Saturday, June 19, 2010

Call To My Father

Dear friends, today I am going to try to do something I don't know that I can do in the context of a blog, though I very much want to. I am going to try to write about my father.

I lost my dad on June 20, 1995, when he was fifty-five years old, and I was thirty-two. For years he had suffered from heart disease. A week before he died, knowing only that he wasn't doing very well, I went out to North Carolina to see him; I asked his doctor the prognosis, and was told my father had six months to live. My dad and I spent a wonderful week together, talking. Then I went home to check on things, telling him I would be back very soon. As soon as I got home to Texas I began looking into the possibility of a heart transplant for my father, something he had never wanted to do ("What if I get the heart of a bad person?") but was now, at long last, beginning to consider. I called him to tell him what I'd found out, and this is what we said to each other:

"Daddy, what are you doing?"

"I've been working."

"Daddy, why are you working? You need to rest. You work too hard."

"But if I don't work, I start thinking . . . about . . ."

"Daddy, Daddy, listen to me, I don't want you to go. I want you to stay. Please, I want you to stay. You have to fight to stay. You have to fight."

"I know, I know, but I don't know how."

"You need a new heart. Daddy, I would give you my heart if I could. Do you hear me? I would give you my heart."

At this point we both started crying, and my mom had to take the phone away.

I have to stop here now, for a minute.


We were able to get back on the line together, and talk about a transplant. He had been looking into this, too (this was all so much harder in those days before the internet). The last words we said to each other were, "I love you." Twenty hours later my father went into cardiac arrest. I flew to North Carolina, and fell into my mother's arms, telling her I should have stayed, my last words to my father shouldn't have been over a telephone. No, she told me. You know how he loved to talk on the phone. You know how it was easier for him to talk on the phone than to say anything face to face. You know you would never, never have had that conversation any other way.

And she was right.


My dad loved phones. Before he died, every Wednesday afternoon he would call me. Every Wednesday he would phone me to see how my writing was going, and every Wednesday I would tell him how hard it was, how I was struggling, trying to find the right words and sentences, trying to make the story come alive. My father, being a businessman in the shipping and transportation industry, didn't quite understand why I couldn't just slap the words down, box the pages up and send them out into the world. But still, every Wednesday he called, to see how my work was going . . .

My father died before any of my books were published. Before he left us, I didn't know, I didn't feel how real life was, how much it meant, and what it was: brief, exact, vivid. When he died, I wrote his eulogy, and it was the first piece of exact writing I'd ever composed. It was the first time I understood that a writer's responsibility is not just to make pleasing shapes and sounds and tales, but to capture with blunt honesty the life of a human being. Within six months of my father's death I finished my first novel. Within twelve it was accepted for publication. My mother gave me my creativity, my love of stories, my joy in people and my thirsty imagination. But my father, who till the end got up every time he was knocked down, knew how to go it alone when he had to and knew what it was to stare at the absolute, made me a writer.


When it came time to write my second novel, I wrote it for and about my dad. This is something I've never talked about publicly, until now.

My father didn't live to see me published--but he never had any doubt that I would be. That last week we spent together before he died, he told me story after story, and I made sure he saw me write them down, so that he would know: I will try to see that your stories will not be forgotten, that they will not disappear. He told me about hiding under a table and secretly scrawling a sentence into the wood. He told me how during the war he had wandered the ruins of Rotterdam, and found a bloody shoe. He told me how his father, a Nazi collaborator, was later caught, and how the entire family was punished, including my small father, only six years old. He told me how, as a fifty-year-old businessman, he was invited one day to lunch at a Rotterdam hotel--and didn't realize until he got there that it was his childhood prison, renovated. He told me he ate lunch in a daze, unable to speak of it with his colleague.

But when The Deadwood Beetle was published six years after my father's death, and dedicated For Carl, only those closest to me knew it was for and about my father. Because I was unable to speak of it. Six years after his death I still couldn't talk about him; I knew that if I tried, I would have to be led from the stage, or the bookstore, or the university hall, a wreck. And so I told no one. The stories were what mattered then. The telling of them. The recording. But I will say it now. The Deadwood Beetle is for and about my father.

My mom told me that once my dad said, frustrated, "She wants to be a writer so badly. And there's no way I can help her."

But you did, Daddy. You did.


As my father lay in the hospital on a breathing machine at the very end, his heartbeat fading away, we "talked" by phone one last time. As I raced to an airplane I stopped and sent him a fax--there was no internet, no email, no texting, then--and my mother, because the nurse said he might still be able to hear, read my words into his ear. I want to shout them out now:

"I am so proud of you, Daddy. And I am so proud of my love for you."

To fathers everywhere: you make us, even when you don't know that you do.

Thank you. Thank you. Daddy.

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