Last night my husband had teeth-chattering chills and lips as white as paper, and no amount of blankets piled on him, nor hugs and body heat, nor a hot water bottle, could warm him. A few hours later, I awoke from a sound sleep to find his torso and forehead hot to the touch. A digital thermometer inserted under his arm ran up to 104.2 degrees.
That got me thinking about the curious matter of body temperature. Does it not amaze you that normally our innards stay put at around 98.6 degrees? How does that happen? What in the world keeps us constant at that salubrious number? Where is the furnace inside our bodies that prevents us from dipping or soaring into the danger zones of 95 or 104.2 on a daily basis? And if you can find that furnace, then I say you have merely pushed the mystery back one step: Who controls the thermostat?
It is amusing to read the scientific answers to these profound questions. If you ask a scientist, you will get an answer that is really just a description: “homeostasis,” they will tell you. If you should try to pry behind that explanation, the scientist is likely to tell you that the hypothalamus portion of the brain monitors the temperature. And on and on—all pushing the explanation further back but never solving the mystery.
When asked why mammalian temperatures are all around 98.6 degrees, one scientist answered that it is because a toasty internal temperature keeps fungal infections down. That’s like the old joke in which the teacher asks little Johnny, “Why are your late?” And little Johnny answers, “Because class started before I got here.” The answer is technically true, but not much of a help in illuminating the situation.
At the moment that my first husband died in May 1999, I was by his bedside and had my hand on his chest just over his heart. I felt its last rhythmic beatings, and then—nothing. It’s the nothing that gets you pondering the mystery of the something. That is to say, it isn’t amazing that a heart should stop beating; rather, it’s amazing that it keeps beating at a regular pace as long as it does, for years and years! Likewise, it’s not amazing that my present husband’s temp swung up to the triple digits. The amazing thing is, rather, that it came back down to the safe zone by an unseen hand—the Hand that is the very last stop on the mystery train.