My grandmother died when I was about 13 years old. It’s the last thing I expected even though she was nearly 90. (Or was she in her 90s? Memory fades that detail…) To a child, death only happens to other people; not to people you know. It was a special relationship. I was mute most of the time. She was deaf. She talked to me; I answered her back in long delicious notes written on used paper plates or the paper my aunt would save for me from the race track office where she sold hot dogs to people betting on horses. Whenever I glimpse a heart shaped cloud, or spy a heart shaped pebble, I always think it’s her, my grandmother, sending me love.
The heart symbol or shape (ideograph) we all associate with the heart goes back to the 1250s. The heart itself is a complex organ with early beliefs (15th century?) that it’s tied to grief, happiness, love; the seat of emotion. There may be fact in that aged notion. Have you ever heard of “broken heart syndrome?” In times of undue stress, the heart reacts to being flooded by stress hormones. The heart temporarily enlarges and contractions can be more forceful. To get technical, it has myriad names: Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as transient apical ballooning syndrome, apical ballooning cardiomyopathy, stress-induced cardiomyopathy, and Gebrochenes-Herz-Syndrom. It all means that stress can kill you; or at the least- damage your heart.
I was a young mother of 17, standing in the E.R. exam room and my 8 month old baby had just been taken off to surgery. I was teary, guilt-ridden, sad and worried. I was staring at a box of latex gloves and wishing I could turn back time; willing myself to hold my head up and join the others in the waiting room. The surgery would take 6 hours. My baby had swallowed a foreign object. A voice, a woman’s careful words…suddenly spoke from behind me, inside the room. “All mothers go to heaven.” I turned to look and caught a blur of someone leaving the room. I went to the doorway and glanced right and left. I have no idea to this day who she was.
Many years later I was a harried 30-something married woman and the days were counting down until I would be a widow. I’d lost 80 lbs. caring full time for a dying husband who was battling Lou Gehrigs disease. We were used to weekend get-aways in Rhode Island and suddenly this. Homebound. Broke. Very sad. I learned to operate his various machines and to feed him through the tube in his stomach. As my friend says about me, “She did what she had to do because her back was to the wall and she damned well had to.” I answered a knock on the door. It was the delivery guy from the corner store. I saw a red case holding large 2-liter sized bottles of ginger ale. “I didn’t order these,” I said. “They’re free, from Jo-Anne,” he said. And I noticed her note tucked in among the bottles: “On the house. Take care.” You see, she knew I’d been instructed to flush the feeding tubes with ginger ale to clean them…
During that time, I can remember a big box of food being delivered at Thanksgiving from the guidance counselor at the elementary school. It had a gift card to buy a turkey, candies, vegetables, gravies, cranberry sauce and all the trimmings for a big meal, including desserts. But the plain cardboard box was what struck me…it had construction paper autumn leaves and turkeys pasted all over it. When my daughter got home from first grade and saw that on the kitchen table, she did a double take. “Wow!” she said. “That looks like the box my class decorated for people with ‘hardship.'” She probably hadn’t even realized we were under hardship; as we tried to keep things upbeat and as normal as possible…but I know we all appreciated those kindnesses. They do the heart good.
Money came from unusual places…a friend who sent me money between the pages of a Buddhist book by mail. A sizable donation from a family whose mother had died from Lou Gehrigs. Toys came in at Christmas… Teary-eyed, I watched a bicycle be wheeled in while the children were at school. That Christmas, I goofed by not rewriting gift tags! I remember my son saying, “Why does my present have a tag saying ‘BOY age 11?” Then my daughter: “Mine says, GIRL age 6!” We can laugh about that now! (I laughed then actually.)
So what does goodwill do for the heart? On a biochemical level, that good feeling we get is from elevated levels of the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, which we know as endogenous opioids. They cause elevated levels of dopamine in the brain, so we get a natural high, often referred to as “Helper’s High.”
Emotional warmth produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and throughout the body. This reduces blood pressure. Oxytocin reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system and thus slows aging at its source. Incidentally these two culprits also play a major role in heart disease, so this is also another reason why kindness is good for the heart. Kindness makes for better relationships and it is contagious. It spreads!
There were so many random acts of goodwill during the Lou Gehrigs years that I scarcely can begin to name them, from my late father in law who built a ramp and mowed the lawn regularly to the unexpected box of hearts that arrived one Valentine’s Day. I was having a bad day emotionally. When the SUV arrived, a woman and two girls got out; along with a young boy. I watched from behind the kitchen curtain, hoping they would not step in dog poop. (Later I found scuff marks along the step. Apparently someone did! I digress…) They buzzed that doorbell but I’d been crying, my spouse was fed, shaved, cleansed and blessedly napping, I could not bring myself to answer the door. After they left, I brought the heavy box into the kitchen, set it on the floor and cried nonstop as I went through the contents…Everything you’d desire for Valentine’s Day was inside, and then some: brownie mixes with heart shaped candy sprinkles, candy gummies, candy hearts and store gift cards for anything they’d left out. The notes or I should say-the valentines made it clear this was from the Girl Scouts, probably a young Brownies troop. Paper hearts in pink, red, white and pale green decorated every inch of the box. With a knife, I carefully unstuck the hearts from the box. They read with messages like this in school girl scrawl:
“from troop 350, we are sorry you are sick.”
“we care about you-Tiffany”
“have a great day and get well soon-Brianna”
“We are thinking about your family.”
If ever you don’t know how to approach someone who is hurting, remember that your kindness no matter how small it may seem, can heal. No matter if you are the recipient or the giver, the heart benefits. I know this. I find heart shaped rocks regularly when I am not even looking and when I least expect it. Bonds don’t die. Kindnesses are never forgotten.
Kim, author of Under The Banana Moon http://www.amazon.com/Under-Banana-Moon-Living-Aspergers-ebook/dp/B006IW0YE6