Book 21 of 52: My Father’s Heart: A Son’s Reckoning with the Legacy of Heart Disease

Steve McKee did everything he could to save himself from his father’s (and grandfather’s and great grandfather’s fate). He never smoked, he stays in shape, he eats right. Yet he’s still diagnosed with heart disease, a victim of heredity.

My Father’s Heart: A Son’s Reckoning with the Legacy of Heart Disease is about McKee’s life, more specifically about his relationship with his father, who died when McKee was just 16. Steve was with him when the heart attack — his dad’s second — finally claimed him. He tells his story backward, starting with one week after the heart attack, then back day by day until the final chapter is the actual attack (and it ain’t pretty — movies don’t show what it’s really like).

Using that frame, McKee tells the story of his life, and where his dad fit in, whether he was alive or not. The saddest part (not including the actual death) is McKee sobbing the night before his wedding because his dad isn’t there. It’s an intimate look at how an event that is so prevalent (heart disease is still the number one killer in American) affects one person and one family.

My issue with the book is that it rambles. McKee addresses so many issues out of chronological order — yes, even within that frame — that I got lost (the pages dedicated to the York crowd, his parents group of friends? Too many). He even repeats himself. So it’s not a tidy book, even though it’s one that had me wondering about the people around me, if they’re living a lifestyle (high stress, no exercise, smoking) that could help lead them to the same fate.

The fact that McKee lives a life opposite of his father’s and STILL has heart disease is the crux of the book. It goes against what book 18 of 52 says that exercise and diet along can keep you healthy. Sometimes genetics can’t be completely trumped. A friend of mine had a heart attack at 25 — a rare genetic condition was the problem. Again, not everyone who has a heart attack is to blame for what happened.

Even though it’s a messy book book, it’s still worth reading if you have an interest in heart disease — your own family, yourself or you worry about someone you love.

On my own ramble — I applaud McKee for his description of high school musicals. It’s spot on:

“High school musicals are a boiling cauldron of out-of-control teen angst, teen hormones, teen frenzy. It is amazing that even one of them anywhere in the country even makes it to opening night. There is a crackling, pervasive tension inherent in putting yourself on stage, maybe for the first time, surrounded by a bunch of kids attempting the same thing, everyone desperate not to look the fool. Marry this vulnerability to a burgeoning confidence, put this sudden sense of a vibrating self in the back stage area that’s too dark and filled with too many hidden corners for the adults to keep track of, and you have, quite simply, entered make out heaven.”

Hey, how’d he get backstage at the 1997 Haddonfield Memorial High School production of Bye Bye Birdie?

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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