James M. Chesbro runs from grief and mortality.
I find my father when I run. Memory needs movement to lead it forward, to give it rhythm and life. After my cardiologist challenged me to make major life changes, I took to the road and listened for my father’s encouragement, though as I ran, it often felt as if I was running from his last breaths.
Running became a confrontation with both my own mortality and my father’s death. I chose to look at my last moments with him as his final pep talk, a broken plea for me to break the cycle of heart disease. I listened for my father’s voice from the sidelines of my boyhood and I listened for him as a man running.
The waiting room of the cardiologist’s office was a small convention of elderly people helping each other. They carried canes, ventilators, and each other. Their bodies, as if projecting my inner self were slow, careful, fragile, feeble, vulnerable, and searching for life. The nurse called their names, waiting in the doorway. They shuffled toward the nurse who rested a clipboard on her hip. She smiled.
Shouldn’t I be at happy hour with my friends? I thought. Maybe seeing a cardiologist was an overreaction.
I had hoped the doctor would advise me to go down the street and join my friends at the bar. “Twenty-five year olds don’t belong here,” he might say. “Come back when you hit forty.”
Dad survived the heart attack, but two weeks later he couldn’t breathe. The cause of death was presumed to be pulmonary failure. I took him to one cardiologist appointment in the time between. I’ve become the patient. The laminated medical posters of hearts and lungs hung on the walls. Every sterile square inch of the office reminded me of sitting next to my father. Perspiration dripped down my sides.
“I’m a little nervous,” I admitted to the nurse while I waited for her to give me an EKG.
“Family history?” she asked.
“Yeah. Bet you don’t see a lot of people here my age,” I said, hoping my youth was an anomaly, hoping for an out, an escape. I wanted to put my shirt back on and dash out the door.
“You’d be surprised,” she said, raking away patches of chest hair. “I see more and more people in here who are young.”
The doctor filled the confined space with an aura of importance. His trimmed beard and glasses spoke to me in a warm, lowered voice.
“Tell me something,” he said, “Why are you here?” I could tell by the look in his eyes, that over the years he has given many people bad news. The doctor sat under one of the two square lights embedded in the drop ceiling. The fluorescent glow produced a reflection in his glasses.
“Because I want to live longer than my dad,” I said.
Shortly after my first visit I took a stress test.
“Your EKG looks good,” he said. I heard him say the word normal in the next sentence and tuned out whatever he said after that. Like a child who hears “Yes you may go out and play,” but doesn’t hear where he is permitted to go and when he has to return. He suggested I begin taking a baby aspirin.
“Every day?” I asked.
“Every day,” he responded. At that point, I wasn’t ready to hear any suggestions, so I began admiring his brown Cole Haan slip-ons instead. Subtle white braiding outlined the top of each shoe. The black rubber soles came up a little over the toes, and wrapped around to the heels and a pocket of Nike-Air. I’ve wanted shoes like his for a while. Determining to order a pair was the only decision I was capable of making.
At age thirty-one, with a wife and child, it was time to break through the caution tape I had wrapped around the warning my father left me. My eating habits were irresponsible. I indulged in too much bar food, and started too many mornings with a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich. I ate red meat whenever I could. Most Fridays, I ate a bar burger loaded with sautéed onions, crispy bacon, ketchup, mustard, lettuce, and tomato, with a side of fries. My LDL cholesterol had risen to 157. The doctor wanted it under 100.
“Red meat once a week, bacon once a month if you have to, thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise four times a week, and, I think we should start you on a statin. It’s time.” He said.
“So I’ll take this pill every day for the rest of my life?”
His calm demeanor was disarming, “If you follow these guidelines, you will not have a cardiac event in my lifetime.”
I didn’t want to run. My thighs were heavy, and my feet pounded the pavement in a sloppy, angry trot. Exhaust rose from cars and trucks as they rushed by, and dissipated into the air I breathed. I hocked up phlegm and spat. An eruption of sweat covered my face, stinging my eyes and salting my mouth.
After five minutes, I wanted to turn around and walk home. After ten minutes, the muscles in my face relaxed. I picked up my chin and gave in to the soothing rhythm of footsteps and breaths—and my father’s voice.
“Keep going,” I heard him say, “That’s it. You got it.” And his voice brought me back to lowering my second baseman’s glove toward the loose orange granules of infield during a little league game. He stood next to the metal fencing of the dugout and I punched my mitt. He was wearing white sneakers, blue jeans, a navy blue sweatshirt, and the cheap yellow team hat.
As I continued to run, his voice faded, and I breathed harder. I pushed off the street, trying to kick-start Dad’s voice again.
Twenty minutes in, after I nodded to the driver who stopped in the intersection, my father startled me again. “Let’s go,” he said. “C’mon,” he said, and I imagined standing on a mat in some loud unfamiliar gym locking up with another wrestler, my father’s cheers booming from his cupped hands and igniting a rush of adrenaline though I was fatigued, I laughed.
During one such match, my father stood at the edge of the mat, wearing a red flannel shirt. I had just pinned my opponent in a cradle. I wrestled for most of my youth. My father patted me hard on the head with his open palm. I unsnapped the white, plastic chinstrap and walked toward the steps for the picture. I was the lone wrestler on the top step with a blue ribbon, and the only one wearing a cup.
When I saw that plastic triangle jutting out of the red spandex wrestling singlet, I realized how absurd I looked. In all the years of practices and tournaments, in all the distance gyms, I never saw anyone else with a cup protruding through their singlet, and apparently my father didn’t notice this either because he was adamant that I wear it.
By the time my street came into view, my stomach was sucking in against itself and I was not laughing. I was pushing harder, running faster, gaining ground. “C’mon son,” my father said. “C’mon.” And I pushed harder. I strode over breaks in the sidewalk. I passed cars stopped at a red light. I ran along the white stripes of the crosswalk. The houses formed blocks. I pumped my arms faster, and inhaled greedy, chest-heaving breaths.
I turned up my driveway, walked flop footed, my hands folded on the top of my head. I stopped and tugged hard on my shorts. The air moving in and out of my diaphragm replaced my father’s voice. I had just stepped into my fatherless fatherhood. Sweat stung my eyes and blurred the shapes of old oak trees that lined the far end of the street. The branches hung over slabs of sidewalk and formed a distant tunnel. I tried to picture him then, emerging under the canopy of green, striding toward me through the shadows and above the concrete, but I couldn’t see anything.
Image credit: Rennett Stowe/Flickr