The morning heat was thick enough to clog a drinking straw. The sun had just risen and already was lifting steam from the grass beyond the porch screen. Our Brazilian parrot whistled and trilled a stream of Portuguese profanity in his cage. I’d awoken early after staying up most of the night reading in order to sit on the screened-in porch with my father.
Beside me, dad folded the newspaper into fourths. He’d been up for hours. I’d heard him stirring as I was drifting off “last night”. He had already made coffee, fed and walked the greyhounds, showered, dressed. He smelled of lemon aftershave and soap, chicory and cigarettes. His clothes were neat and tidy, a blend of prep school teacher and boot camp graduate. I planned to read myself back to sleep after he left for his first period class.
Neither of us was doing much talking on this porch in south Florida on a late fall morning. We’re never all that chatty together, either of us.
My eyes burned from lack of sleep and too much reading the night before. It must’ve been before my 26th year, because I hadn’t quit smoking yet and I hadn’t started teaching English at a prep school in Kentucky. That made it 1995 or earlier.
Soon, my job would evolve into his job; my course reading lists would look more and more like his, more and more like the courses he taught me at home and in school when I was his student in English classes.
My memory might be mixing things up, might be blending all this together, but even on that morning I felt a deep sense of comfort and familiarity. This had happened before, would happen again, and was who we were as father and son.
I wasn’t fully awake yet.
He clicked his four-colored ballpoint pen and slid it back into his shirt pocket.
“Here,” dad said, handing me the newspaper. He had circled a paragraph in red ink. I read the paragraph with a strange little thrill in my gut, looking for the misprint, the error, the inadvertent innuendo.
This was how I learned grammar. Sure, I was taught the rules in a classroom or across the kitchen table, but I really learned grammar on these mornings when dad marked a passage and said, “Notice anything funny about that?”
The newsprint. The paper. The red ink. The way the words moved and slid around the page under the pressure of possibility and my gaze and dad’s authority and soon of my authority and his gaze.
No one taught me more about writing than my father. Long before I was dad’s student in the 11th and 12th grades, dad taught me the mechanics of writing.
“There’s a rabbit and there’s a hole,” he said, by way of explaining prepositions. “The rabbit can go in the hole, down the hole, up the hole…”
No one enjoyed grammar as much as dad. Grammar made him giggle. Turned him on.
Dad also taught me about style. “Maybe using a comma as a conjunction so often is a little confusing for the reader,” he would say. “I get what you’re trying to do, just be careful and be clear.”
Great advice at any level.
Every morning for two years and the summer in between I had my dad for class first thing in the morning. Expository Writing, American Lit, American Studies … I came away from them all with a head full of Sandburg and Steinbeck and the sound of my father’s voice and a burgeoning sense of my own.
At a time when school was a growing aggravation between awkward dates and increasingly frequent drinking binges, I used to sit front and center in dad’s classes. I heard — really heard — every word he said. Looking back on a time filled with anxiety and drunkenness, the mornings in dad’s class are illuminated in a soft light.
Dad had his share of quirks in class. He tended toward oddball metaphors about “the bird of paradise” and “the glass bicycle with the jelly seat.” He demonstrated flicking cigarettes like Walter Mitty by using his thumb, forefinger, and a piece of chalk. Most of all, he relished reading out loud the descriptions of women from the books he’d assigned us.
He’d read a description of Hester Prynne on the pillory or Rose of Sharon saving a starving man, and every guy in the room would be blushing and clearing his throat. He turned me and a lot of others on to reading and writing. Though he assigned mostly books written by men, he loved strong, beautiful women characters. (Later he’d introduce me to a strong, beautiful character, my future wife. It was the one and only time he intervened in my dating life. The man has good taste.)
When I received an invitation to drop out of college and work on a newspaper in an Alaskan fishing village, dad said, “Sounds like something Mark Twain would do.”
He quoted Emerson like other parents quoted the Bible or their parents. Quoted Emerson, explained Emerson, lived Emerson.
Thanks to dad, Natty Bumppo ran beside me in the woods long before I’d read any of Cooper’s novels.
Mostly, though, dad taught me that writing is fun and important. That reading and writing are a way of life. That words change lives. He taught me that narrative has the power to guide and to heal.
In 2001, while training for an AIDS benefit bicycle ride across Montana, my dad was struck by a van. The driver was stoned and drunk. Vomit covered his feet and the floor of his vehicle. Dad was up before dawn, riding and riding and riding. One of the accident investigators suggested that the driver had seen all the lights and reflectors on dad’s rig and was drawn toward them, across three lanes.
The doctors weren’t sure if dad would come out of the coma. They weren’t sure if he’d ever breathe on his own. They weren’t sure if he’d remember his family. They weren’t sure of a lot of things. One doctor compared dad’s brain to a desktop computer. “If you drop a PC from a second story window,” the doctor said, “you can’t put it back together again.”
Dad put it back together again by telling stories, long, rambling, delicious stories. As soon as he got that breathing tube out of his throat, he started telling stories. They didn’t make much sense at first, and many seemed to be more about fear and anxiety than any narrative, but pretty soon he started getting the hang of it again — started being clear and careful with his words.
The more dad talked, the more he remembered. The more he remembered, the more he talked. In those early months after his accident, I’d stay up all night with a novel on my lap and a hand on his arm, watching him, listening, making sure he hadn’t pulled out the tubes or stopped breathing or fallen out of bed. When he wasn’t sleeping, he’d sip thickened water through a straw and talk and I’d listen. If I noticed anything funny, I’d point it out and we’d both laugh. Every once and a while I’d give him a nudge or a bump with a piece of information, a reminder, a correction, a little verbal red ink to keep the stories flowing.
Less than 12 hours after dad’s accident, I had been sitting in small, private waiting room reserved for the families of people in the trauma unit.
“We got very lucky today,” someone said.
I just stared in disbelief, simmering.
“He could’ve died,” I said.
“But he didn’t.”
We did get lucky. We were blessed. Are lucky. Are blessed. Dad pulled through, battered but not broken. He’s still with us nine years later.
“There’s a rabbit and there’s a hole,” I imagine him saying every day. “The rabbit can go in the hole, down the hole, up the hole…”
Or the rabbit can do something wholly unexpected with the hole or to the hole.
It was Father’s Day recently, and like many sons and daughters I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad. He’s neither perfect nor horribly flawed. He’s simultaneously my hero, my friend, and a guy I don’t see nearly often enough. I have regrets and I am sure he has some regrets, but everyone does. He’s one heck of a teacher and a man. He’s survived a stroke, heart attack, brain damage, and the loss of his ability to do the thing he loves, classroom teaching, and through all that he’s lived by stories and taught by stories and loved by stories. And this one’s his.