Your Hearts, Your Scars

Talve-Goodman, Adina

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Annotated by:
Field, Steven
  • Date of entry: May-25-2023
  • Last revised: May-25-2023


This slim volume of essays written by a young woman who had a heart transplant packs a wallop, albeit an understated one.  The author, who had a congenital cardiac anomaly that required several surgeries—the first at one day old, another five days later, two more at the ages of two and four years—ultimately developed severe congestive heart failure at sixteen and underwent cardiac transplantation at the age of nineteen (none of this, by the way, is a spoiler; the introduction, written by her sister, lays this out in detail).   Eleven years later she developed lymphoma, a side effect of the immunocompromise induced by her anti-rejection medications, and passed away at the age of 32.  This book was published posthumously, the essays collated and edited by her sister and her friend and colleague at the literary magazine One Story. 

The essays—there are seven of them—deal with life experiences, mostly in the form of encounters with other people, mostly post-transplant.  “I Must Have Been that Man,” which won the Bellevue Literary Review’s Non-Fiction Prize,  begins with a post-party liaison but centers on the author’s meeting with a man in an upended wheelchair out on the street on a rainy night; “Men Who Love Dying Women and Fishing” speculates about what might attract a man to a woman with a terminal illness; “Your Heart, Your Scars, Zombies” offers a novel take on the idea of a zombie occupying a liminal space between the living and the dead and analogizes that to the situation of the post-transplant patient; “Thank God for the Nights That Go Right” speaks to the serendipity—or Higher Power?—that seems to guide our experiences.   They range over the timeline; one recounts a pre-transplant trip with other ill children to San Diego, others come from later in the author’s life.  There is no linear temporal progression to the essays; rather, one gets the impression that they are simply being remembered spontaneously.  Nonetheless, a clear personal narrative emerges.


Two things stand out after reading this book.  The first is the author’s voice:  we feel that we know Adina, which is a presumptuous thing to say, because how can we know someone we’ve never met, simply through a few essays?  But the thought is unshakable.   For example, my suspicion is that the author would never use the euphemism “pass away,” as I have done here, rather than the far more straightforward “die.”  I would imagine that she was a good friend, but at the same time someone who didn’t suffer fools gladly.  She talks frankly about love and sex and about feeling different—about being different—but nonetheless carrying on with her life as any young person would.  She kept her explanted heart in a plastic container in a box in her home and took it out at a family Thanksgiving.  You can imagine her having a good sense of humor and (incredibly enough, given her medical history) an easy way of seeing the world—both requisites for having gone through what she had gone through. 

The second thing that emerges is what she has to say about her situation.  Her essays are written in plain language, although they talk about weighty matters.  Mostly they are the issues many organ recipients have:  questions about her donor, who they were, what they were like, will she start taking on some of their attributes?  How does it feel to know that you are alive today only because some else died, had to die, so that you could live?  Are you grateful or guilty, or both (and for a similar exploration of the experience of having a transplant, see also Richard McCann’s “The Resurrectionist,” annotated here).  Then there are the more generalizable questions that any chronically ill person could ask:  what role does illness play in their life?  How important is it to their psychological functioning (as the author phrases it, “Is your suffering dear to you?”)?  How does it impact their interactions with others, especially significant others, and (especially for younger patients) things like dating and finding love?  And lastly there are the author’s speculations about that shadowy zone between illness and health, between life and death, that some patients feel themselves, like zombies, to inhabit.   

Your Hearts, Your Scars is a short but impressive collection of creative non-fiction writing.  The essays are thoughtful and sensitive and clear-eyed with no hint of self-pity or of the maudlin.  The author speaks with the clear and very much no-nonsense voice of a young woman reflecting on her life and how she was living it in the moment (all the essays date from before she became ill with the lymphoma that would ultimately end her life).   She merits listening to.  


Bellevue Literary Press

Place Published

New York




Sarika Talve-Goodman and Hannah Tinti

Page Count