Mechanical Heart

A work of nonfiction

Honorable Mention: Marjorie Blankenship Creative Nonfiction Award

I watch you play through the narrow slit of a cracked-open door.  It amazes me how you can entertain yourself for hours, with your creativity, your imagination.  Your white-blond hair seems to glow, as if your body, in rebellion against the restraints of the physical world, has produced for you a halo as proof of your divine station.  I am in awe of you, so much so that at times I cannot bring myself to ask to join you.  It’s as though my eyes are privy to a sight so magical, so ethereal—like a kiss between hummingbirds—that for me to interrupt your playtime would be sacrilege.

               Robots have always been your favorite playmates.  Each one you own has a name and many functions.  Your robots can do anything in the physical sense, and are always personified with the most virtuous of human qualities—things like kindness, generosity, and conviction—for you liken yourself to these robots, whether you are aware of it or not.  If only your parts were made of steel and hydraulics; if only your body was invincible, like a robot’s.

               I understand now why you’ve always wanted so badly to be a robot.  And I see how hard you try—so determined, so full of ideas, and with your tongue firmly pressed against your lower lip in hard concentration.  There is a shop in your bedroom, which no one can see but you, where you go to remove the wheels from your matchbox cars and attach them to the bottoms of your shoes.  Sometimes when a fortunate rumble through your junk drawer amasses springs, you attach those, too.  You once asked me for help affixing rockets to your heels, but I couldn’t in my right mind approve that idea.  (After all, you were only five, and where would we find rockets?)  But, really, I wish more than anything I could attach rockets, or wheels or springs, to your feet . . . anything to let you know the feeling of being able to run or jump—anything for my little boy, ever desiring liftoff but stuck on the ground.

               I remember taking you as a toddler to the pediatrician.  I could only hint at my concerns.  To bring them completely out into the open would make it all too real, and you were so young then; there was still time.  Time could prove my fears to be irrational—just the normal worries of a first-time mother.  But time only shined a brighter—ever brighter, nearly blinding—spotlight on the things I had hoped would go away: the awkward gait, the inability to run or jump, an increasing clumsiness, frequent falls. . .

               Each trip to the pediatrician was more painful than the last.  When she commented on your “silly” fascination with robots I wanted to slap her.  That moment instilled in me the harsh reality of a world of people who do not understand, who cannot understand, you.  And I became even more your protector, your advocate.

               And so, one day I asked to join in your play.  I became a robot, too, and we had adventures together, and talked robot to robot.  Last time we played, you were the usual blue transformer with wings, wheels for the hands and feet, and rockets attached to the shoulders.  I chose C3PO, from Star Wars.  You had never seen Star Wars, and you pointed out that C3PO needed to walk faster. I explained to you that C3PO was not built to race—that C3PO was my favorite robot, for his power did not lie in his physical abilities, but rather in his expansive heart . . . and that heart, to me, was infinitely more important than brawn.  What I did not say was that C3PO is a lot like you.

               Later, another doctor in a long line of hospitals and white coats watched my expression so solemnly, solemnly, as before his lips even parted he communicated with his eyes what I had been so afraid to hear.  He saw the solitary tear escape down my cheek and reminded me that it was not healthy for my child to see such grief.  What a fool he was!  He had no idea, no clue, that I was exercising every ounce of restraint I had at that moment—that inside I was screaming and his words had ripped through me like heavy artillery, shattering my immaterial self so he only saw the makeup I wore. That day in the doctor’s office, my heart stopped.  It was obliterated into microscopic pieces, now held together by sheer will.  To this day, it only ticks by way of human intervention.

               I’ve learned to live in an imaginary world, where anything and everything is possible.  For, I’ve discovered that the only way a person with a broken heart has of holding on to hope is to exist in this alternate universe, where miracles happen daily and hope is enough to make anything true.  In the world I now inhabit, there are ways for you to stay with me forever. It is a dimension of endless potential, where I can create for you, my son, mechanical limbs, which will forever propel you through life, which will jump and run and leap to dreamlike heights; I can build a diaphragm that will forever pull the earth’s sustenance into your lungs, and a mechanical heart that will never atrophy, that will never slow or weaken; I can become a doctor, so to find the cure for your disease.  See, through my travails in this imagined universe, I have grown wings with which to carry you over the burdens of the material world. It is you who holds them in place.

               Although you are older now, your robots still occupy your bed . . . and your nightstand, shelves, and chest-of-drawers.  They are still your frequent playmates.  Each robot has been lovingly improved-upon and personalized, some with wheels tied on or taped to their feet, some with rubber-bands and ropes attached to their hands (this upgrade has multiple advantages, you have taught me) . . . each one upgraded, except for C3PO.  Instead, you have taken to feeding him orange juice.  And you, yourself, can’t seem to get enough of it.  You ask me if orange juice will make you “better.”  I can only guess at the implications of this question in your head, and find myself gagging on emotion to the extent that I can only squeak out a reply: “Sometimes, if you have a cold.”                    

               Your next question: “Will orange juice make my muscles stronger?” 

               And, as I’ve never lied to you, I can only answer, “But you’re the strongest boy I’ve ever known.”

               Still, you are ever-faithful to orange juice and its special powers, and I will never stop pouring your orange juice.  Our robots will always reside in a universe where they can freely jump from one height to the next, where they can hold their breath under water forever, where they can sprout wings and soar. I will always believe in a world without boundaries, for them . . . for us.

               The day will come when I will have to accept that the weight of your infinite soul and boundless heart was just too great for the world, or for your body, to support.  Your restraints will be removed and you will be freed of life’s burdens.  I know this will happen.  I live with this knowledge every day.  As for me, I will be left behind—stuck on the ground and ever desiring liftoff—to tinker with my mechanical heart.