Wall Street Journal Article

Letting Go:
Twenty-eight years after his father’s heart attack,
A son is ready to stop running from that night

By Steve McKee
23 October 1997

I was taking my father’s pulse when it stopped. That may or may not be exactly how it happened, but 28 years later, that is how I remember it. I was 16 years old, and right there on the couch in the TV room, my father died of a heart attack as I was taking his pulse.

It was just the two of us at home that night, a Tuesday in York, Pa. We had just finished watching “The Immortal Man” when suddenly he snapped straight up, his eyes bulged and his back arched, as if a steel rod had been rammed down his spine. Rigid, he slammed against the couch four, five, six times, gasping, the air sucked into his mouth through clenched teeth. Ten minutes later, 15 minutes tops, he was dead.

The doctor said my father never knew what hit him. He’s right. It hit me instead.

Two years before that night in 1969, I had told my father that if he didn’t clean up his act, he’d be dead in five years. Quit the smoking, get some exercise, stop nailing himself to the cross of his job.

We were sitting at the kitchen table at the time, eating dinner, he and I and my mother, just four years removed from his first heart attack, at age 44 in 1963. Now here he was, back where he had been before that first warning shot. How could he not have heard it when I so clearly had? He looked straight at me and said, “You’re right.”

I wanted to reach across the table, grab him by the shirt collar and shake him. And only recently has it occurred to me that I still do. Shake him for proving me right with three years to spare. Shake him for his cigarette cough that my older sister, Kathy, and I used as an alarm clock. For missing my high-school and college graduations, my wedding. For not being here for me and my wife, Noreen, to show him the baby we adopted, Patrick, seven years ago. For my mother being his widow now six years longer than she was his wife.

Don’t get me wrong. There is plenty I remember of my father, John McKee, that is joyful, warm, comforting. He was never not there for me. There was lots of good Dad Stuff, too: fishing trips, camping trips, playing catch in the yard. For all that, I was lucky.

But I think what happened is that at some point he resigned himself to what he considered an unavoidable fate. He had been a boy during the Depression, a young man of World War II, a married man with a family in the postwar boom. He was of his generation, a strong believer in America’s up-by-your-bootstraps promise. And he made it, too, in a nice, modest, middle-class sort of way: a wife who worked though she didn’t have to, two kids, a split-level in the suburbs, his own hunting dog.

I think he figured there was a price to be paid for all that, and so be it. His father had died of a heart attack in 1939, when my father was 21. It’s the way things work.

So now it’s my turn. But there will be no acquiescence here. I’m book-ended by age between the years of my father’s two attacks — the second one killed him at 50 — but I’m planning on getting out alive on the other side.

I’ve been laying the groundwork for years: running, biking, rowing, walking, lifting. What happened to my father won’t happen to me; what happened to me isn’t going to happen to my son. Or at least if it does, it won’t be my fault. Because I have struck a bargain with my heart and have kept up my end for years: I keep you in shape, you don’t attack me. Deal?

This contract started in earnest in May 1981. Until then, my stay-in-shape promise had been haphazard, unplanned. I was only 28, married, no kids, and it seemed easy enough to pick up a good workout playing basketball or volleyball, going cross-country skiing, or even just riding my bicycle or jogging to work.

Then that May day, a friend and I were out walking the pipeline corridor in Alaska, in an area north of Fairbanks, where Noreen and I had been living since the summer of 1978. The state was in the midst of one of its periodic land lotteries, and this friend and I were surveying a few choice tracts for a possible bid.

The terrain was hilly — mountainous by most standards, but in a rugged state like Alaska, hilly will have to do. We were maybe two miles in, not even halfway up the first climb, when my legs grew weak and I found myself having to stop periodically, ostensibly to check the map, but really to catch my breath.

Meanwhile, my friend, Bob Murphy — at the time the best marathon runner in the state — was proceeding just fine. And there I was, hands on my knees, head down, chest heaving, the sweat running off the tip of my nose. This wasn’t supposed to be happening.

Just like that, I was my father. I remember once our going for a walk, and every so often we had to stop so he could put his hands on his knees, take some deep breaths and get it together. I stood there, embarrassed. This from a guy who was never overweight — he had the skinny gene — and who for years had been a hunter and fisherman until the final few years, when he let his job keep him away from the outdoors. Now he couldn’t even walk around the block.

And I couldn’t walk up this hill. I was no longer just 28. I was fast approaching 30. Suddenly, the difference appeared huge. The next day, I laced up my high-tops and started running. Sixteen months later I ran a marathon, the Equinox in Fairbanks.

The course includes a climb of Ester Dome, three miles straight up from nearly sea level to 2,400 feet, then plunges pretty much straight down. My plan was to start slowly and finish slower. But I would finish, and I did. I crossed the line and stopped and my legs cramped, locked tight. Noreen had to hold me up. My goal had been to finish “in something beginning with a four.” I crossed the line in 4:59.58. Take that, Dad. My friend Murph won the race.

Running was the first weapon in my no-heart-attack arsenal. Over the years, others would be added, combined, dropped, resumed. The point isn’t to win any races; it’s to still be at it 10, 20, 30 years from now.

When we moved into an apartment building in Brooklyn that had a fitness room, I took to a Concept II rowing machine — well-suited to my 6-foot-8 frame. A few years later, I got a bicycle for Father’s Day and also started running again. I joined a health club two years ago to add weight training. Nothing fancy, just a quick hit on the major muscle groups. (One lesson learned: I will never have washboard abs.)

Other heart-healthy strategies haven’t stuck. In the mid-’80s, I devoured the Pritikin Diet. Inside of a couple of months, my cholesterol dropped through the floor, and I lost so much weight that I looked like I needed rope doubled around my waist to keep my pants up. Eventually, though, I tired of skinless chicken and plain baked potatoes.

These days, I’m into an every-other-day routine: a 25-minute row at the health club, back to the house to get Patrick to school, then back to the club for the weights. On the off days, I cross the Brooklyn Bridge on the 3 1/2-mile walk to work. It’s all just manic enough to reassure myself that I’m still on the offensive.

An annual physical reassures me, too. My resting heart rate is just under 60. One year I broke the record in my age group for a treadmill stress-test machine at a hospital in York.

Of even greater value than stats is the well-being they measure. There have been times when I have been at the playground with Patrick, the two of us running all over, and other dads — younger dads — have told me they get tired just watching me. Yes! And for years I used to run through the old neighborhood when we went back to York at Christmas. Seven, eight, nine miles past the decorated split-levels of old family friends. It was a great way to close out the year, ticking off the same miles I’d done in Christmases past, only now a full year older. Still in shape.

And I will never not be. I have enjoyed it too much and have come too far. The question is how much farther can I get. I don’t know the answer, but I’m looking forward to finding out. I’m looking forward to taking a cross-country bicycle trip with Patrick when he’s 17 and I’m 55 — ages my father and I never reached together.

Getting Patrick, of course, only raised the bar. We were in the birthing room with his birth mother. The delivery was difficult. The ordeal left Patrick exhausted, unable even to cry for almost 36 hours. But when I held him in my arms and looked down at him in his little white stocking cap, the past, present and future collided. Patrick touched me in a place where I hadn’t dared stray since my father died. The emotions this time were of overwhelming joy, but the intensity was every bit as powerful as anything I had experienced 21 years before.

That night in 1969 the phones were out, the lines apparently cut by a construction crew working in the neighborhood. As Dad snapped straight up, I jerked myself from my chair, ran over and tried to rouse him. His eyes stared past me, already lifeless.

I ran outside and down the hill to our next-door neighbor. No one home. I ran back into the house. By now Dad was slumped to the side, his mouth agape, a mound of white mucous soaking his shirt. I ran upstairs, grabbed a blanket, rushed back and wrapped it around him. Then I went back outside and up the street to the house up the hill. No one home. A police car cruised past. That was unusual, except when the phone lines were down. I ran the car down and started pounding on the trunk. By the time it stopped, we were in front of our house. The policeman got out and walked — walked — into our house.

The cop searched for a pulse on the left side of Dad’s neck. The color was gone from his face, replaced with a sickening gray. The cop let go. Dad’s head flopped to the right. His green eyes stared straight at me. That’s when I reached for his right wrist, looking for a pulse.

I found one. Or at least I think I did. Slow beats, not much. Then it took off like a machine gun for a long second, shot off a few weak ones, then nothing. The officer radioed for an ambulance. I ran out of the house. My mother was at a friend’s house playing bridge, maybe half a mile away. I took off down the hill, into the night.

I have, I suppose, been running ever since. And I’m tired. Not of the miles run, the meters rowed, the hills biked. I’ve come to love all that. And for that I am grateful to him.

What I’m tired of is running from that night. I can’t get him into shape — not now. Grabbing his shirt collar that night in the kitchen wouldn’t have done any good anyway. It’s about me now. I feel it sometimes when I work out. I get lost in the motion. I take on the rhythm. I’m alive right now.