Nearly three years ago, writer Martha Weinman Lear was fighting for her life.
It began with a discordant feeling in her chest, followed by nausea, then vomiting. It ended with the diagnosis of a heart attack.
“Clutching the chest, the look of anguish. Then the collapse. In the medical trade they call it the ‘Hollywood Heart Attack.’ It’s how most of us think about it across the board,” Lear says. “It’s certainly amazing how little we know about hearts, heart disease and about the gender differences.”
Lear was admitted to the hospital for tests and observation. She remembers now, “A nurse practitioner came into my room and gave me a tutorial about women’s heart attacks. She stood at the foot of my bed and said, ‘In a woman, anything from here—’ she put her hand below her nose, ‘to here—’ her other hand below her belly, ‘—anything could be a symptom of a heart attack.’ ‘That’s a hell of a lot of territory,’ I said.”
Of the experience, Lear says, “I found myself in the same hospital where Hal [her late husband] had trained, had been a working doctor and on a dime switched roles and became a patient after his first heart attack, and where he ultimately died. And there I am, in the same coronary unit, with the same cardiologist, and married to another husband whom I love dearly. Now this husband is wheeling me in my wheelchair through the same corridors where I wheeled Hal in his. The ghosts were surrounding me.”
After recovering from such trauma, for many the story would end there. But for Lear, a career author, journalist, and former staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, it was just the beginning.
Her new memoir, Echoes of Heartsounds (Open Road Media), chronicles her hospitalization and “putting the ghosts to rest,” as she says. The book is a resonant and moving exploration of the pain of the heart, both physical and emotional.
In 1981, Lear’s first memoir, Heartsounds (reissued as an e-book by Open Road Media), was published and became a bestseller. An account of her life with her late husband, Harold Alexander Lear (Hal for short), and the ordeal of losing him after a series of heart attacks, the book was adapted into a Peabody Award-winning film of the same title starring the late James Garner as Hal and Mary Tyler Moore as Lear.
“I had a difficult time the first couple years of widowhood. It was terribly painful. When I got beyond that sufficiently to think about writing—because for a couple of years I couldn’t, not a word—I thought to write about what it is to make one’s way through that kind of mourning and come back to life again. It seemed to me to be very much a part of this story now—how I came to write Echoes of Heartsounds would not have happened without Heartsounds.
“I think everyone who has loved and loses—through the death of the loved one—I think everyone finds that, what in the beginning is indescribable pain, in the fullness of time becomes bittersweet. You never forget completely and why would you want to? The pain becomes, in part, nostalgic and the memory becomes very dear.”
Lear lives with her husband, screenwriter Albert Ruben, in Manhattan during the winter but they spend their summers in East Hampton. “I’ve always been a beach baby,” she says. “I never feel as good as when I get to my ocean and salt air. This is our fifth summer and they have just been wonderful, wonderful summers.” She pauses. “It’s so dismaying and it seems to get worse every summer, how quickly it passes. I just want it to last.”
Martha Weinman Lear will give a public reading of excerpts from Echoes of Heartsounds at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, September 6, at 5 p.m.