“A man,” said Freud in Mourning And Melancholia, “doesn’t become a man till his father dies.” But as Wall Street Journal reporter Steve McKee tell his father’s story—and his own--, he does not become a man until he wrote My Father’s Heart (Da Capo Press, Perseus Books, January, 2008) nearly 40 years after his father’s death.
Steve McKee’s father “dropped dead,” as they call it, in 1969, when Steve was 16 and his father was only 50. Ironically, he and his father had just finished watching “The Immortal,” a television movie about a man whose blood gave him immunity to disease, including heart disease. After that, another medical show, “Marcus Welby, MD” was beginning.
These medical televisionaries were no help to John McKee, Steve’s father. “A heart attack slammed him off the back of the couch while we were watching television.” As simply as that. Days before, a doctor’s checkup had “declared him fine.” Nothing new here. The family’s cardiac curse had killed all the McKees in their 40s or early 50s often after a doctor’s verdict had announced a clean bill of health.
When Steve told his sister Kathy that he’d finished the book about their father, “Kathy let a short silence hang between us on the phone. ‘I hope,’ she finally said, ‘I hope that when you’re done with this that you’ll like Dad more and think better of him...And I hope you can forgive him for dying when he did, and the way he did.’”
McKee quickly changes the subject. He reports that 80 million Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease, that 325,000 individuals “will die from what is termed ‘out-of-hospital’ or ‘emergency room’ sudden cardiac arrest.”
Repeatedly he joins statistics with the personal adding, “the classic heart attack of popular lore, just like Dad’s on September 30, 1969.” Again and again, McKee says, “It was just the two of us at home that night. He was fifty. I was sixteen,” a fact he cannot get over as he tries to figure out how and why his father had to die.
In McKee’s search for the father, for finding out who his father was and by extension who he is, the son left behind, he tries to learn why his father did so little to prevent his second heart attack He portrays his father as a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, job-hating Type A, reminiscent of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It seems to the son that the father gave up the fight after his first heart attack. But why?
Again and again, pegging statistics to the personal, McKee reminds himself that every heart attack happens to a someone who is a husband, a wife, a father, a mother, a checkout clerk, or someone at the gym…”The lives and then the deaths of every one of these people will affect millions, millions, millions of others…. I know. It happened to me. It is the story I’ve been writing all my life. The father leaves; the son remains.”
Why does it take McKee almost four decades “to finish the story I have been writing all my life. Finally.”? He has to grow up --and older--before he can forgive his father for dying. He has to learn on his own flesh how little his obsessive self-discipline and exercising did to avert the evil decree. Until he recognizes his genetic complicity, until he sees that he never knew his father—and his father didn’t know him, he can’t forgive his father for dying—for leaving him to learn on his own.
Once he is older than his father was when he died, he can come to grips, at least partially, with his father’s death.. Early on, his coach tells him, “Your father just died and you will never get over it…but you will get used to it.” Kind as the coach may have been, neither Steve McKee nor the rest of us who lost a father to a sudden heart attack, ever “get used to it.” McKee says of his father’s witnessing his own father’s heart attack, “Maybe Dad never got used to it.”
My Father’s Heart rambles. The writing sometimes lapses into unfortunate, everyday Buffalo-York vernacular. But when the story returns to McKee’s father, to his empty life, his early death, to what his death has taught Steve McKee, the writing tightens and reaches out poignantly across the page.
In writing about his father’s heart after learning that he, the son, is also a prisoner of heart disease, McKee finally realizes that his father’s death gave him life and taught him how to live. “The night I watched Dad die, I watched me die, too. My life began the night his ended. Learn from me, he said. And so I did. I have become who I am because of him…And I am alive.”
This book, “an attempt to share the memory of my father,” helped Steve McKee grow up. As My Father's Heart ends, Steve McKeee can run a five-kilometer race with his adopted son Patrick. Freed from the McKee curse, Patrick is a victim of juvenile diabetes. Patrick's diabetes taught Steve "we are who we are, whoever that is."
As they race together, McKee rejoices, “Father and son, shoulder to shoulder.” My Father's Heart may be the talisman keeping Steve alive to race into the future with his son.