Adina Talve-Goodman was born with a congenital heart condition and survived multiple operations over the course of her childhood, including a heart transplant at age nineteen. In 2010, she joined our community at One Story as an intern and returned after that as our managing editor, using this role to advocate for emerging writers, particularly those coming from marginalized communities.
Later, while pursuing her MFA at Iowa’s Non-Fiction Writing Program and writing about her experience as a transplant patient, Adina was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away in January 2018, at the age of 31.
Since her death, One Story has been working with Adina’s family to edit and collect her unfinished essays. Your Hearts, Your Scars is the result of those efforts—a book about life, loss, chance, and gratitude, published by Bellevue Literary Press.
This collection forms a unique coming-of-age story, full of humor and longing, from a young woman constantly aware that her life was only made possible by the death of another. Adina’s sister, Sarika Talve-Goodman, spent many months combing through Adina’s writing (both published and unpublished) to compile the essays included in Your Hearts, Your Scars. I then helped to edit the manuscript into its final form, one that Sarika describes in her introduction as “a book made of love and grief, by Adina and us.”
Posthumous writing must always be read with softness—understanding that for the author, it is a work in progress that will never be finished. That said, Your Hearts, Your Scars feels like a gift to those who might need it. The essays are beautiful, full of insight and humor as Adina explores what it means to exist in a space between illness and wellness, in a body that has been marked by difference.
In 2019, together with the Talve-Goodman family, One Story began an educational fellowship in Adina’s name, to give writers outside the fold a significant boost in their careers. With the publication of Your Hearts, Your Scars (which includes this essay, “Thank God for the Nights that Go Right”), we have another chance to share Adina’s indominable spirit, wisdom, and particular brand of magic.
Since her passing, I’ve been trying to do things that Adina would do—have more conversations with strangers, give money to street musicians, look out for my neighbors, speak more intimately and honestly to the people I love. In each of these small acts, I feel her beside me, just as she appears in the pages of this book: a hero in colorful scarves and overalls, with a weakness for glitter and Cher, inspiring everyone with her powerful hearts—the one she was born with and the one she received—beating inside every word.
I stood next to a man at a bar with a four-dollar beer in one hand, my coat in the other, and no good way to grab my pills at 10:00 p.m. I’d spent a lot of nights at bars that week and I’d missed my 10:00 p.m. deadline more than once. It’s the easiest thing, the only thing I have to do, really, to stay alive—just take the pills at the same time every morning and every night in order to have the perfect amount of medicine in my system so that my body doesn’t suddenly wake up and say, Fuck this heart, rip it up, it doesn’t belong. And still, sometimes, I forget, I slip up, I’m late. If 10:00 p.m. becomes 10:15 p.m., that’s okay, that’s not too bad. If 10:15 p.m. becomes 11:00 p.m., that’s no good, that’s missing the half-hour window I was once told I had. Then I take them with a swig of beer, a sip of whiskey, a shot of tequila once, and I think, Well, look at you, you undeserving idiot. But I’ve been lucky, we say, I’ve been so very lucky. Not one bit of rejection, not a one, sometimes in spite of me.
I didn’t know much about the man. Or, rather, I knew a few small things and one large thing. We’d both had heart transplants. It’s not really bar talk.
I imagined what it would be like to think of yourself as healthy all of your life and then be suddenly not.
He was a friend of my friend Joey. Joey was the friend I called first when we knew the heart was coming, the friend who sat on my bed as I packed my bag for the hospital, the friend who got me through, the best friend. She was part of a house improv team at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade with the man; they practiced and performed every week. I’d met him once before. I’d been helping Joey make papier-mâché piñatas for hours for an upcoming comedy show. When the man showed up, I was covered in homemade paste and a little wound up. Apparently, he thought I was funny and “super weird.” Months later, Joey called me late one night when she was walking home from rehearsal, after he’d told her that he’d had a heart transplant. She talks fast when she’s excited.
“I can’t believe I didn’t know,” I said.
“How would you know?” she said. “You’d never know with you.”
“I guess I just expected to be able to, like, smell it on someone else,” I said.
“That’s so crazy. Don’t tell anyone you think that. He’s fourteen years out,” she said. “Fourteen.”
Before the transplant, doctors told me a new heart would last for ten good years. Not just ten years but ten good years. After that, the kidneys might start to fail from one kind of immunosuppressant, you might get skin cancer from another, or the arteries might start to harden for reasons they can’t quite explain. I was at seven and doing, as one doctor put it, beautifully—I’d had no rejection, no hardening of the arteries, no signs of decline in any other organ. There are reasons for all these things—better medicines, a good diet, etc.—but I am more comfortable calling it luck. Still, the phrase “ten good years” lingers in my head and Joey knows it well.
“Fourteen?” I said. “Really?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Fourteen. And he drinks a lot. Maybe you guys should get together, maybe that’d be nice.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d like to race him.”
I went to their next improv show alone. After, I went down to the basement bathroom of the theater before meeting Joey at the adjacent bar. In the bathroom, I checked that I didn’t have any eyeliner or mascara clumps in the corners of my eyes. I was nervous, like I was maybe about to go on what would be the worst blind date ever.
I found Joey at the bar. She asked if I wanted her to reintroduce me to the man with fourteen years, if I was sure. I thanked her for asking. It is nice to have a friend who holds my secrets like they are her secrets, too.
I shook his hand like we’d never met before, and one of the other members of the improv team standing nearby said, “Hey, you guys are heart twins!” Not really, I thought, because that’s not a thing, thank God. We stepped over to the bar together to get drinks and talk about this largeness between us. I ordered a Porkslap.
We talked about what meds we were each on and what doctors we saw in the city. We’d seen the same cardiologist at one time, but he’d switched. He didn’t get many checkups anymore—just an annual, almost like any other red-blooded American.
“Me, too, sort of,” I said. I explained that I had gone to India recently, so they’d made me get every shot imaginable and then come by for a few checkups after the trip. I think we cheers’d to that.
The man was not tall. He had blue eyes and wholesome boy hair—soft, golden brown, buzzed. He looked like he was in his twenties but was, Joey said, at least thirty-two and just had nice skin. He wore his pink oxford shirt untucked from his khakis but buttoned to the top. Maybe, I thought, to cover his scar.
He’d had his transplant in Maryland during college. “Mine was during college, too,” I said. “In St. Louis. Joey was there.” He asked why I needed it. I told him I was in heart failure from the time I was twelve and that I had waited for the heart for nearly two years. His story was different. He’d never had any issues growing up, but he got sick in college, an infection or something, and needed a transplant immediately—he waited for less than two weeks. You’re fast, I’m slow, I thought. Your trauma must be so different from mine. I imagined what it would be like to think of yourself as healthy all of your life and then be suddenly not. I couldn’t, really, because I have never had that sort of training. It must have been terrifying. Before my transplant, I spoke on the phone once to a man who had had two heart transplants in his life. He grew up in the same town as my mother; they went on a date once. He said the only difference he notices is that his heart takes a little longer to catch up to him when he exercises, that there’s a slight delay, and he can’t work out quite as hard as he used to or ski from as high an altitude. “That won’t be a problem for you,” he’d said. “You have nothing to compare it to.” He was right.
I wondered if the man in front of me was similar, if maybe the memory of wellness still lived in his body. There were long, awkward pauses during our conversation at the bar when I should’ve been asking him more questions—him at fourteen years, nice, and willing to answer. But I couldn’t even make proper eye contact with him. The questions I still have— the ones about death and donors and borrowed time—seemed out of place standing at the bar, Porkslap in one hand and heart in the other. So I asked instead what he was up to now. He worked in health care. “To give back,” he said.
I put my coat between my knees and checked the time on my phone: 10:35 p.m. I mentally kicked myself around for failing to check the clock earlier and dug in my bag for my medicine. I took it fast with a swig of beer and the man told me he took his pills at nine and nine. He said something about my looking good, something along the lines of being surprised when Joey told him I’d had a transplant. I didn’t know what to say. I should; it’s something I’ve heard a lot in the years since I received the heart. That I am un-patient-like; that you cannot tell, with my clothes on, the freakishness of my distinctly modern body. As if illness should be uglier, more grotesque. I should have said that I, too, was surprised by his wellness, his unfreakishness. I was afraid, however, that he might take it as flirting. There is no part of me that wants to be with someone who has scars like mine or scars at all. In bars, in life, I am drawn to men who are like trees—tall and strong, the opposite of myself. Men who have not spent time in hospitals, men whose bodies seem to be lottery winners, rare forms of perfection who make me feel, in the times we are together, that I belong in that club of plain and unsurprising beauty.
Joey came over. I’m not sure if it was by luck or because she noticed the man and I weren’t really talking anymore. She said she had to run to another show. I told her I’d walk with her to the subway. I said good-bye and nice to re-meet you to Mr. Fourteen Years.
While we were walking to the train, I apologized to Joey. I told her I was weird and awkward with her friend.
“I kind of lost it when he said he worked in health care,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know. He’s just so together. He was probably like, That girl is covered in trauma.”
“I don’t think people think like that,” Joey said. “I’m sure it was weird for him, too. Are you okay?”
“I think so. I just feel shitty, like a shit person, a person made of shit.”
She gave me a hug, patted me on my head like she sometimes does, and told me to give myself a break. We boarded the F train, going in opposite directions, and I thought about my seven years since the transplant. I’d graduated from college, moved to New York, worked at internships in theater and publishing, and done odd jobs—nannying, personal assistant, retail—until I’d landed at a literary magazine. Transplant aside, I was like every other upper-middle-class white female riding this gentrification train back to Brooklyn. I was failing, I thought, being selfish with this new heart. I’d never struggled with failure before. When you’re concentrated on survival, getting through, or making the best of things, you succeed by adapting. Failure only becomes a possibility when you have something to lose. With wellness, I suddenly had so much to waste. I could waste my time, my body, my heart on anything and I was starting to miss the strong muscle of gratitude I had built during my childhood through having to make hard choices about where I would spend what little energy I had.
Failure only becomes a possibility when you have something to lose. With wellness, I suddenly had so much to waste.
After seven years, my gratitude is becoming less tangible. Some days I waste myself on bad television, on food that will clog arteries, on selfishness. And I tell myself it doesn’t matter because even on that day, I am growing older and that is all I need do to deserve this “gift.” I tell myself I will be grateful tomorrow. I am starting to trust that I might live a while longer than I expected. Fourteen years, beyond, in good health. What will I do with all that time? How will I ever be worthy of it?
On the subway ride home, there were delays on the F train and I had to get off and transfer to the C. I don’t usually take the C train. The walk from the closest stop is still about half a mile from my apartment and less populated and on a darker street, so I avoid it. But that night, I had no choice. As I waited on the platform for the train, I tried to think of all the ways I could be better. I could go to the gym more; I could go to the gym at all. I could volunteer again at a hospital, the way I used to in high school. But I hated it then and I only did it as a way to spend time with a boy I had a crush on for about a decade. He wanted to volunteer at Children’s Hospital, so I did, too, even though I spent plenty of time there already. As a patient, I hated volunteers—especially the woman and her Dalmatian who used to go from room to room dressed the same, asking if you needed a little love and remarking to me that a smile was really my best medicine. My mother would kindly usher her out of the room or lie and say I was allergic to dogs. I love dogs, which is why I think putting green glitter eye shadow and tutus on them is cruel. “You should tell her she can’t come in because she’s terrible,” I would say, and my mother would laugh.
When I volunteered, nurses would send me into the rooms of patients who were younger than me and had similar heart conditions. Mostly, I would listen—to what they were afraid of, the worry about scarring, etc.—and nod my head. Kids don’t talk about death much. They talk about maybe something going vaguely wrong during surgery or the scar they’ll have when they wake up, but they don’t talk about maybe not waking up. It’s sweet, I think, because even in hospitals, most of them haven’t learned death yet. I was careful not to say things like “Cheer up,” or to beg for smiles, or to mention the gravity of any given situation. Sometimes we just played a board game and they’d ask me my age. Sixteen. And they’d ask me if I had a scar. Yes. And the girls would ask if they could see it. Sure. And the boys would ask if I knew how to drive. Yep. But it was hard for me to sit on that side of the bed knowing there was really no difference between us and though I’d been lucky thus far, my luck might slip out from under me at any time and then that damned lady with her Dalmatian would be there knocking on my door. So I asked the volunteer coordinator if I could be transferred to the Natal Intensive Care Unit. There, nobody needed my advice, and it was enough just to be comfortable around a lot of tubing and blood and to hold the babies whose parents couldn’t be there to hold them all day as mine had. I could do that again, I thought as I boarded the C train. I could hold babies.
Before the transplant, my parents took me to see an abbot. They’re both rabbis and my mother had a habit of taking me to every healer who rolled through town while I was growing up. Mostly, they didn’t work, but sometimes we had miracles. The abbot was not a healer, though, my parents said; he was just a holy man. We sat in his office, my mother, father, and I. He asked me if I had any questions for him or for God.
I was tired. I had been waiting a year already and I was declining in health and sanity. I asked the abbot if it was okay not to know if I wanted the heart to come. I asked him if it was okay to sometimes smoke cigarettes in Vermont with my boyfriend, if I couldn’t do that anymore when the new heart came because it wouldn’t be mine to destroy, the way this one was. I asked him if it was okay that I had thought about it a great deal and I did not want to know the donor or think of them every day because I liked the person I was and I didn’t want to risk losing myself to an organ. I asked him how I could deserve the heart better. I did not cry. My parents were quiet.
The abbot was soft-spoken. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and had white hair. He stayed still when he spoke, occasionally raising his hand to point to nothing in particular. “I think,” he said, “that these are good questions. It’s good to ask questions. But now that you’ve asked”—he raised his hand—“you can rest. You need a new heart, you’ll get a new heart, and the hardest part, God willing, will be your waiting. So perhaps you give up. Give it all up to God.”
The words we use to describe the sick, how we praise those who put on a brave face, how I received extra stickers and lollipops when I did not cry as a child, how we call people who don’t complain “strong” and often compare illness to illness and then say, “It can always be worse.” We demand gratitude. The abbot offered me a way out of that narrative, a silver branch to lift me out of the thinking that things could always be worse, a break from a crushing kind of gratitude. Give up. I imagined myself sinking to the bottom of a great body of water, not swimming, and not able to breathe until I reached the bottom.
The night before the call came, I sat in the passenger seat of Joey’s green minivan, a defibrillator vest strapped to my chest and an IV in my arm. I cried so hard, I started to gag. “I want it so bad,” I said. “I give up.” She repeated it was coming over and over again as she rubbed the part of my back not taken up by the vest. My heart was beating very fast and there was a beeping from inside my bag—a warning that the vest would shock me in fifteen seconds if I did not press the right button on the battery pack because an arrhythmia might be pending. I dug around in my bag and could not find the battery.
“Adina, don’t be funny. Adina, please, find that fucking battery.”
“I’m trying.” I laughed.
I found it with a few seconds to spare and the pack was quiet once again. I turned to Joey and apologized for scaring her.
I always thought dying would feel worse. I thought there would be more pain, I thought death would be clear. When the surgeons removed my old heart, they said I was lucky my liver wasn’t failing, I was lucky to be alive; I couldn’t have waited any longer. “Thank you,” I said to everyone in the hospital that week I recovered. Thank you, thank you, thank you, compulsively, like a tic, until thank you was the only sound I made in exhalation before sleep.
It was nearly midnight when I stepped off the C train and started walking down the platform toward the Washington Avenue exit. I had my headphones in and I was listening to Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” on repeat.
I tell myself it doesn’t matter because even on that day, I am growing older and that is all I need do to deserve this “gift.”
And there he was, the man from the bar, my heart twin; he was on the platform, heading toward the opposite exit, and hadn’t seen me. We’d been on the same train, in different cars. Maybe it also took him an hour and a half to get home. I paused and recognized my choice—I could say something or not. I thought about what Joey said, about how maybe people don’t think in terms of who is more or less traumatized, and how I can’t know what his transplant was like but maybe it would give both of us something to hear him tell the story of it. So when I stepped off the train at a stop I don’t usually go to and he was there, walking toward the exit, I rose up and took my luck’s hand.
“Jesse!” I yelled. “Hey, Jesse!”
He turned around and we walked back toward each other. We met in the middle and I said, “I’m sorry for being so weird at the bar.”
“Me, too,” he said.
“It’s just that it’s not something I talk about in bars or otherwise. It’s not something I usually share with people.”
“Me, neither,” he said.
“But you should know, it delighted me, and Joey, to hear fourteen years.” We laughed a little, then hugged and said maybe we’d get coffee sometime and do it right. Then we parted ways.
Aboveground, I had missed calls from my dad and my mom. Now that I live in New York, we usually talk while I’m walking somewhere. I can still hear the delight in their voices when they ask, “What are you doing?” and I reply that I’m walking. I called my dad because he was more likely to be awake. He asked me where I was and I told him the whole story of the night—of the boy with fourteen years, of Joey, of the train delays and the subway stop I never go to. At the end, I said, “Sometimes the universe just shouts I Got You, y’know? And you feel right.”
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s like God.”
Excerpt from Your Hearts, Your Scars. Copyright © 2023 by the Estate of Adina Talve-Goodman. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: www.blpress.org. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.