by Kate Hopper | So we beat on.


Your pulse beats, defiant, in the tender crook between thumb and forefinger. My gaze shifts between it and your face, your cheekbones prominent, your neck slack. The cardiologist tells you, “Your heart is very sick. You should start to have conversations about the end of life.” And I can feel you shrinking next to me.

When you leave the exam room to use the bathroom, I ask this doctor, because I need to know, how long he thinks you have. “Six months, maybe,” he says, his dark eyes somber. “Your father’s heart—it’s very sick.”

In the car on the way back to your apartment, I ask how you’re doing, but I can already tell; your lips are pursed into a frown, your hand trembles in your lap. “I thought I had a year, maybe two,” is all you say.

“But you might,” I bolster. “He just said you’d be in the hospital with fluid retention within six months; he didn’t say you were going to die that soon.” I say this, though it is a lie. But maybe it isn’t.

Because what does that doctor, who met you in the hospital last winter, know about you and your heart? Yes, there is the echocardiogram and the spools of data from your pacemaker, his years of experience. But he doesn’t know the way your heart has expanded with each grandchild. He doesn’t know your brilliant theological mind or that you’re almost finished with your fifth book, this one on the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. He doesn’t know how, when you laugh hard—which you do often, still—your mouth opens and your lower jaw cranks up and down, your eyes crinkling. He hasn’t heard the stories you love to tell: how you spotted Einstein in a sailboat off Long Island in 1939, just days before he wrote that fateful letter to President Roosevelt about fission; how, when you were eighteen and a “boot” in the US Navy at the end of WWII, you were carelessly called to the helm of your destroyer and, after almost crashing into another ship, were cussed out by Lieutenant “Bird Dog” Curtis. He doesn’t know how your beloved tangerine tree came to be—a lunchtime seed spit into a poinsettia by a colleague all those years ago.

In the coming days, you will become angry with this doctor, say he doesn’t know you. You’ll fill out the clinic survey and give him only sevens, which you will then revise, saying with a shrug, “I think I might have been a little harsh.” And I’ll be reassured by your feistiness and your always-tender heart. Maybe you do have a year, maybe two. Why not?

But neither of us knows that in a little over five months we will move you into my house, converting our dining room into your bedroom. There you will stare up at our fancy new chandelier from your hospital bed, counting the bulbs, which are like snowballs lit from within, again and again, always coming up with a different number. Time will become elastic, taut and then loose, as you become weaker and more confused. But you will still have your sense of humor, until almost the end. You will hold tight to life, not ready to go.

Neither of us knows that in six months, almost to the day, I will be holding your hand, Rachel on the other side of you, and that three minutes and fourteen seconds into “Holly Holy,” which will be piped through the speaker on the windowsill—Neil Diamond singing “And the seed, let it be full with tomorrow, Holly holy” the pulse in your neck, which I will have been watching watching watching, will go quiet.

Neither of us knows any of that.

So in the car that day, after your appointment with the cardiologist, I reach for your hand and give it a squeeze, feeling your pulse, defiant, in that crook between your thumb and forefinger, and I say, “He doesn’t know you, Dad. He doesn’t know your heart.”

Kate Hopper is an editor, writing coach, and teacher; the author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers and Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood; and coauthor of Silent Running, a memoir. Her writing has appeared in many journals, including Brevity, Creative Nonfiction’s True StoryLongreadsLos Angeles Review of Books, the New York Times online, Poets & Writers, and River Teeth. For more information about her work and upcoming classes, visit

This essay originally appeared in Brevity #66 (2021).

Share this on: Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn
This issue of Short Reads was 🫀 edited by Hattie Fletcher; 🚗 fact-checked & proofread by Chad Vogler; ⛵ illustrated by Anna Hall; and 🎶 delivered to our 1,323 subscribers by Stephen Knezovich.

PS/ We’re looking for flash nonfiction reprints. See the submission call →
Miss an issue? Every Short Reads essay is available on
Want more like this? Subscribe to Short Reads and get one fresh flash essay—for free—in your inbox every Wednesday.