Listening to someone’s heartbeats is one of the most intimate things you can do, when you lay your ear against a pregnant belly listening to the fast and faint foetal heartbeats, or when you rest with your head on your lover’s chest listening to grown-up cardiac music.
There is music in heartbeats, if you listen carefully. The first sounds you hear is the closing of the mitral and tricuspid valves during the systole. Systole is the name given to the phase when blood is forced out of the ventricles into arteries that will take it round the body, nurturing and sustaining distant parts. These valves close like efficient biological doors to prevent the back flow of blood back into the heart chambers.
And then you will hear the second sound, the sound of diastole. You can tell a lot about the heart from this sound, without having to break into the rib cage. A healthy valve closing should sound like a gentle, muffled tap on a soft surface. Any variation is an indication that all is not well within, when the valves are not playing to the primal beats of life. I could spend forever listening to these primal beats.
Because hearts are not just four-chambered organs with a lifetime function of supplying blood, waiting to die from a litany of breakdown causes – aortic dissection, haemodynamic deterioration, dyspnoea, syncope. It has a finite life. It is not just about the valves and the sounds either. Sometimes, when cardiac muscles forget their place in this orchestra and play to the wrong beat, the heart begins its dance of death. Death follows hot on its heels. Angor animi. When you are about to die, you feel an anguish of the soul, this angor animi. I know, I have felt it, this anguish. But as I lay listening to his heartbeats on Halnaker Hill on this glorious summer’s day I know that I am alive, because so long as he shall live, so do I.
Put your hand on the spot on your ribcage directly above where your heart sits. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Bring your attention inwards, following the flow of your breath. Where the breath goes, energy and consciousness follow. Connect to the rhythm of your beating heart. Listen for its music. And then say to yourself, again and again, softly, “I am, I am, I am.”