Issue #47, Winter 2013
It looks like a ghost heart. And it feels a little like Jell-O.
—Doris Taylor, bioengineer, on the cellular scaffold she creates to regenerate a human heart.
On the radio show Speaking of Faith, researcher Doris Taylor is telling us how to build a new heart. They take a cadaver heart, she says, and wash away all the dead cells with shampoo until only a “ghost heart” remains. This ghost heart will provide the scaffold for stem cells that will create the new heart on their own.
I look at pictures of the ghost heart online. It looks a little bit like halibut: white fleshed, resilient, translucent. It’s almost all water, with just enough structure to hold it in the shape of a heart. Taylor will implant stem blood cells on this medium and wait for the heart to start beating. The cells know what to do: she just has to create the environment for everything to happen at once.
“We’re regenerating the heart on many different levels,” Taylor says. “Physically, emotionally, spiritually. If you put a new heart back in the same environment, it’s going to get damaged again.”
In her installation “The Sound of Cells Dividing,” Geraldine Ondrizek invites us into cells: small rooms made of translucent paper, cellular, where we’re allowed an auditory glimpse of the inner body’s hum. “Visitors entering the luminous sculptures can hear the sounds of healthy cells dividing and damaged cells dying—” the gallery brochure tells us, “sounds taken from an atomic force microscope, which uses a needle to feel and record the actual vibration of a cell.” We walk amid this fractured music, our living cells pricked alert. Our bodies emit music, something the mathematicians have known all along. The artist weaves other cellular sounds into the mix: monks chanting in their cells, families laughing and arguing, voices just short of decipherable.
In another room we encounter a Torah, its binder embroidered with the chromosomes of Ondrizek’s dead son. She tattooed his genetic makeup on the cloth. His body has evaporated—gone—but the ghost body remains.
As I look, the dead son’s chromosomes morph into the shape of a tree of life. The background: a flurry of stains, amniotic, smudged fluids of birth. She has stitched a recording, a threaded calligraphy. I imagine her at this work, bent over the needle and thread for years, toiling to inscribe her son on the surface of the world.
My friend tells me it’s called “neurogenesis.” “It’s because you’re actually creating new pathways in the brain. Not a new brain exactly, but new ways for the brain to fire,” he tells me.
We’re in my kitchen, just the two of us, while the rest of my guests sit in the living room, talking loudly, laughing. The menorah candles we’ve just lit burn merrily away. Two organic chickens roast in the oven, stuffed with apples and onion. I’ve laden a tray with latkes. I’ve made a honey-curry braided bread as my challah, studded with slivers of golden almonds, and I’ve got a white platter of raspberry-chocolate macaroons waiting on the sideboard. The kitchen smells of rosemary and cumin and paprika and oil and fried potatoes. We will eat around my coffee table, and afterward play a game of Taboo that will have us laughing so hard we’ll be gasping for breath.
Neurogenesis. A new brain. A synaptic beginning. I let the dog outside and turn to my friend, my good friend for years now. He has had his own struggles with the brain. I turned fifty this year and have just started taking Celexa, an antidepressant that comes in the smallest pill imaginable. I’m talking to my friend, trying to describe how it feels: not so much that the medication has eradicated depression, but rather that my brain is being tilled, like soil, for some new crop to take root.
I had always resisted medication: I wanted my brain to be my brain, the brain I always knew, no matter how often and how regularly it turned against me. I once took Prozac for two days, fifteen years ago, and I ended up crouched in a corner with my head in my hands, calling the psychiatrist and asking for an antidote. “There is no antidote,” she said impatiently. “Just wait for the side effects to pass.”
So I had stubbornly refused to even consider medications for these many years. Besides, I thought, wasn’t it normal to feel the way I felt? Wasn’t it an ordinary condition: to be slightly blue most of the time, to feel terrible about yourself even when all evidence points to the contrary? Don’t we all stare out the window, waiting for something to change?
“It’s called neurogenesis,” he says again, and smiles. I know what he’s thinking; he has a biblical mind. Genesis: an origin. The brain washing itself clean. Expectant.
February 1963: I’m four years old and waiting for my mother to come home. I’m staring out the kitchen window; she’s been gone two days, and I know something is up, something big. I’ve got a fat crayon clutched in my fist. I know my mother’s in the hospital, giving birth to my baby brother, though I don’t really understand what that means.
I would like to remember my mother’s pregnant belly. I would like to remember touching that rounded, taut stomach, perhaps placing my lips against the belly button and kissing my nascent brother through this dome of flesh. I would like to imagine the smell of this belly, complex, layered with sweat and baby powder, and smooth against my own baby cheeks—my brother kicking me through the skin, and me babbling his name over and over so he would know me when he arrived.
But I remember none of this. Instead I see myself alone at a kitchen table, writing with a big blue crayon a welcome home card, or a happy birthday card for this new child that has been living inside my mother, generating cell by cell, alive and not yet alive. I want to touch him. I want to be touched by this ghost creature who’s about to arrive.
A neighbor has been taking care of my older brother and me, and she slapped me when I cried for my mother too long. She apologized immediately, made me cinnamon toast, but her hand has left its mark. It has told me I’m not strong enough to be in this world alone.
I want my mother returned to me in her normal pressed slacks, her cotton sweaters, and her lipstick so perfectly applied with a brush. I hear a car turn onto the cul-de-sac, see the station wagon making its careful glide up Amestoy Avenue. I can see through the passenger window the vague shape of my mother, holding a bundle in her arms. Something flutters up in me: love, longing, excitement, anger, fear—all of them, all at once. I wait at the window to see what will happen next. I touch my own belly, the crayon still in my hand, and leave a mark there that will take forever to wash out.
I wonder if Doris Taylor will rebuild a brain. Maybe wash away the one you have: all those cells with their unhelpful memories, all those flawed synapses, down the drain. You’d be left with a “ghost brain,” pale and bland as Jell-O.
Perhaps this is what I’m after: an amniotic pause, a whispered hush.
I would like to put my ear up against the walls of my own cells. I’d like to listen to what they have to say. You need to stay in Geraldine Ondrizek’s sculpture a long time to really get it: to hear the familial voices, the monastic chants, the whirring cells, and then—always behind it all—a vast silence. You hold your breath. You let time pass. Settle down. Hear a body regenerate itself within illuminated paper, the thinnest scaffold imaginable.
* Illustration by Anna Hall
Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life. She also co-authored Tell It Slant:... read more
This list offers links to examples of electronic nonfiction, a genre I discuss at greater length in Issue 47 of Creative Nonfiction. Here,... read more