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Poetry and Medicine
April 24, 2002

The Heart Is a Lonely Runner

Author Affiliations

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor.

JAMA. 2002;287(16):2041. doi:10.1001/jama.287.16.2041

My father's both were big ones, but he smoked
and was fat and who knows what he went through
during the war. They came as a one-two punch
with a lapse between them, and the second time
the front of his left ventricle thinned
and ballooned out. I've been good
about running my way out of trouble—
running around the neighborhood
at six o'clock, and to the clinic and back
with a Samsonite case in my grip,
even running to New York, you name it,
though I miss the inselbrick houses and closed mills
of Pittsburgh, and the perfectly charming plans
I made. There were so many. The truth is
my father was a slob, claimed he had had enough
of exercise on Guam for the rest of his life.
He drove himself, always banging his head
against hope, but he was no match for the shysters.
The big one that hit him when he was 56
said This Is It. Pumped up like a tan balloon.
he couldn't invent more than a day
at a time, but then something, it surely wasn't
diet or theory, took hold. All that running
of mine, all those granola bars, my plans
to get him on the right track, my good son act—
and deep in his tissue a conversation
took place. He must have lit up with that
blarney of his, and told a couple of good stories
to what was left of his arteries, and his cells
echoed back and forth between heart disease
and prostate cancer, and without a doctor
present to bless it, they struck an agreement
and one of them, maybe his Oxidizer,
threw the switch. Sure enough, his heart continued
to beat for 25 years. Now that I've reached
and kicked aside his age, I've run
far enough. I've come to a place where it's quiet
and I can stop and listen. I'm awaiting
the first squeeze in my chest, the first whisper
of my starving cells beginning to bargain.