Buzz Bissinger wrote the book Friday Night Lights, which got made into a movie and then a television show that introduced us to Taylor Kitsch, in the role of Tim Riggins. For that reason alone, we all owe Buzz a debt of gratitude and should buy his latest book, a memoir about a road trip he took with his brain-damaged son Zachary. Father’s Day is Bissinger’s first swing at a memoir and–to shift from football to baseball–he hits the ball out of the park.
In an effort to connect with his twenty-four year old son, Bissinger decides the two of them should drive (because Zach hates to fly) from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, re-visiting all the places they’ve lived, places that Zach remembers with pinpoint accuracy. Zach is the “family’s human GPS” as Bissinger tells us, despite the fact that he will never himself be able to drive–or to live alone, or to fully comprehend the plot of “Friday Night Lights. Zach and his brother were born thirteen weeks early, but Zach came three minutes after his brother and in that crucial three minutes, his brain was deprived of necessary oxygen. Zach’s twin, Greg, is now a graduate student planning a career as a teacher; Zach has a steady job bagging groceries.
Bissinger’s twins were more premature than my son Liam (born at 32 1/2 weeks), but Liam weighed less than they did. Zach was one pound, eleven ounces, his brother slightly more; Liam was one pound, ten ounces. The dire predictions that came true for Zach were possibilities for Liam’s future, but, amazingly, Liam’s only preemie legacy is that he’s still the shortest seventh grader on two continents. The feelings that Bissinger describes when his sons were born called up all my painful memories of the NICU: my baby wasn’t supposed to be surrounded by a clutch of masked doctors and nurses; my baby wasn’t supposed to be plugged into an infinite number of clicking, whirring machines; my baby wasn’t supposed to be wrapped up tight in a plastic box with a tube down his throat; my baby wasn’t supposed to spend the first months of his life in a hospital ward.
Eventually, Zach comes home from the hospital and his parents confront the fact that brain damage had “settled like patchy mist, some places forever abandoned, and yet some places heightened and magnified.” Zach is a savant, who is filled with love and optimism, but he is not, as Bissinger admits with painful clarity, “the son he wanted.” Father’s Day begins as the story of Bissinger’s efforts to know his son more closely, but it is also the story of Bissinger struggling to come to terms with the reality, not only of his son’s life, but his own.
Memoirs are often praised for their “brutal honesty,” but of all the memoirs I’ve read, only Father’s Day demonstrates the full power of that phrase. Bissinger lays himself bare, gives us a full monty of his flaws: professional jealousy, marital failure, profound insecurity, fraught relationships with his own parents. Mostly, however, Bissinger scrutinizes his relationship with Zach–or rather, what he regards as the lack of a relationship with Zach. In talking about Zach, Bissinger runs the risk of alienating his readers because he gives voice to those dark thoughts that I think all parents have, but rarely admit–even to themselves. We wonder with dismay why we got the kid we did; why little Dakota can do back flips while our kid balks at somersaults; why diligent Jayden gets straight As and works hard while our kid stares at the fish-tank and refuses to bathe. Perhaps we protest a little too much that State U offers a great education, even as we stare wistfully at the Harvard bumper-sticker on our neighbor’s car, or maybe it’s just the minor-league networking we do to land our kid the “good” summer job as opposed to the job scooping ice cream. Bissinger says “I wanted [my kids] to succeed. I wanted them to make me proud…[and] grocery bagging was beyond humbling for a father awash in ambition.”
The arc of this narrative moves Bissinger from anger and frustration at his son’s situation to a place of peace (or as peaceful as someone like Bissinger can get), and so in that regard, the endpoint of the book does not come as a huge surprise. The surprises occur along the journey, as the two men see parts of America that don’t usually make it into the public eye (Tulsa, anyone?) and as Bissinger explores the history of Zachary’s life, which necessitates an exploration of American attitudes towards special needs kids. In order for Zach to get his disability check from Social Security, for instance, he is required to take an aptitude test every two years, “as if he might transform into a member of Mensa when he cannot drive or cook on a stove or add two-digit numbers.” The system, Bissinger argues, is “despicable….It is our moral obligation to make [people like Zach] into productive citizens. But without the assistance they deserve, they will always live … on the bare fringes of the world.”
Zach, it is clear, is one of the lucky ones, because he has parents who can afford to integrate him into the world as fully as possible; what Bissinger comes to realize is that his perspective on Zach’s life is not Zach’s perspective on his life. Zach does not see himself on the fringes of the world; Zach loves his routines, his co-workers, his friends; he loves his family and his memories. As the two men drive cross-country, their roles, ironically, begin to reverse. It is Bissinger who locks himself out of hotel rooms, not Zach; it is Zach who reads the map, not his father; it is Zach who stays calm when they’re lost or tired or when his father has an anxiety attack. And it is Zach, in fact, who helps Bissinger come to closure about the deaths of his parents, some years earlier.
Bissinger writes so eloquently about what he learns from his son on their journey that I finished the book with a haze of tears in my eyes. That is not to say that the book ends in roses and sunshine; it’s not a “pretty little package with a tidy bow,” as Bissinger says. Despite Zach’s growth–he tells his father that he wants to come with the family when they go visit Zach’s step-brother in South Africa, a twenty-hour flight–Bissinger still fears for his son’s future once his parents are no longer around to intercede on his behalf. But, Bissinger adds, he sees Zach as the most fearless man he knows, who has restored “the faith of a father in all that can be.”
So yeah, Bissinger brought us Tim Riggins, and that’s a fine, fine thing. But in Father’s Day, Bissinger brings us a brilliant narrative about the painful joy of being a parent–and he brings us Zach, who is better than an entire season’s worth of Rigginses. Whether or not you have sons, whether or not you’re the parent of a special needs child, whether or not you’re a father, you owe it to yourself to read Father’s Day.
book jacket photo source here