Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son Hardcover – May 15 2012
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Blunt, tender, sometimes harrowing, and always affecting, Father's Day is a triumph. Bissinger unfurls the whole fabric of love and pride and heartbreak and salvation that makes a family, with an honesty that will make you gasp."
- Susan Orlean , author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief
"Bissinger has the great writer's gift of showing us we are not alone. Here he explores the religion all parents share: that our children's essential goodness will somehow grant them safe passage through a rough world. What a book! Every parent should read it. "
- Chris Matthews , host of Hardball and author of Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero
"I loved this unflinching, heartbreaking, and ultimately triumphant tale of disability and difference, and what it means to be a father, a son, and a man."
- Jennifer Weiner , author of Then Came You and Fly Away Home
"Buzz Bissinger's memoir - a paean to his remarkable son - is tender, funny, frightening at moments when love is re-stated; even brave - which memoiristic writing rarely gets the chance to be. It also reads as unflinchingly true , which should give it a long and useful life in the reader's heart."aÇÇ
- Richard Ford
" Father's Day is the story of a road trip like no other. Searing and heartfelt, this is not just an unforgettable portrait of a father and his son; it is a love story that speaks to the mystery, pain, and exhilaration of being human. "
- Nathaniel Philbrick , author of Mayflower and The Last Stand
" This brave and beautiful memoir gets at the core of what it means to be a parent - how painful it can be, how scary it can get, and how rewarding it is. By facing a challenge that would try any of us, and beat many of us, Bissinger emerges a better man. He not only finds his son, but himself, and the reader finds something, too. After reading Fathers Day , I've rethought my assumptions about what makes a successful and worthy life. Ultimately, this is a mesmerizing story about how we can all be better."
- David Sheff , author of Beautiful Boy
"Buzz Bissinger has given completely of himself in this moving book about his son Zach, who was born too small, too soon. There is the father's disappointment and guilt, his confusion and frustration, his wonder and love. That Zach has a twin brother, who grew up unscathed, and that Zach's mind is as divided as his father's emotions, makes the story all that more compelling. Father's Day is wonderfully, achingly written, with all the doubt that tells you how truthful it is. "
- Frank Deford , author of The Old Ball Game and The Entitled
"Every father of a special needs child should read this very insightful book."
- Temple Grandin , author of Thinking in Pictures and Animals in Translation
"A fiercely honest memoir about the complex hard drive of a son's brain and the balky software of a father's heart. Though his story is singular, Bissinger makes it feel like part of that eternal saga - fathers and sons trying to connect."
- J.R. Moehringer , author of The Tender Bar "Gorgeous and brutally honest . . . As much as this is a book for parents, who know well the crushing vulnerabilities of the job, it is also a story for grown children who understand what it means to love an imperfect parent. Would that we were all as forgiving as Zach. Grade: A' - Entertainment Weekly
"Riveting . . . Impossible to put down." - New York Times
"Visceral, arresting, and frank." - O Magazine
"A really good book, no matter what its genre, delivers a level of humanity that is both breathtaking and elemental. In Father's Day, Buzz Bissinger has delivered such a work . . . It's every bit as good [as Friday Night Lights ]. By telling his own story, Bissinger has given voice to parents of special-needs children everywhere. Moreover, he has given everyone a story of hope, humor and humanity." - Houston Chronicle
"Gorgeous and brutally honest . . . As much as this is a book for parents, who know well the crushing vulnerabilities of the job, it is also a story for grown children who understand what it means to love an imperfect parent. Would that we were all as forgiving as Zach. Grade: A' - Entertainment Weekly
'Bissinger may not seem like a likely candidate to pen a tender memoir-but he has.' - People
"A raw, intimate memoir that holds nothing back . . . Achingly tender." - Seattle Times
"A testament to his searing love for his disabled son." - Boston Globe
'Bruising yet tender.' - Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"[Bissinger's] greatest accomplishment to date is sharing with the world the inner life of his son Zach . . . The feel-good moments here are rarely sappy or sentimentalized, and it's not giving anything away to tell you that there's no trite happy ending here. What we get instead is something far more beautiful and substantial. We get to know Zach - and ourselves. Every high school in America should add this memoir to its curriculum. Father's Day implores us not only to open our hearts to the mentally challenged people around us, because that goes without saying. It also asks us to take the time to learn what every living soul has to teach us - even the ones who don't fully understand their own gifts. In gaining a new appreciation for his son's unique voice and by sharing it with such intimacy and compassion, Bissinger has done himself, his family, and his readers a tremendous service." - Philadelphia Inquirer
"A wrenchingly honest road tale." - Publishers Weekly
"Moving . . . By being so open about his own struggles as a father, Bissinger turns our eye back toward ourselves, prompting, perhaps, a similar honesty in our own self-reflections. Although its subject matter is vastly different from that of the popular Friday Night Lights , readers of that book will note the same keen eye for character and emotion here." - Booklist
From the Back Cover
Buzz Bissinger s twins were born three minutes and a world apart. Gerry, the older one, is a graduate student preparing to become a teacher. His brother Zach is a savant, challenged by serious intellectual deficits but also blessed with rare talents: an astonishing memory, a dazzling knack for navigation, and a reflexive honesty that can make him both socially awkward and surprisingly wise.
One summer, striving to understand the twenty-four-year-old son who remains, in many ways, a mystery, Buzz convinces Zach to join him on a cross-country road trip. As father and son drive from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, revisiting all the places they have lived together, Buzz learns to see the world through Zach s eyes. "Father's Day "is a powerful account of this journey, and a universal tale of the bond between parents and children.
Grade: A . . . Gorgeous. "Entertainment Weekly"
Blunt, tender, sometimes harrowing, and always affecting, Father s Day is a triumph. Susan Orlean, author of "Rin Tin Tin" and "The Orchid Thief"
[no author photo]
Buzz Bissinger is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of five books, including Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August. He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and a sports columnist for the Daily Beast. He has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, and many other publications.
" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.See all Product Description
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SPOILER ALERT: There may be plot information beyond this point that some readers may not want to know. If so, stop now or continue reading at your own risk.
Bissinger goes into great pains to describe the births of his twin boys, Gerry and Zach, who were born over three months premature (13 1/2 weeks) and often through literary flashbacks fills in even more details. The boys were born three minutes apart, three minutes that separated them into two completely different social, economic and academic worlds. Gerry, as Bissinger described him, was among the "Normals," while during the intervening three minutes, Zach suffered partial brain damage. Gerry is currently seeking an advanced degree at the University of Pennsylvania, with aspirations toward becoming a teacher; Zach, on the other hand, spent his childhood mostly in special schools and works in a stockroom.
In his own words, Bissinger describes his feelings for Zachary:
"It is strange to love someone so much who is still so fundamentally mysterious to you after all these years. `Strange' is a lousy word, means nothing. It is the most terrible pain of my life. As much as I try to engage Zach, figure out how to make the flower germinate because there is a seed in there, I also run from this challenge. I run out of guilt. I run because he was robbed and I feel I was robbed. I run because of shame. I am not proud to feel or say this. But I think these things, not all the time, but too many times, which only increases the cycle of my shame. This is my child. How can I look at him this way?"
Bissinger's passion to excel in his career as a writer, his two failed marriages and his obsessive guilt mentioned above have limited his opportunities to really draw closer to his now 24-year-old son, Zach, to understand how his world runs, how he copes in a world populated by "Normals" and especially how his father can become part of Zach's world. Bissinger decides to take Zach on a 10-day road trip from their home in Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, stopping at specific locations along the way to visit where they previously lived, the schools Zach had attended and especially the people who Zach knew while growing up.
I will admit that when Bissinger hatched his excursion across America plan (a dad and his extraordinary son on the open highway in a minivan that should have been retired years ago) I thought, "Is that the best you can come up with?" He had already told the reader that Zach didn't handle change well, so an almost four-thousand-mile drive to LA in an old minivan really didn't seem like a good decision to me. However, up to that point, I didn't know just how "extraordinary" Zach really was. Bissinger gives the reader a hint during the following comments:
"Zach is interested in people. It doesn't matter whether he last saw them 20 minutes ago or 20 years ago. Realizing this makes the route suddenly self-evident. We will travel across country in ten days stopping at all the places we've lived before or know well--Chicago, Milwaukee, Odessa, Texas, Los Angeles. Branson, Missouri, the evangelical answer to Las Vegas, is an add-on because I always have wondered whether the Christian right cheats at miniature golf. The real Las Vegas is on the itinerary as well."
Once the trip begins it doesn't take long before the reader begins to get glimpses of who the two main characters really are. After only a day or two Bissinger begins to let his worrisome mind spin off into chaos, while Zach stays focused on his collection of road maps, pinpointing where they are and how to get to their next destination. Bissinger often allows his frustration and anger boil over and explode into loud profanity-laden tirades. Bissinger's fits of cursing rage was one of the more unseemly characteristics of this book. We witness this after he becomes lost trying to leave Chicago, not noticeably realizing that he could rely on his son for help. When he discovered his camera and recording equipment have been left behind at a hotel, that just adds fuel to his rage. Often his anger would spill over during periods when he attempted to converse with Zach: "I am not at peace with my son. I am not at peace with the helpless horror of how he came into the world and what he became of it. I don't know if I ever will be and I do what I do when in conflict--take it out on someone else, too often someone I love."
It isn't until the fifth chapter that the reader finds out that Zach is not only mentally impaired but, according to Bissinger, he is also a savant! For me, this revelation places an entirely new meaning to his use of the word "extraordinary." Bissinger often refers to Zach's brain as his "hard drive" and the following quote from the book reveals the reason why:
"Zach is a savant. Embedded within him are the classic symptoms, a darkened cognitive landscape accompanied by remarkable skills in the area of calendaring--phenomenal recall of people's birthdays and the dates on which the most obscure events occurred, the capacity to see someone once and remember ten years later where and when he saw him, flawless recall of the street grids on maps, and ability to give you the day of the week for virtually any specific date in his lifetime."
Bissinger's initial expectations for the bonding he desperately wanted to take place with Zach while on the road was terribly inflated, to say the least. So it should come as no surprise to the reader that the road trip is filled with ups and downs, highs and lows, moments of pure excitement at an amusement park, conversations that lead to nowhere but frustration, and the joy of Zack's amazing ability to immediately reacquaint himself with school teachers and friends he hasn't seen in over a decade. Bissinger muses, "Zach, despite his limits, has been steady and true, while I have been volatile and inconsistent. I am volatile and inconsistent. But I thought I would do better, holding my emotions in check for my son."
As I've already noted, this book contains two stories. One about a very engaging and truly extraordinary young man named Zach, and the other story about Bissinger, a father who decades later is still wrestling with his mental and emotional anguish over the birth of this son and the damage that resulted. For much of the journey Bissinger spirals deeper into his dark and depressing life of guilt, hoping against hope that this trip will somehow change things, fix his relationship with Zach. As the journey nears an end, something special, something extraordinary begins to happen.
One of my favorite moments in this book is Bissinger's clever and crisp humor. There are definitely more than a few "laugh out loud" moments. But the part I grew to enjoy the most was the conversations between Zach and his father, especially the unusual way they are printed in the book. On the other hand, Bissinger's incessant use of profanity, as well as the repetition of his own painful memories, job and marital failures and negative experiences threatened to take over the book at times. Especially frustrating were the constant reruns of his personal disappointments over Zach's condition, as if the reader didn't feel his anguish the first or second time he revisited them. I did!
I would say that I mostly enjoyed this story yet, at the same time, I also had mixed feelings about this book. It was definitely a page-turner at times and also included numerous dips into Bissinger's gloomy, brooding nature. At a couple points, and for no apparent reason, Bissinger diverts the reader's attention from the road trip to an extremely detailed description of material which seemed completely unrelated to the storyline. Though the information was mostly interesting, it seemed to do little more than derail the story's momentum. One example I can recall at this moment is when Bissinger dedicates much of an entire chapter to the discovery and historical development of the incubator, which he notes was eventually improved and used for neonatal care of premature infants. That was certainly nice to know, but what about the trip? On the other hand, there are also many fun, light and uplifting moments shared between Bissinger, his two sons and a small collection of friends and family which in the end made this book worth reading.
I'll close with this typical and priceless conversational exchange between Buzz Bissinger and his 24-year old son, Zach:
~ I love you Zach.
~ I know.
~ How do you know?
~ You have to love me because you're my dad.
~ I love you because you're my son.
~ So let's do it again right now. We'll just go.
~ I'll think about it.
~ What do you mean think about it? Let's go. Let's go. Let's get out of here!
~ Com'on Zach. You know we'll have a blast!
~ Only if we fly.
Zachary Bissinger and his twin brother, Gerry, were born 13 weeks premature. While both of them struggled at birth, Gerry has developed normally and is in grad school at the University of Pennsylvania. Because Zachary was born 3 minutes later, he suffered trace brain damage. Although he has an IQ of 70, he's a savant with extraordinary gifts of memorization in calendaring and maps. Bissinger has spent near 25 years trying to decipher the mystery of Zach. "It is strange to love someone so much who is still so fundamentally mysterious to you after all these years." Having a special needs son "is the most terrible pain of my life." In addition to pain, it has also brought the author profound guilt and shame. Bissinger sees a cross country trip as a way to bond with Zach, to rediscover each other, to fall in love again.
Zach is not good with new things and change, so Bissinger decides that their trip will include people and places that Zach already knows--Chicago, Milwaukee, Odessa, and Los Angeles. The only new adventure will be to Las Vegas. As with all trips, things don't go as planned. Zach doesn't always react the way his father wants. They get lost. He loses too much money gambling in Vegas and is frustrated with conversation with his son. Bissinger loses his camera bag, and becomes volatile when angry or frustrated. His poor behavior makes Bissinger realize that "I am not at peace with my son. I am not at peace with the helpless horror of how he came into the world and what he became because of it. I don't know if I ever will be and I do what I do when in conflict--take it out on someone else, too often someone I love." But by the end, the author has also made new discoveries about Zach. Zach is a survivor. He knows what he wants as he moves toward a more independent life. Zach is true and sincere and honest. And that maybe Zach has taught his father more lessons about life than the other way around. Zach "is not the child I wanted. But he is no longer a child anyway. He is the most fearless man I have ever known, and the most admirable."
While Bissinger claims this book is about Zach, it's also about the author. Throughout the trip, Bissinger reflects not just on Zach and his challenges, but also his parents' deaths, his success with Friday Night Lights, his failure with NYPD Blue, his three marriages and his two other sons. Buzz Bissinger's writing is eloquent and funny and observant and poignant. I had to laugh at his comments about Ikea. Zach's bedroom was furnished with everything Ikea, "where all men shop after divorce, the silent Ikea secret handshake as we write out with a stubby pencil the list of furniture we must have by this evening because the kids are staying over for the first time and we need to provide a stable atmosphere fast and try not to get too upset when you put something together and there are still 85 pieces left." But the fun is tempered by heartache. "How can they be twins? Sometimes I wonder if they are even related. My pride in Gerry tamps down because of the guilt I feel for Zach. The goddam guilt. The scrapmetal weight shackled to my ankle. It's always there."
How good is Father's Day? It's good enough that even though I received this copy through Amazon Vine, I intend to purchase a finished copy when it's officially published in May.
Zach was born three minutes after his brother. Those three minutes seem to have made a difference in the oxygen to his brain. Gerry is Ivy League; Zach is different, always was and always will be.
The competitor in Buzz wants both his sons to shine in the world of education, sports, and human relationships. Gerry does. Zach, no. Many of Zach's qualities of social impairment and scripting of language make him sound autistic although that is not what the numerous psychological studies have shown. Zach is a savant when it comes to calendaring. His favorite things are maps and birthdays. Conversations with Zach, which Buzz recorded for years in preparation for this book, are delivered in a staccato framework of questions and factual statements, often with little link among them.
Buzz has decided to learn more about his son, taking him on a journey across America to old places they used to live. The meltdowns are mostly on Buzz's part as he finds communicating with Zach over the endless miles a chore almost beyond his ability as a parent. Buzz forgets bags. Buzz can't find exits. Buzz wants to scream and pound his head against the wall.
Zach shows patience with his father though Zach never wanted to drive on the journey in the first place. There are incredible moments of tenderness between father and son as Buzz tries new rides at the amusement parks that Zach loves and eats the Mexican food Zach chooses. There are moments of laughter and moments of frustration and finally, truly, a moment of realization between father and son about this grown-up young man who will never be quite normal.
Because I have an autistic grandson, I am drawn to books in which parents do not find a miracle cure, do not solve their problems with one magical diet, and vent their sorrows when they realize this child, unique and loved and special, is the child they have. The child will become an adult, who will need support and supervision, but who will also have the right to a private life despite the bounds of his disability.
This is an honest, interesting, deeply touching read of a parent and a son.
Zach IS extraordinary in his own way - he never forgets things like people's birthday's, names of everyone he's ever met, and when he last saw them, no matter how long ago it was. He is capable of working repetitive jobs, and his job at the time was bagging groceries, which his father seems somewhat embarassed by.
Buzz writes his story with brutal honesty, and doesn't always look good as a result. During their road trip (to visit places they've lived in the past), he sometimes loses patience with Zach, and yells at him, and there are times when I actually got mad at him, as Zach is doing the best he can. Then I realized that I have no idea how I would handle myself in a similar situation, and shouldn't judge the father at all. It can't be easy, and I also applaud Buzz for keeping Zach at home through high school, and finding him the best schools and teachers he could. (After high school, it's decided Zach will be better off living with his mother).
At the time of the road trip, Zach is 24. He doesn't particularly like car rides, but appeases his father in going on the trip, and there are certain people and places he's excited to see. He's also an avid map collector, and is a great help at times when they get lost (another of his extradordinary abilities).
To sum the book up, I would say the road trip is more of Buzz coming to accept his son as he is, and he seems to become far more patient and understanding with him by the end. The book is very well written, and there is some humor sprinkled throughout. I have 2 friends who have children like Zach, who also kept them home, and reading this book was also a bit of a learning experience for me. I am glad I read it, and highly recommend it.
On a hot Saturday in August 1983, Debra Bissinger gave birth to the author's twin sons, Zach and Gerry, each thirteen and a half weeks premature, each weighing fewer than two pounds. Gerry came first, followed by Zach three minutes later. During those fleeting moments, Zach could not breathe properly, which resulted in brain damage that rendered him intellectually challenged and permanently disabled.
Mr. Bissinger, a former Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author of several books, including Friday Night Lights, fell into bitterness and self-reproach when his sons arrived in the world before their time. The scion of an affluent, Ivy-League educated family that founded a New York investment banking firm, Mr. Bissinger was despondent because he knew that Zach could never achieve the professional success and social prominence expected by his own parents and similar-minded relatives. Mr. Bissinger brooded -- for himself, his wife and newborns, and the family ideal that would elude them forever.
Mr. Bissinger retraces the disintegration of his marriage with Debra, even as their microscopic babies lie in an incubator under the all-day and every-night lights of Pennsylvania Hospital's Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit in Philadelphia. Accompanied by the whirring and beeping of high-tech machinery, the parents stood by helplessly as their boys held on to life tethered to medical paraphernalia. Gerry escaped the NICU weeks after he was born. Zach stayed behind for seven months.
Two decades later, Gerry blossomed into a bright and sensitive man with a degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Zach toiled as a Pizza Hut janitor, a supermarket clerk, and an error-prone minion at a big law firm, all jobs that embarrassed his father. After a shopping excursion with Zach at Brooks Brothers, Mr. Bissinger conceived of the idea of taking Zach on a cross-country motor trip. He intended this to be a bonding experience for father and son, as well as an inspiration for a stalled literary career the author hoped to revive.
In vivid detail, Father's Day brings readers into the backseat of a rented minivan that the Bissingers drove in a circuitous route that revisited different places they lived, from Chicago to Milwaukee to Odessa, Texas. Along the way, Zach is revealed as a savant with an unerring ability to recall names, numbers and birthdays. He understands and loves his irascible, foul-mouthed father, even when Mr. Bissinger is incapable of locating thoughtlessly misplaced recording equipment or his way off of freeway exit ramps.
The father-son-journey has happy moments, including a day frolicking in a Six Flags amusement park outside St. Louis and a reunion with Gerry at the end of the trip in Los Angeles. Their expedition is also one of quiet despair, including a Las Vegas "dream date" that dissolves into an alcohol-fueled meltdown by the endlessly dissatisfied father.
While the meaning of this experience to him remains somewhat vague, Mr. Bissinger seems to have gained a new appreciation of the worth of both of his sons, as well as for ex-wife Debra, who the author extends wistful credit for her qualities as a mother and partner in parenthood. In writing a book as intensely personal as Father's Day, Mr. Bissinger himself deserves much credit. He is unsparing in his candor. One can surmise that he wants to challenge his readers to re-examine whatever unfair scars trouble their own lives. Whether or not Mr. Bissinger's career ambitions are satisfied by this book, Father's Day is his most important work to date.
In reading Father's Day, I had more than Mr. Bissinger's own words to enlighten me. In August 1983 and throughout Zach and Gerry's first days of life, my first wife Cynthia dedicated herself to helping Zach, Gerry, Debra and Buzz as part of the nursing team at the Pennsylvania Hospital's NICU. Day after day, Cindy lived through and shared with me the ups-and-downs of the Bissingers' encounter with the limitations of neonatal science in the 1980s. Along with her colleagues, Cindy gave all that she had to comfort parents in distress, many of whom, like Debra Bissinger, became her friend. Despite Mr. Bissinger's attempt to erase the "heartbreak" of the NICU from his mind, he does recall and gracefully acknowledge the generosity of spirit that thawed the cold, dehumanizing place into which his children were born.
Twenty years ago this July -- nine years after Zach and Gerry were born -- Cindy died at age 33 of ovarian cancer. Caregiver turned dying patient, Cindy cherished the affection and attention she received from young nurses her own age. Zach and Gerry will never know her, and Debra and Buzz are unlikely to remember her clearly through the haze of time, but Cindy will forever live on in me, my wife Danielle and our eight-year-old daughter -- who now carries Cynthia's name and legacy into the 21st century.
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