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As an unexpectedly appropriate Mother’s Day celebration, Kelsea and I went to the Body Worlds exhibit at the Museum of Nature and Science yesterday.  Why was it appropriate?  Because it was also the Story of the Heart.  And that’s what motherhood is all about – the heart.

Kelsea has been trying to see this exhibit for years and years and has been foiled in all four attempts:  once, the museum was closed due to a power failure, once parking was so bad that the parent taking her gave up, another time the museum was closed due to some suspicious action, and the final time, it was a holiday, which meant the museum was closed – again.  So when she suggested we go yesterday, I was slightly doubtful, but really wanted her to finally get to see it.  And I always like going to the museum with her.  She’s so much fun.  It’s fun for me to watch her interest in things.  As her current career ambition is to be a paramedic, I thought this might be particularly captivating for her.  It wound up being captivating for us both. The set-up was really very nice.  Upon entering, we were greeted with a wall-sized graphic explaining how these were real cadavers, donated by people who wanted to benefit science once their souls have left their bodies.  The tableau of the body in prayer was a fitting introduction. 

The lighting was soft but plenty bright to see and read by, the music was gentle, and the attitude of all in attendance was subdued and respectful.  Two young doctors happened to be there with their families, and we enjoyed following on their heels, as they were enthusiastically relating what they were seeing in the exhibition to their own experiences in the medical universe.  I wonder if it is a requirement that off-duty doctors wear striped, button-down shirts?

The exhibit covered every part of the body.  The emphasis on the heart was highlighted by the graphics that incorporated relatively obscure quotes about the heart and emotions.  One of the things that the exhibit focused on was how the physiology of the heart is inseparable from the emotions of the heart.  That made me wonder, as I was learning about artificial hearts, if having a mechanical heart impacts one’s emotional capacity.  Does the flesh and blood of a heart have any impact on the ability to feel love, pain, joy?

I felt a little light-headed during the entire visit, which surprised me.  I wasn’t queasy exactly, just felt…funny.  The most challenging parts for me were those that showed cancer, whether it was breast cancer, lung cancer, liver cancer or leukemia.  All of those exhibits made me think poignantly of my Mother and of the Captain. 

The body that still had strips of skin on it was the one exhibit that Kelsea and I both felt was somewhat creepy.  There was just something so real about it.  The other cadavers, that only showed muscle and sinew, had a strong artistry to them, a beauty.  This one had a more realistic, tortured quality to it, though it fulfilled its purpose of showing how things fit beneath the skin very well.

Speaking of the “beauty” element, there was one body that was particularly fine.  My edit function was clearly turned off, as I said to myself, “Nice ass!”.  Unfortunately, I said it out loud.  Kelsea scolded me for having an impure thought about a cadaver.  I think she was justified.

We spent a lot of time looking at the neck and shoulder area of the bodies – Kelsea was trying hard to define exactly where her shoulder pain is on these specimens.  She was also interested to see the kidneys, having just played hostess to her first kidney stone.  We both wished they’d shown some actual stones, instead of just referencing them in the text.

The text for the exhibit was exceptionally well done.  It was composed of short phrases, not dumbed-down, but written in such a way that the meaning and content were clear even to people with limited knowledge or education. 

Kelsea has been studying the heart at school (they start the skeletal system this week), and so aced the educational “challenge” proffered to her by one of the volunteers, who also ably explained how the plastination process worked.

We were both very impacted by the example of the healthy lungs versus the smoker’s lungs, and Kelsea is particularly determined to make her most beloved aunt give up smoking.  (Look out, Bubba Sue.) 

It was also interesting for me to see Kelsea’s response to the normal/cirrhotic livers.  She looked at the one with cirrhosis and asked, “Is that what Dad’s liver looks like?”  She’s definitely becoming more aware of her father’s drinking, and its impact on his health and his behavior.  It makes me feel strange – I’m neither defending nor slamming him when it comes up, just being honest with her.  I am glad she is seeing this reality for herself.  I just want to be there to help her figure out how to handle it.  (Of course, I left, so I don’t know if I’m a good example of how to handle it.  But she’s not me, and she’s his daughter, not his wife.)

One of the most enlightening parts of the exhibition for me was the discreetly curtained section showing fetuses at various developmental ages.  Tastefully done, the fetuses dated from the 1920s and were (so the signs said) not aborted.  I worked at an abortion clinic during my senior year in college as part of my practicum, helping girls younger than me make that most difficult decision.  I fortunately never had to make that decision for myself, and now, having had a child, could never see myself having an abortion.  But I understand why some women make the choice, and believe in a woman’s right to choose. 

But back to this exhibit.  A fetus at 9 weeks looks like a teeny tiny person.  I never really knew that.  Most abortions are performed between 8-14 weeks of pregnancy, as measured from the last menstrual period, which means that the fetus being aborted looks like a little person, and it already has a little heart.  The question that I had that the exhibition didn’t answer is when the brain develops, because the brain, brainstem, etc., are critical to the definition of life.  I suspect that they deliberately stayed away from that topic simply to avoid the controversy.

Towards end of the exhibit, there was a wall that discussed how to donate your body to the project.  Kelsea asked if she could do it – I said no.  I have no problem with her donating any of her useful organs, but the idea of donating her body just disturbs me.  My Mother wanted to do so, and I talked her out of it.  (She did donate her brain.  She had been part of a Brain Autopsy Study for many years, so her brain was already committed.  But the remainder of her organs were so cancer-ridden they wouldn’t have been usable.)  I just couldn’t bear to think of her body as part of some medical school class or research project – it seemed to contain too much of her for me to comfortably envision it.  But the cadavers in the exhibit were truly beautiful and the one donor letter that they showed was noble and moving.

The last bodies in the exhibit were a couple on the verge of an embrace; her head was split and his head was between the two segments of hers.  They were holding each other.  It was touching in a very alive, human way, as if you could feel the affection between these two people who had never known in each other in life, but who now were partners in death.  Kelsea and I speculated on how it would feel in the exhibit at night, and how those who set up the bodies must feel about putting on a shoe here or a hat there.  I would suppose that the museum staff or exhibit organizers must develop a fondness for each body, just as the bodies appear to “feel” a connection with each other.

Kelsea climbed blossoming trees on our way back to the car.  Upon our return home, I had a brief email from Pat that complimented me on my mothering skills and praised my own Mother for teaching me well.  It brought tears to my eyes.  Kelsea gave me a new sweatshirt and a pink-bedazzled-rhinestone flask (for fun) and some dear friends from too far away gave me hummingbird feeders for the pergola. 

It was a splendid Mother’s Day.

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