A Family of Heartbreakers

Learning how I’m like my father, uncles and grandfathers — strong men who are frighteningly mortal.

Washington, DC, is in the grip of one of the coldest winters anyone can remember. This is the temperate Mid-Atlantic; it’s not supposed to be 7 degrees when I wake up in the morning. It’s turned the population into shapeless lumps of Gore-Tex and wool, huffing and puffing down the sidewalks; great flocks of commuters standing on the Metro platforms letting rise wide columns of chimney-smoke breath. There was snow on the ground this morning. Only about two inches — enough to make the landscape postcard perfect, but not so much that schools opened late. Pretty, but not functional, this snowfall was. February is a cold, cruel mistress.

It was around this time of year — it must have been more than 15 years ago now — that I first learned I come from a family of heartbreakers. My father was shoveling snow sometime around late January, early February — not the light powder we had this morning, but that wet, heavy snow that weighs 50 pounds a shovelful. And his heart broke. I was not there; school had already begun. But I can see him — his 250-lb. frame fallen into the snow pile he’d just created, making tortured angels, wondering if my mom would happen to look outside.

It was his first and only heart attack. But his heart has been broken ever since. Just a few years ago he had double-bypass surgery to forestall what his doctors said would have been an inevitable second one. This was, I think, the first time I realized my father — this big man, warehouse-hefter — was mortal.

Strong men do not fare well in my family.

There was my Uncle Jim — the biggest man I knew in real life, half again the size of my father. His heart put him into a La-Z-Boy; other ailments kept him there.

There was my mother’s father, Elmer. He made it through the Second World War, and at age 70 he still had a healthy heart and the kind of wood-choppin’, brush-clearin’ energy that can only be provided by breakfasts of liver and onions. But cancer snuck up on him and stole that energy out from under his feet.

My dad’s dad died in a hospital in Baltimore 20 years before I could have met him. In the photos I’ve seen, he’s a big man. Like my father. A little like me.

About two years ago, I began experiencing heart palpitations — when my heart would seem to beat faster, harder, like it was trying to claw its way out my throat. People who have had heart surgery, where the protective layer around the heart is cut away, are exceptionally aware of their own heartbeat. It seems louder, stronger to them. It keeps them awake at nights. My father experienced it. And for some reason my doctor couldn’t explain, I got to experience it too.

I checked out fine. Eventually the palpitations went away, and they have only occasionally returned. It’s a frightening sensation, to be so acutely aware of my heart; this muscle-organ pounding out the beat that defines and controls my mortality.

I am, in many ways, my father’s son. I like old American detective movies and new British ones. I’m already forgetful enough that, when I get dentures like him, I’ll also never remember where I put them. I like driving, even if I have nowhere to go. And I am a big man too. Not as big as my father, but what son ever is?

However, there are ways I’ve become not like him, either through accident or will. I’m not shy anymore, which is something he’s oddly proud of. I quit smoking well before he did. I can, if I must, choose the salad over the cheesesteak.

My wife loves my father. He’s jolly and funny and sweet. But we spent part of our first Christmas together in my father’s hospital room, and I don’t think she’ll ever forget that. I don’t think I will either, shoddy memory and all. She has a plan for me that involves living for as long as possible, and I try to make her happy whenever I possibly can.

I will not be a heartbreaker.

Article © 2007 by Steve Spotswood