ἀλκὴν δ’ εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι
The last time I spoke to my uncle Lary was on January 19, 1992, the day before he was to go into surgery. It was an operation he wouldn’t wake up from. He was having his hip replaced, one of a series of surgeries he’d had. He was suffering severe joint deterioration as a result of the immunosuppressor he’d been on following the most significant of his surgeries, a heart transplant he’d successfully undergone in 1989. My mother handed me our family landline and I described to him with breathless joy the movie Best of the Best.
Best of the Best opens with images of ranked lines of Korean taekwondo masters the best of whom are then selected and are set to training in a dizzy, fight-movie montage: running in snow, doing pushups on a bridge on their knuckles while they’re caned by their coach, chopping wintry trees with their hands. This was the stuff of my childhood, the delirious, inspirational movies about fighting and triumph, about overcoming pain and long odds to gain revenge or defend some greater good.
And the protagonists always win, a fact that irked my mother no end; she used to get so frustrated at the movies’ silly exercise in physically destroying the main character only to have him stand—van Damme, Segal, or in this instance the unlikely Eric Roberts—and emotionally, epically, rout his opponent. For Best of the Best, perhaps the clearest example is Eric Roberts’ character Alex, who suffers an injury to his long-injured shoulder, a brutal dislocation repaired by his teammate Tommy Lee “pop[ping]” it back into place as Alex screams in agony. Tears in his eyes, Alex stands, the trainer enjoining him to “Put your mind somewhere else. Let the pain go. There is no pain. There is no pain.” Then, he delivers what the ringside commentator describes as “a …jumping front kick that knocks [his opponent] clear out of the ring!”
I was not alone in obsessively watching these movies. But more than cool displays of martial arts techniques, more than simplistic rituals of violent competition, many of them—and Best of the Best maybe most of all—were at their core about suffering and endurance, about rising up in the face of adversity, overcoming incredible odds in honor of some deeper cause—in memory of a lost family member, for instance. In the case of Tommy Lee, it’s revenging the murder of his brother. These putative plot points really act as the vehicle for a narrative about purpose, about morality, about human virtues (and vices), about hokey concepts like courage and valor and love and sacrifice; or as [Wikipedia’s] description of Best of the Best puts it, “the power of the human spirit triumphing over adversity and the meaning of life are some themes.”
He was Uncle Lary to me, but Father Lary to most everyone who knew him. He was a twin, my mother’s younger brother, and chose that spelling of his name to better match his twin sister, my Aunt Mary.
He was the favorite, popular with my siblings and cousins, beloved by the whole family. He was a cool priest, a young and slightly-pompadoured man with five o’clock shadow, a leather jacket, aviator shades, a motorcycle, and a love of old cars, including the 70s Plymouth Barracuda (we called it “the Cuda”) he’d brought back to life, replacing its engine, painting the car electric blue. He’d drive us to town and we’d listen to 80s pop music, the rock of mainstream radio. My family used to drive to his Buffalo-area church, St. Mary’s in Swormville, where we’d attend mass and then hang out with him after in the rectory over pizza and Buffalo wings, liter bottles of pop. He was a great storyteller, and I loved listening to his homilies, well-crafted essays about the meaning of life, adversity, the human spirit.
His heart, from birth, had a valve that didn’t function properly, which was discovered in his twenties; by the time he was 36, he was living only with the assistance of machines in Erie Country Medical Center (ECMC). My mother told me that she had to ready herself then, in the fall of 1989, for his death. The doctors made it clear he did not have much time left and that there was almost nothing they could do. His siblings and his parents gathered round him and prepared to suffer the loss of him.
But then, when it seemed his too-young end was inescapable, the news came that a heart transplant was possible. A young man had died in a car accident and his heart was not a fit for those higher on the list of transplant priority; it was not a perfect match for my uncle, either, but the doctor explained with his condition as it then was and with his youth, there was reason to take the risk of the transplant surgery. He would definitely die without it, and perhaps his body had enough vitality to endure, with the aid of the immunosuppressors, the difficulties of the poor match.
I’ve known about heart transplant surgery at least since age nine but trying to conceive of the physical facts of it gives me a vertiginous sensation. It staggers me to consider this is possible, to cut a person’s chest open, to open his ribs and expose him, to remove his heart, to sew another in its place. Trying to wrap my head around the emotional and philosophical ideas surrounding this is even more dizzying, let alone the metaphorical implications: Can I feel your heart beating in my chest? Can you feel my heart beating in yours? Can we even imagine it?
There is a phrase in the Odyssey I’ve long loved. It comes as Odysseus, disguised, is in his own home on Ithaca but has not yet challenged the suitors or revealed himself. As he waits, maintaining his cover, he sees the serving women heading off to sleep with the usurpers who’ve overrun his house and his anger rises, his desire to do something about these many men who’ve sought to replace him, to take his wife and rule his house, but he answers that upswell of emotion by beating his chest and exhorting his heart: “Bear up, my heart. You have had worse to endure before this” and he goes on to describe his encounter with and escape from the Cyclops. That’s Richmond Lattimore’s translation; Robert Fagles’ differs only slightly: “Bear up, old heart! You’ve borne worse, far worse…” In my copy of the Loeb Classic Library version, the English reads “Endure, my heart; a worse thing even than this you endured…” Though the language is less artful than Lattimore or Fagles, the translation is perhaps more direct since the verb (which means “endure, suffer, bear up under”) is the same. A simple transliteration of the first three words (τετλαθι δη, κραδίη) could be something like “Just endure, heart.”
I first encountered this phrase at an early 2003 panel discussion at SUNY Geneseo, where I was an undergraduate, on whether we, the US, should or should not invade Iraq. One of the speakers was a philosophy professor, Dr. Ted Everett, who raised—this is from memory many years later—the idea that maybe there are those we cannot reason with, cannot use diplomacy with; that maybe evil does exist and we are fools to pretend it doesn’t; that maybe in life there are moments where something we do not want to do must be done, is the right thing to do, is the only thing to do, and perhaps in those moments we must, like Odysseus, beat our chests and say, “Bear up, my heart,” in order to do what needs doing. In his version, as I recall it, Odysseus beat his breast to incite rather than to quell a murderous rage: it was an action aimed at readying the unready for war, when war showed up in our homes, uninvited and insatiable with ruinous lust.
This is an articulation of the idea of righteous violence, that there is a moral imperative to fight, even to kill—i.e., to do something morally wrong but for a morally right end. This argument can be compelling, but not in the case of the American invasion of Iraq. Partially this is because of the farce of the WMDs but also because I don’t think righteous violence holds up, if at all, in the case of the strong versus the weak.
The battle of Marathon, however, is an instance where an argument for righteous violence does, perhaps work. In brief, the Greeks were resisting the Persian empire, which sought to rule them. At Marathon, 10,000 Athenians stood against a force of 25,000 Persians. The Persians, having the advantage, divided their army, such that 15,000 of them fought on the famous fennel-field. After that battle, as the secondary force of 10,000 Persians moved by ship to invade Athens while it was unprotected, the Athenian army fast-marched back to prevent the ships from landing and thereby ended the Persian assault. Apart from being a solid underdog story—since standing up to the Persians was crazy and defeating the Persians impossible—this makes the case Dr. Everett advanced using Odysseus’ line: the Athenians here needed to protect their farms, their homes, their city, their land, their freedom.
The battle of Marathon matters because it not only showed that Greeks could defeat the Persians, but it spared the Athenian state and the Greek world, which one could argue allowed for the possibility of democracy—since Athens was the only place in the world and in all of human history to that point to have a democratic form of government; if it were obliterated in its infancy by a vast and powerful empire, it is reasonable to suggest history would know no other democracy. Aeschylus fought at Marathon (which is what his epitaph elects to celebrate) but had yet to write a play; nor had Sophocles; nor had Euripides, or Aristophanes. Socrates had not been born, nor, of course, had his pupil Plato. If Athens had fallen what we know as western civilization may have never been.
I’ve just completed my first marathon, the culmination of many months of anticipation and training. This started at least in part as a goal of completing one by the time I’m 39, the age Lary was when he died. I don’t know exactly where this idea came from, when I started connecting my desire to run a marathon with his memory. Maybe it was because I wanted the challenge of endurance events and this reminded me of riding in the bikathons he hosted at St. Mary’s in Swormville in 1990 and 1991 to raise money for cardiac care. Maybe it was something that nearing his age when he died brought out. Maybe it was just obvious, seeking narrative purpose by casting myself in the role of the protagonist with the ghost of the loved and lost driving him on. Bearing up under suffering, enduring.
The marathon as we know it is a modern invention, born of the mythic run of Philippides (or Pheidippides) from Marathon to Athens, a distance of 25 miles. The story goes: after the battle at Marathon was won, Philippides the famous runner ran back to announce the victory, νενικήκαμεν (we are victorious!), and then died—in Robert Browning’s telling, “joy in his blood bursting his heart, the bliss!”
This is a story. According to Herodotus, the historical run of Philippides was a greater distance, nearer to 150 miles, covered in less than two days, and it was between Athens and Sparta, seeking Spartan assistance. (The Spartans, when asked, said they could not come right away, due to religious observance, but would come in a week. Which they in fact did, arriving after the Athenians had defeated the Persians.) There is no mention of a run from Marathon to Athens, not until Plutarch (who names a different runner), no mention of the runner dying at the completion of his incredible run, but the story of his announcing the salvation of Athens, and then dying on the spot, his last breath given to the enunciation of victory (or to the phrase “Joy to you,” according to Lucian), is a much better story and one that gives the run itself a sort of heroic heft, a buoyant but tragic purpose.
The marathon is a sport caught up with emotional meaning. It’s as if it is only partially a physical competition, and—at least for those of us not trying for a sub-three hour race—is instead a physical manifestation of some deeper, more abstract thing. The particular marathon I ran, the Marine Corps Marathon in DC, may be the ne plus ultra in this regard. The race’s motto includes “Run with purpose” and I feel this is at the forefront: just before the halfway point, runners pass through the Wear Blue Mile where the route is bound on either side by images of Marines who lost their lives. The finish is up a short hill in Arlington National Cemetery to the Marine Corps War Memorial, the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima. Marines in full fatigues and with loaded rucksacks ran in honor of some fallen friend; there were dedicatory images pinned to the backs of runners’ shirts and shirts addressed to the lost with things like “I will carry your name 26.2 miles.”
Throughout, the race is intentionally connected to or referencing military action. A howitzer announces the start; Marines along the route (especially after mile 20) bark encouragement at runners; an active-duty Marine awards each finisher with a medal. A lot of “oorah.” Although, of course, the event is put on by the US Marine Corps, I think the military elements serve to highlight the idea that this race has a higher purpose and comes from a deep understanding of the event’s draw as well as its capacity as metaphor.
John Berger, in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, suggests “All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves toward the end, when the outcome will be known.” However, he argues poems are different, not like stories, because they “cross the battlefields” and assuage whoever lays wounded there with “the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been.” This promise is in an appeal to language itself, he says. It is because of this, he goes on, that “Poems are nearer to prayers than to stories.”
That evening in 1992, we had also rented Mannequin 2, pretty much universally regarded as the worst sequel ever made. The original Mannequin won an Oscar: for best song, Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” a song at once almost devoid of meaning and yet supersaturated by sentiment, perhaps not unlike the final fights in Best of the Best, in which the action is exaggerated and maudlin but becomes expressionistic in its focus on emotions, on actions as merely signifiers, like Grecian drama. You know this song; you’ve definitely heard it, the chorus of which memorably repeats “let the world around us just fall apart/baby, we can make it if we’re heart to heart.”
Basically, Mannequin, the original movie—if you haven’t seen it—starts from the premise that a young Egyptian woman, as in an ancient Egyptian young woman, called Emmy, in order to avoid an unwanted marriage voluntarily becomes magically frozen or suspended in state, until a window designer for a department store stages her as a mannequin and she comes to life, and they fall in love. Hilarity, obstacles, hijinks. The eponymous love interest is a literal object, silent, lifeless, and inanimate much of the time. It’s a latter-day story of Pygmalion and Galatea, but her resurrection in a consumerist context seems perhaps more problematic.
Jonathan, the window “artist,” assembles her body from parts, the interchangeability of which highlights the distinction between the corporeal self and the—what? The form of the word in the Odyssey, κραδίη as opposed to καρδίη, means heart not as the organ but instead the “seat of life, emotion,” closer to something like spirit. It is this which is transplanted into the mannequin’s assemblage of parts, this which makes flesh from plastic.
After Lary’s heart transplant, he insisted on visiting the family of the donor, the man who died in a car accident and thus allowed my uncle to live. This act had brought him back to life, but his life was different now, more complicated. The medication made him bloated, swollen, and, over time, ate away at his joints, causing new pain and limiting his mobility. As his hip got worse, he became reliant on a cane; his parishioners paid for an electronic seat that would carry him up and down the rectory’s two flights of stairs. We, as children, had a great time with this elevator, its slow ascent, but we were unable to recognize how it must have felt for him to do so. Because it was not fun, of course, for him, at 37, 38, to be unable to walk without pain, to be unable to make it up two flights of stairs. He had always been a very active person, and this new life he’d been granted came with the price of diminished abilities. With this new heart, his body was renewed, but it was also reduced. It was now a weight his spirit had to bear up under.
It can be worse; others have seen worse. I know that and I know he knew that. Although I think the pain and the limitation he faced daily were real and severe, it was not the severity of them that mattered as much as his willingness to suffer them versus his willingness to risk everything to be free of them.
In the Iliad, Achilles describes a choice he faces (in Lattimore’s translation): “I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either, if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans, my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting; but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers, the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.” Stay home and enjoy a long life, but you will not be remembered; or go to war and you will definitely die, but your name will be immortal. Achilles of course chooses glory (or “news of thee/me”), κλέος, over homecoming, νόστος, which means death and immortal fame. We remember his name.
Tommy, in Best of the Best, faces a somewhat similar choice: to accomplish his revenge by killing his vulnerable enemy, and thus winning the match, or to lose the match but avoid killing, which is the act his enemy had done for which he seeks revenge. Tommy waits out the end of the round, showing a conflicted sort of mercy. Tommy’s enemy tearfully embraces him in the movie’s kind of emotionally-manipulative ending, saying, “To save a life in defeat is to earn victory and honor within.” Morally, that pretty well contradicts the idea of righteous violence. To adhere to pacifism and lose is morally better, this argues. This type of win-by-losing seems perhaps Christian in its morality, a turn-the-other-cheek, suffer-now-but-be-redeemed-in-the-next-life kind of approach. It should be noted that Tommy finds himself in the position of the stronger facing the weaker. If he were to kill his enemy, it would be to take full advantage of his enemy’s helplessness. (It should be noted, too, that Tommy’s enemy is all “defeat is victory” when it’s his life being spared, but he seems to take a different moral approach when he’s the one taking the life.)
Would it have been better if Achilles had lived forgettably forever? Would it have been better if Tommy had delivered the final blow and ended the life of his opponent? I don’t question Uncle Lary’s decision to seek surgery despite the real risks.
He knew those risks, had them explained to him by his surgeons, specifically that his new heart might not be strong enough, might not make it. His parents were there, but my mom didn’t understand the seriousness of this surgery. It had seemed far less risky than having his heart removed and another sewn in. Because he kept this risk close, he was alone that morning, alone as they prepped him, alone as they took him in, alone as they administered the general anesthesia that stopped his heart.
I remember a story from that time, which was told to me as follows: the night before the surgery, as his twin sister visited him, he looked at some point into the middle distance, to an unseen somewhere above, and said, “I’m ready” and this was understood as him speaking to God, letting God know he was ready not for surgery but for his, as they say, homecoming. When I asked my mom about this, she suggested he maybe did say he was ready but more in the sense that he was hopeful for surgery but also ready in case it didn’t work out. He was not preemptively telling God he was ready to die but was instead saying he was ready to face the fear, the long odds of success, that he was willing to do the difficult, unwanted thing. He was ready to risk everything in order to live.
The Iliad and the Odyssey, the two oldest works of western civilization, are, of course, narratives of war, the one about κλέος, the other about νόστος. Another meaning for ‘endure’ is to “remain in existence; last,” as in to be remembered. The Homeric epics have lasted, have carried the memory of the central figures through thousands of years of history. Perhaps part of the reason we tell narratives is to make those events durable, to make them last, all the battles and homecomings, large and small, epic and quotidian.
When I was living in the southwest, every time I came home my family—and most of all his twin sister—would remark, typically in the third person, on how much I look like my uncle, how they see his face in mine, “He looks just like Lary.” (My mother told me this when she saw me less than a week ago, in fact.) This refrain tended to make me uncomfortable because my uncle was so venerated in the family, so beloved, that the comparison always felt hyper charged, overly emotional, one I had no idea how to respond to. It was a family version of saying, “I see the saint in your face,” which what can you say to that? I can see it, too, this likeness, but it always felt like more: for them, I carried the memory of him.
Somewhere I heard described the idea that we all experience, ultimately, three deaths: dying, burial, and being forgotten. These are distinct and separate in time: the moment of death versus internment versus the perhaps many years before there is no one left who knows our names, who can tell “news of thee.”
My uncle’s name does not appear in the history on the St. Mary’s Church website. This, it turns out, is because he was not the pastor, though I assumed he was. But seeing that hit me profoundly: the recognition that his memory, his name, is capable of slipping so deeply into a past that is quickly rushing away from me. This strikes me with a pain located in my chest that is not physical, is more than physical, a pain and a fear and a wordless longing and loss that the third death always brings on when I think of it. Just in this case more acutely, perhaps because it is too soon, too soon to think he’d have to suffer that third and final death, to think that I might be among those who will carry his name with me when I go and help make the erasure complete.
Elsewhere in the same book, Berger writes “The deeper the experience of a moment, the greater the accumulation of experience. This is why the moment is lived as longer. The dissipation of the time-flow is checked. The lived durée is not a question of length but of depth or density.”
I submit part of the reason for undertaking the challenge of a marathon is this conversion of the ineluctable forward-progress of our lives into a timeless intensity of lived experience. By increasing the depth of the experience, the moment, we can create a new narrative, one that suggests not that life is just an inevitable passage from Marathon to Athens, from the battlefield to an ultimate collapse after the fighting is finished, but rather that life can be rich and of almost infinite value, even if fleeting. This changes the metaphorical relationship to life; not a linear movement but a dense route of many small moments each packed with great importance and a central theme: suffering and bearing up. Whether the wind is behind you or at your face, whether your legs feel strong and fresh or have given out. It is a series of choices to go on, I’m ready, “nothing’s gonna stop us now,” exhorting oneself to “let the pain go,” beating one’s breast: endure, my heart.
At mile 25, I saw a runner on her hands and knees in a grassy median, in pain, exhausted; I watched another runner vomit Gatorade into a trashcan. It was mile 25, not at the finish, when I felt the upswell of emotion, a sudden sob in my chest—my heart, as the saying goes, caught in my throat. In truth, I had experienced this before, thinking of him while running, imagining the marathon finish to impel my legs forward on shorter runs, imagining “the blood bursting my heart, the bliss,” seeing myself “run[ning] with purpose,” importing the narrative themes of “the power of the human spirit triumphing over adversity and the meaning of life” onto the act of running, inciting a surge of feeling, a suffering to endure. I did not run the marathon as fast as I had hoped, but I finished. I ran hard up the final hill and across the finish line. When the event photos were emailed to me, they were arranged so that the last taken were the first to appear: I saw my final steps to the finish, but first a photo that must have been taken just after I’d crossed, since I’m not in it.
If you re-arrange them, though, if you put the pieces back together, the narrative emerges: you can see me pass through the crowd of runners, you can see his face transplanted onto mine, the two of us heart to heart—νενικήκαμεν—before I leave the frame