Men's Health

Dad's Heart, My Life

By Steve McKee
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

About two years before the heart attack that killed him, I told Dad 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, he and Mom and I. Dad had already had one heart attack, in 1963, when he was 44. It had been such an obvious warning shot. How could he not have heard it?

He looked straight at me and said, "You're right."

I was just 14 at the time, but I wanted to reach across the table, grab him by the collar of the white dress shirt he always wore to work, and shake him.

All these years later, I still do.

Shake him for proving me right. Shake him for the cigarette cough my sister, Kathy, and I woke up to every morning of our lives. For missing my high school and college graduations, my wedding in 1978. For not being here for me and my wife, Noreen, to share with him the baby, Patrick, that we adopted in 1990. And for Mom, for being his widow for 37 years -- 15 years longer than she was his wife.

The truth? I think Dad gave up. I do. His father, my grandfather, Jack McKee, died on July 6, 1941, at the age of 53, of a "Probable Coronary Occlusion," according to the death certificate. Probable is wholly unnecessary here; we're talking McKee family history. My great-grandfather Frank McKee died on Nov. 26, 1913. "Apoplexy," says the death certificate. It was most likely a stroke, in keeping with the McKees' cardiovascular conundrum. He was 53 years old.

If Dad gave up, when I was still a teenager, I vowed I never would. If Dad wouldn't get in shape, I'd do it for him -- and I have ever since. College basketball, rec-league hoops and volleyball. I ran until well past 40, then turned to a rowing machine. When Patrick came to us, my past, present and future collided. I was now the father Dad never was, staying in shape for his son.

I brought all of this with me to an "executive physical" at the Princeton Longevity Center in Princeton, N.J., on tax day 2005. This eight hours of treadmill test, nutritional assessment and full body scan wasn't my idea. I was 52 years old. I was in great shape. I ate right. What was the point? But Noreen insisted.

The stress test put me in the 86th percentile for men my age. I had the aerobic capacity of a man eight years younger, the recovery rate of a man 20 years younger. In the diet analysis I was just a few points shy of an "excellent" score. The body scan rounded out the day, and then all that remained was the consult with the doctor.

I was ready for my lifetime achievement award.

Mixing With the Cowboys

Dad was another story. Born on Jan. 21, 1919, he had grown up through the Depression, been a young man in World War II, and a married man with a family in the postwar boom. He'd worshiped in the church of the American Dream, a true believer in the up-by-your-bootstraps gospel. And he reaped what he sowed, in an unassuming, middle-class sort of way. I think he came to see a price to be paid for all that, and so be it.

About once a month on a Saturday morning, Dad used to go to the warehouse at Cole Steel, the office-furniture company where he was the general traffic manager. I often went with him. On these days Dad did not wear his shirt and tie. Paint-spattered khaki pants and flannel shirt sufficed. Once there, he'd throw his coat on the chair of his office and head to the floor and just walk around, stopping to talk with whoever was in picking up overtime. Dad ended his Saturday over at the loading docks to talk with the truckers.

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