It looks like a ghost heart. And it feels a little like Jello.
—Doris Taylor, bioengineer
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, 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 on the website: 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. She will implant a stem cell on this medium and wait for it 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, she 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 small, cellular rooms made of translucent paper, where we’re allowed an auditory glimpse of what the body sounds like. Our bodies emit music, something mathematicians have known all along. The artist has recorded the way a needle can play our cells like a phonograph, the pitches of music harmonizing, disharmonizing. We sit inside one paper fort, and then another, to listen, entranced.
In another room of the gallery, Ondrizek has embroidered the DNA of her dead son on the binder of the Torah. She tattooed his genetic makeup on the cloth. His body has evaporated, gone, but a 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 lights of 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 studded with slivers of golden almonds, and I have a white platter of raspberry-chocolate macarons waiting on the sideboard. The kitchen smells of rosemary and cumin, paprika, 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 never thought I would take it: 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 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?
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's up, something big. I’ve got a fat crayon clutched in my fist. 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 complex smell of this belly—layered with sweat and baby powder, and smooth against my own baby cheeks—and my brother kicking me through the skin, me babbling his name over and over so he would know me when he arrived.
But I don’t remember any 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 sweater, 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 they’ll be able to rebuild a brain next. To wash away the one you have: all those cells with their unhelpful memories, those flawed synapses, down the drain. You’d be left with a “ghost brain”—pale, and bland as Jello.
I would like to put my ear up against the walls of my own cells. I would like to listen to what my cells have to say. You have to stay in Geraldine Ondrizek’s paper cells a long time to get it: to hear the voices of family in the background, the chanting of monks from their monastic cells, and then—always, behind it all—a vast silence.
I wonder if it’s really the silence I’ve been after all this time: the amniotic pause of the womb, the whispered hush of paper, the space where we can all be reborn.