’s subjected to the physiologic responses triggered by the all-encompassing and mighty brain. Decades of research means we can now write more accurate Valentine’s Day cards. “You make the neurons in my limbic system fire when my optic nerve relays the data of your face to my visual processing center.” Somehow, I don’t see Hallmark rushing out to implement this idea.

Despite our advancements in science, the heart still reigns as the ruler of our emotions. The ancient Egyptians discarded every organ except the heart during the mummification process. The heart remained to testify for the deceased person in the afterlife. There I stood, in scrubs too big and surrounded by the hubbub of a day in the anatomy lab, trying to listen to this testimony.

I wondered when this heart was heard for the first time. Unlike me, her birth was too early for the sneak peak of an ultrasound. When was she first conscious of it racing with anticipation or pushing against her chest wall in a moment of fear. When did her heart move to sync with a lover’s in an intimate moment or quiet into mourning the loss of a friend. When did her heart just absentmindedly keep beating, through everyday life and the mundane simplicity of brushing her teeth.

The brain, in all its brilliance, is fallible. At some point, everyone forgets their keys, loses words on the tip of their tongue, asks people to repeat things that go in one ear and out the other. But our hearts, they’re steady and constant through sorrow, elation, uncertainty, and love. They’re present through that undefinable feeling of simultaneous hope and despair. So maybe having our hearts testify for us at the end of it all isn’t such a bad thing.

Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist.


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