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Bissinger and son take intense, personal journey

Posted Jun 3, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated Jun 3, 2012 at 10:10 PM

Buzz Bissinger has won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. He wrote “Friday Night Lights,” an iconic look at high school football in Odessa, Texas; and “Three Nights in August,” a window into the managerial mind of Tampa native Tony LaRussa when he piloted the St. Louis Cardinals.

But Bissinger’s latest book has been his biggest challenge. It took him four years to complete “Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $26, hardback, 242 pages), and it is a remarkable, deeply personal and intense look at his relationship with his son, Zach.

Zach and his twin brother, Gerry, were born 13 weeks prematurely in August 1983. Gerry was born first and weighed 1 pound, 14 ounces. Zach followed three minutes later and weighed three ounces less than his brother.

Those three minutes would be crucial. Zach was born brain damaged. While Gerry earned a master’s degree at Penn and is now a full-time teacher, Zach will never drive a car or live by himself. He does menial jobs. Zach also is a savant with an incredible memory and a capacity for remembering places and dates. He also is obsessed with maps and does not like to vary his routine.

“My pride in Gerry tamps down because of the guilt I feel for Zach,” Bissinger writes.

Bissinger decides during the summer of 2007 that a cross-country car ride with Zach would be a way for them to bond. They hopscotched from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, visiting places where they once lived: Chicago; Milwaukee; Odessa, Texas; and Los Angeles. Throw in trips to Las Vegas and to the amusement parks Zach enjoyed visiting, and it was a long, tiring and emotionally draining trip for both father and son.

I listened to an excerpt of “Father’s Day” Bissinger read at the Nieman Foundation late last month, and that’s what made me want to read this book. I was stunned by his brutal honesty and immediately wanted the rest of the story.

Bissinger ran his tape recorder throughout the trip and was able to transcribe his conversations with Zach exactly as they occurred, and that gives the book a genuine feel. The conversations are blunt, and yet at times tender and loving.

Here is perhaps the most intense exchange, as they take a break at a rest stop in Indiana:

“You should have died, Zach. Do you know that?

“I didn’t.
“I pause here. It feels like the longest pause of my life.

“Do you know what brain damage is?

“No.

“What do you think it is?

“When your brain isn’t right?

“Do you know your brain is not a little right?

“Yeah.

“How do you know?

“I know from my brain.”

I’m not sure I would have had the courage (some might argue, the nerve) to ask questions like that. And even Bissinger wrote that he was taken aback by Zach’s response.

“I was not prepared for him to say he knew his brain was not right. I was not prepared at all,” Bissinger writes. “It was the risk I took by asking. And yet I feel gratified.

“... But to have a child, your child, say my brain isn’t right is still unimaginable.”

This is not a book about sports, but Bissinger’s return to Odessa certainly is an interesting subplot. Many Odessa residents were angered by “Friday Night Lights,” particularly how Bissinger included “the ingredients of the open racism, the surreal travel of the football team to away games on chartered jets, more money spent on athletic tape than on new books for the English department.”

It was just another stop on a meandering cross-country drive. What really resonated for Bissinger, and ultimately made the trip worthwhile, was a bungee jump he did with Zach at Six Flags near St. Louis. For once, Bissinger truly felt close to his son as they plunged 153 feet, only to bounce back toward their starting point as the bungee cord acted as a giant rubber band.

“Zach and I merge into one, arm around arm, shoulder against shoulder, the press of his body against mine,” he writes. “I never had that when he was an infant in the hospital.

“… But now he is my lifeline, and I am his. If we let go of each other, both of us will surely shatter.”

It’s apparent that Bissinger, a gifted writer to begin with, took extra care writing “Father’s Day.” He had to. This subject was too personal to gloss over, and his honesty — his own self-doubt, his anger, memories of his parents’ final illnesses, and the birth of two boys prematurely that guided his first marriage toward an inevitable end — show how Bissinger cuts deeply and efficiently, like a skilled surgeon.

The book shows the fear and helplessness every parent of a child with disabilities has. As Bissinger concedes, “there is no rose-colored ending to any of this.”

“He is not the child I wanted. But he is no longer a child anyway,” Bissinger writes. “He is a man, the most fearless I have ever known, friendly, funny, freaky, unfathomable, forgiving, fantastic, restoring the faith of a father in all that can be.”

“Father’s Day” reflects Bissinger’s personality — combative, blunt, profane and emotional. It is not sentimental, but it is an introspective, compelling read. 

 

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