Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel

Dick, About Your Heart,


Too much plaque between your teeth can cause plaque in your heart, so we clean our mouths, hoping to open the heart’s four chambers. Four chambers in your heart and four chambers in mine, and we make eight. We stand in similar, tile laden rooms that echo equally the sounds of water and the sounds we make. We open our mouths, not to speak or eat or drink, but to tend to the dark, enclosed spaces that are withheld from regular view. This is the most tender thing we do for ourselves all day. We’re not in a hurry, and we’re not alone. We don’t need cups, just the hollow of a hand, the same one we used when we were children—the same one I will use to teach my son how to hold water in the cup of his hand and to hold a flower gently enough not to kill it. Together, we pretend that this state of tenderness is enough to keep us well. 


You say you’re thinking about getting a heart transplant. When you say this on the radio, the bass of your voice rattles the speakers. Your voice throws its gravel into the bathroom, pinging the walls. 

In here, sound doesn’t have to be clear to be understood. It multiplies, reflecting from the tile walls that form standing waves, reverberation, echoes, like the sonic chapels of the 17th century—opera houses and concert halls—the kind of chambers that are shaped to create internal reflections. 

Perhaps this kind of internal reflection is why the ventricles of our hearts are also called chambers. And why the word chambers was once the name for the bedroom where bodies rest and are made. 

All too soon, the word chamber came to mean domain of the monarch, and from there it didn’t take long for it to also mean the part of the gun that holds the charge and the many rooms where regulations are made. But Dick Cheney, the word chamber also describes an opera written for a small number of singers and for orchestras with only a few musicians. A chamber is where arguments are heard as well as music. A chamber is an intimate venue; vault of a tomb; vault of heaven; the hollow near the ear canal that in a quiet enough room will be able to hear the heart beating through the body, beating at the same tempo as the song, “Staying Alive.” This is the song instructors use to teach students the rate at which to pump the chest of an unconscious person. 


For someone who never wrote things down, never used e-mail, wouldn’t willingly talk to the press, kept the names of your staff out of federal directories and stored your papers in a locked safe, you’re talking a lot about your heart these days. At fourteen you watched your great grandfather die of a heart attack. At 37 you had your first. You went on to have four more heart attacks. A quadruple bypass. An episode of ventricular fibrillation, a condition in which the heart moves wormlike. 

V. Fib is not a failure of the heart muscle. It’s a failure of the heart’s signals to coordinate. The heart can’t pump. The lower chambers lose the ability to contract in the unison needed to force blood into the kidneys and the brain and every major organ. Within three seconds a person blacks out. Is without a pulse. Is on the floor, turning blue. The heart that can’t communicate leaves a body on the ground. 

Now, you say you might get a new heart. “The technology is better now,” you say, “good enough to take the risk,” even at your age. But the truth is, you’re almost too old to be on the donor list at all, and although you need a new heart you won’t say, “need.” You say, “maybe.” “Maybe I’ll get a heart transplant,” as if the choice is always yours to make. 

You say you feel great. Normal. You describe your life. You go to the grocery store and make chili, or spaghetti sauce, at home in Wyoming, where the elk come to your back door and don’t realize you’re a hunter. 

You have survived: five heart attacks, two angioplasties, a pacemaker… 

You might have heart attack any second. 

Like right now. 

Or now. 

Your heart won’t beat at full strength ever again, and you’re only alive because you have a battery-powered heart pump with twelve-volt batteries and a minicomputer that pumps blood through your body so continuously that it leaves you without a pulse. You have no pulse. You take a drug called warfarin that I pronounce, “war-faring.” The pump and the warfarin keep you alive. “I have batteries that power on a regular basis,” you say. When you take the battery out, the pump begins to beep. You laugh. “It’s alright,” you say. “It’s not going to blow up.” 

It’s too easy to laugh. Even the broadcasters take a swing when they ask, “Dick Cheney’s Heart: Is it Working?” Your condition isn’t a pun or a joke. It just feels like one. A really good one. I hear you talk of your heart on the radio and can only think about the smile-smirk that obscures your face. It’s too easy to editorialize your public heart when nothing meaningful is being said. 

But let’s get this out of the way. Your broken heart is a metaphor. And it’s reality. I am interested in symbols. And I am interested in the actuality of your heart.


When a woman asked me to think of someone who’s problematic to me, I thought of you. “Find a picture of this person,” she said. “See this person, physically and without judgment.” She promised that if I looked at you this way for a very long time, you would become radiant. 

It’s late at night when I find the picture of you online that I think I can stare at this way. It isn’t an official photo from the Office of the Vice President, or the one of you with photo-shopped fangs or the one where you look like Darth Vader or the one where you’re wearing a leather vest and holding your hands above your head, looking ready for sex. I pick a picture of you in a white cowboy hat. I like cowboy hats and the wide-open spaces they fill. I like that you seem relaxed in the picture, maybe even receptive. 

I make a blind contour drawing of you. I place the pencil on the page and don’t look at it. For five minutes, I only look at you. I start by drawing the brim of your white hat and then the curve of your jaw. I move the pencil as if pressing it against the contours of your face, as if touching your face. For five minutes, I feel exposed to a form of radiation. It hits at such a low frequency that it can’t be known until it aggregates. 

When I’m done, I see that I’ve drawn your nose and mouth in the right place, but one eyeball has dropped onto your cheek and another onto your nose. They cut into your skin like bad body piercings. A few eyelashes streak away from the eye sockets that are in the right place and empty. 

In the lines, I see the way my body moves a pencil. I see the way I draw as clearly as I see your face—your actual face. A living morphology seems at work in this drawing. Not metamorphosis, which happens so intently on its own, but a way of perceiving the form, the structure, the body, which might relay its hidden patterns—its essential life—that which makes us what we are and what we will become. If we cannot understand a particular phenomenon, wrote J.W. v. Goethe who first defined morphology, we must learn to make fuller use of our senses and to bring our intellect into line with what they tell. The eyes of the spirit have to work in perpetual living connection with those of the body, for one otherwise risks seeing past a thing. [Goethe] 

Have you read Goethe? If I could send you anything, I would send you the pages he writes on morphology. And what it reveals. He says that only refined and educated senses can more closely render the forms that hold and relay what is intuitively understood—an ultimate which cannot itself be explained, which is in fact not in need of explanation, but from which all that we observe can be made intelligible. [Goethe] Morphology asks us to be honest. We can only portray rather than explain. [Goethe] 

In my portrayal, your mouth is a single line. Thin. As if without teeth. Clamped shut. Silent. Just right. For good. It is in this silence that I read this letter to you as if you will hear it—as if I don’t fear the moment you might. 

But what I fear the most is the way your mind doesn’t change. And neither does mine. I hear your voice, Dick Cheney, and only think with gleeful precision that the four chambers of your heart refuse to function as they should. How difficult it is not to darken the world with our words. 


When I read the redacted government study, I’m struck most by the number of long, black boxes that cover the text. Drawn with Sharpie precision, I find them to be the most honest marks on the page; they embody a silence that screams of decision. The black boxes are followed by descriptions of detainees who were kept shackled in complete darkness in cells made of plywood painted black and called “Black Boxes.” It was winter. There was no heat. There was the sound of loud music, played constantly at a volume known to disrupt the human heartbeat. The musical torture included pop songs like Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty,” and the American classic, “We are the Champions,” 24 hours a day. 

Very rarely, between the songs that had magnified into torture, the men could hear the call to prayer. Dawn. Noon. Afternoon. Sunset. Night. The prayer marked time for them, and they could hear its marking as circulatory, continuing. Time had not stopped. They were not yet dead. They heard the Adhān; a prayer whose name extends from a word that means ear, listen, hear, be informed. 

Listen, when you read the redacted words no one else can see, how do they inform you? At what point does the heart register the cold? What else do you know about the man who froze to death in his detention cell? His name is not redacted. His name is Gul Rahman. But do you know where he was buried? Do you know the names of his four daughters? His wife? When was the last time you spoke to your wife? How would you describe her voice? The voices of your daughters? The sound of anyone you love? The sound of love? What does it sound like to be American? What does it sound like to be Terrorist? In a concrete cell in Afghanistan, north of Kabul, the night of November 19, when the temperature was 36 degrees, why was a man named Gul Rahman left naked, shackled to the wall in a way that forced the lower half of his body onto the bare concrete at a temperature that makes the body lose heat faster than it can produce it? 

At this point, a person begins to shiver, feel hungry, has trouble speaking. The heart rate increases. Then the shivering stops. The pulse gets weak. 

There are so many descriptions of the dark but there is only one way out. The only escape is presented as an answer. Isn’t it? Just give me an answer. Tell us what you know. And we’ll let you go. 

I don’t want answers. I want description. I want the arc of the human, resonating somewhere in the back of your body. I want to hear your visceral, human response. 

Tell me. Where did you feel something? A small change in pressure? A small force of blood? I want to hear a statement from your soul. 


I left America for a few weeks because I thought I could. I walked alone into a Muslim neighborhood. As the sun set on the buildings, the Adhān filtered through a loud speaker. Just beyond the windows, inside each home, people touched their foreheads to sacred rugs. No one was in the street. I was alone when I heard the call, which I had never heard before, and so I heard it through the amplification of American fear that equates Islam with terror. As the voice spiked high to reach a note different from any I had ever heard, I was ashamed and angry at the way fear crawled like ants inside my ears and would not let me hear this call as a prayer and not a threat. I wasn’t kneeling. I was a woman. Alone. My hair was showing. American. I tried to find my ear. I tried to listen through my fear. 

I closed my eyes and remembered my red, two-door coupe. It could take me far away from everything, every thought, and into the density of a night that might destroy me and, at the very same time, let me hear the good sounds coming from the tape deck. Radiohead. Nirvana. 1995. 

I was alone in the car, but when I sang, I was not alone. I listened until I experienced the ecstasy of my own emotions sung back to me: I would love, and I would die, but I knew nothing of real fear. 

I know nothing of terror. I know nothing of fight. 

Imagination is the sidearm I carry. 


The whole house is asleep. Only I’m awake. I find comfort in the asparagus fern that drapes down the edge of the fireplace that no longer works and will never burn again. I find comfort in all the plants and the pots that hold them. I find comfort in the fan that runs a hum through the summer night; my son; sleeping; knowing that you are sleeping. And I am the one awake. 

Now, I know how to imagine you. I see you standing on a stage. You’re about to sing.

You lower your white hat and wrap your hand around your wrist, squeezing for the pulse that isn’t there. You stand in the dark of a theater, unable to see anyone looking up at you even though you can feel them like a dark sea prepared to swallow you whole. 

You’re shaking. You don’t seem to come from a family of singers. Your father was a soil conversation agent and mother a 1930s softball star. 

You are, it seems, as I am when I stand on a stage and am asked to sing even though I come from a family of singers. I was raised in the choir. For a long time, I sang solos. But now, I’m in no choir. Somehow my love of singing turned into a fear of it. When I try to sing, I only hear the blood in my throat. Feel dizzy. My heart strains against the walls of my chest as if trying to get out. I’m having a heart attack, I think. My heart is a bomb, I think. 

For a long time, I thought I was afraid of making a mistake; I might forget the words or miss a note. But again and again, what happens to me when I sing is much worse. I start to cry. It’s embarassing. I sing a note and the sound of it merges with the feeling of it in my throat and the back of my neck, straight down into my chest where it breaks my heart as if my heart has never been broken. Every hurt binds to every joy. It is this amplified emotion that forms a wavelength and travels. It can’t be obscured or silenced. It is physical. The sound of a broken heart changes the air pressure. It can vibrate down to the bones. My bones and your bones. It is felt in the teeth. It is this vulnerable melody that frightens me. And it is this vulnerable melody that I will make you sing, deep in my mind, tonight. To make you this vulnerable, to imagine you afraid, is the only way I can stop being afraid of you. 

You are going to sing a song that I have always sung when no one else is around. It’s a traditional American folksong of suffering. It has been sung for generations, its composer unknown. It has over 160 different lyrics, but in every version, someone dies and a girl goes missing. In every version there is longing in the darkness. 

You are going to sing this song. But imagination is a funny thing, Dick. To imagine you up there, I have to imagine standing up there. I look up to find myself under the same, single bulb in that dark room, preparing to sing. I feel my pulse banging in my wrists. A spoon hits a glass. Someone coughs. My hands and face go cold. My heart loses the regular beat that lets me forget it exists. I step to the microphone. I must find the long note. It must not crack. If only I can hold it, something more than fear will resonate. I must sing. For you to sing, I must sing: 

My girl, my girl, don't lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun don't ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through
My girl, my girl, where will you go
I'm going where the cold wind blows
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun don't ever shine
And the birds sleep the whole day through
My girl, my girl, don't lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun don't ever shine
And the birds sleep the whole damn day
My girl, my girl, don't lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night


The next morning, I wake up feeling cold and blank. I move in a fog through the entire day until the day is gone. It’s dark when I start to feel alive again. 

I make pasta for dinner. Fill the steel pot with cold water. Put it over the flame on the stove and wait. I open a beer. Turn on the radio. 

“Dick Cheney…” the announcer says, “…had a heart transplant today.” 

I hear your news, and I would like to say that I hold my head in my hands to send you healing thoughts. But really, I am only thinking: the wrong person has been healed. Over and over. The wrong person has been healed. 

The announcer assures everyone listening that you are, “resting at home.” 

“…doing fine.” 

You will, “make a full recovery.” 

The water on the stove boils over. And I let it.