Twin sons were born prematurely to Buzz and Debra in August of 1983. Here’s how the author of Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger records first sight of his son Zach:
Doctors and nurses surrounded him in a tight circle. He was a bloody quiver in their hands, born thirteen and half weeks too soon and weighing one pound and eleven ounces. They held him with their arms high and outstretched almost as if they were offering him as a sacrifice. They held him ever so gently as if he might break into a thousand pieces or just crumble into dust. His skin was almost translucent. His arms could snap in two like a wishbone. His fingers could break like the point of a pencil. His legs were tissue paper. They knew the odds of his survival were very low. I also knew that if he survived, he would not remotely be the son I wanted. I had little clue about medicine, but it was irrelevant to the obvious: any baby born so many weeks prematurely, with immediate difficulty breathing, looking the way he did like a weightless feather, would suffer long-term effects (4-5).
Bissinger’s candid statement, “he would not remotely be the son I wanted,” seems harsh, and he knows it. His new memoir, Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, is his struggle in print to accept the radically distinct destinies of his twins. Born first, Gerry would grow into a normal, rather accomplished adult. Deprived of oxygen and delivered three minutes later, Zach would not:
His IQ, which has been measured far too many times, is about 70, with verbal scores in the normal range of 90, but with performance skills of about 50. I love my son deeply, but I do not feel I know him nor do I think I ever will. His mind is not simple. It is limited to a degree that profoundly frustrates me, but it is also inexplicably wondrous at certain moments. I have dedicated my life trying to fathom its inner workings.
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, meaning 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, I also run. I run out of guilt. I run because he was robbed and I feel robbed. I run because of my 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? (3).
And then Buzz Bissinger proffers an answer that applies to every father, every parent, though certainly not in degree of intensity. “Because I do. Because I think we all do when confronted with difference, reality versus expectation never at peace or even truce.”
Being a Father is a sundering. One brings something of one’s self into the world, and yet it is not one’s self. It can never be one’s self. Its destiny is to come from the Father, to go out from the Father. “It is strange to love someone so much who is still so fundamentally mysterious to you after all these years.”
In a somber mood, all of life seems a sundering, but when the surrender involves a part of one’s self, one’s own child, how can the renunciation not rend the soul? To father a child is to give away a part of the self, and every prosaic act of parenting is preparation for the sailing forth that must come.
God describes his own parenting of Israel as tearing away a tender shoot and planting it so that it can “put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar” (Ez 17: 22-23). And of course the mystery of the mustard seed is the furtive future hidden in the tiny grain (Mk 4: 26-34). Only God knows. Only God knows what will come. Such a small statement of truth, yet how deeply it expresses the fundamental frustration of parenting, of the human experience itself. Only God knows.
Perhaps one can draw an analogy to American bishops in their opposition to the HHS mandate. It is not the proper, “parental” role of government to decide what constitutes a religious institution. Like a parent, the government must always err on the side of caution, granting as much freedom for self-determination as possible.
Bissinger’s book is about a cross-country road trip that he took with his adult son Zach. It’s not idyl to the joy of parenthood. On the road, Buzz and Zach frequently annoy and frustrate each other, and Buzz is surprised to learn how often his son’s choices diverge from his own. Even an adult child like Zach is not a child.
So much of his life had been spent in captivity — me, his mother, his teachers, other adults — to corral his behavior within acceptable bounds. To declare himself, to protect himself and stand up for himself in front of his father, took courage. It was also his way of signifying his separation from me.
Seeds scatter. They grow. They do the first in order to accomplish the second. It’s a truth every father learns, and one that God has always known.
Rev. Terrance W. Klein