Father's Day: Across America with an Unusual Dad and His Extraordinary Son
In the summer of 1983, Buzz Bissinger and his first wife had twin boys who were 13 1/2 weeks premature. Gerry, the firstborn, was one pound and 14 ounces. Three minutes later, Zach was born and weighed three ounces less. That slight discrepancy in their birth order has made all the difference in their lives. Zach suffered irreparable brain damage due to insufficient oxygen.
Gerry led a normal childhood, Zach did not. Gerry attended regular schools, Zach went to special schools. Many experts tested and retested Zach, and several diagnoses were attached to his condition. But whether the diagnosis was autism, trace brain damage, savant, or mental retardation, the end result was the same: Zach would lead a rather limited life and would never be independent.
"FATHER'S DAY is brutally honest, extremely well written, at times amusing, occasionally spirit-lifting, and always a page-turner. This reviewer is glad the author chose to open his heart and share his love, concern, pain and joy with readers."
FATHER’S DAY begins when the twins are 24. Gerry is in graduate school, and his future looks rosy. Zach, who is living with his mother, works two part-time jobs --- bagging groceries at a supermarket and delivering mail at a law firm. He is unable to live alone or drive a car. Marriage and fatherhood are not part of his future. He has no interest in current events. He studies maps and asks every person he meets where they live and when their birthday is. He thrives on routine, and any deviation from it is cause for alarm.
Since his divorce from the twins' mother, Buzz doesn't see much of the boys. He is busy pursuing, with great success, a writing career. The relationship he has with Zach is not what he wants it to be. He believes that they need to spend time together --- and a large block of it --- to see if there can be some type of breakthrough for them, some connection that thus far has remained elusive. Buzz decides that a cross-country car trip is just the ticket. Zach is reluctant; he doesn't like riding in a car and would prefer to fly. He has absolutely no interest in seeing the sights along the way, such as the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam or Wall Drug. Because of his amazing memory, he collects facts --- bits of data that once learned are never forgotten. After much discussion and a promise by Buzz to stop at amusement parks whenever possible, Zach acquiesces. It is further decided the trip will include stops at all the places where Buzz and Zach have lived. Zach's memory will certainly come alive as he recognizes schools, stores, and homes from his past.
A journey by rented, rattling minivan from Philadelphia to Los Angeles with one driver and one navigator is a very ambitious undertaking for any two people under the best of circumstances. For father and son, two men who inhabit very different worlds, it is a test of patience and endurance. As the road trip begins, Buzz is antsy. He has some reservations that the trip may not have the outcome he hopes for, but is determined that they will have an enjoyable and memorable time. Zach is not a relaxed passenger as he fiddles with his maps and stares out the window.
Miles upon miles of concrete connect Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Hours and hours in the car. Mind-numbing hours of quiet. The folding and unfolding of the maps. Directions given hesitantly. A driver's boredom and growing frustration. Still the minivan rattles and rolls along. The first overnight stop is near Pittsburgh, and already the two men have run out of conversation. This will be a very long trip.
The next day they drive across Ohio headed to Chicago. Father and son are having a conversation of sorts. Zach admits that he knows his brain isn't right, which hits Buzz hard. Buzz can never gauge what Zach is thinking or just how much he understands. But Zach does know; in his own way, he intuits that he is quite different from everyone else, even from his twin brother.
They visit the Tribune building in Chicago where Buzz used to work. Here Zach remembers that in 1991 he spent the entire day in that building. A veritable flood of fact-based memories tumble from Zach's lips as he taps into his unique memory. (His thought processes are similar to Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man.) The miles of concrete continue. Now the men are in Milwaukee. Buzz realizes that the route they’ll be taking will not be scenic but is unprepared for visiting old memories, which he’d like to avoid. Zach is relishing details and memories from the past. Buzz frustrates easily, and Zach knows when to be quiet and when to distract his father. He is aware for perhaps the first time that Zach senses people's moods and frustrations.
There are high moments on the journey, Six Flags being one of them. After thoroughly checking out the thrills and frights of several roller coasters, they decide to try Dragon's Wing, which is a tandem bungee jump. They are frightened, thrilled, and energized by the jump. It is a special moment of connection for father and son --- a huge deposit in the memory banks of both men.
Back in the minivan, the journey across time and place continues. And here the reader may continue the journey at his or her own pace. FATHER'S DAY is brutally honest, extremely well written, at times amusing, occasionally spirit-lifting, and always a page-turner. This reviewer is glad the author chose to open his heart and share his love, concern, pain and joy with readers. The world is a better place because in it there is a friendly, slightly awkward young man named Zach who knows who he is and wants to know when your birthday is and where you live. If you ever meet Zach, one thing is certain: He will remember you. And he hopes you will remember him, too.
Reviewed by Carole Turner on June 15, 2012