The memoir Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son provides a rare insight into the world of a savant. Zach was born 13½ weeks early and weighed less than two pounds. While his twin brother Gerry escaped immediate harm, Zach wasn’t as fortunate. A lack of oxygen to his brain caused some brain damage. "I love my son deeply," Bissinger writes, 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."
Now 24, Zach (who currently volunteers eight hours a week at The Inquirer and The Daily News) possesses the comprehension of a nine-year-old, but he’s amazing at remembering names, places, and especially dates. One evening, Bissinger meets him in the city to do some shopping. At the Barnes and Noble on Walnut Street, while the two are looking at maps, a plan comes together: a cross-country road trip.
It turns out to be a great idea, albeit one full of expected and unexpected challenges. How well will Zach handle sitting in the car for so long? What will they talk about? Sure enough, it becomes a real struggle. Bissinger recorded their car-ride conversations, and he quotes Zach verbatim and without punctuation to capture his voice on the page. It’s a smart and telling journalistic decision, one that celebrates Zach’s natural exuberance. The journey has its ups and downs.
A stop in Chicago provides the opportunity for some reflection:
We have eaten dinner, and I am drunk. I needed to get drunk. The trip has not been easy. The driving is often exhausting. Zach is often exhausting. There have been moments of surprising awareness and self-awareness, like the sun peeking out between the clouds, only to be hidden by them again. I love his savantism. I hate his savantism. I feel exalted with him. I feel stuck with him.
They visit places they have previously lived, see old friends, go bungee jumping, and even stop in Texas to visit a troubled man we first met in Friday Night Lights. Perhaps inevitably, Father’s Day is more about Bissinger than his son, and the author is prone to the occasional diatribe:
Zach is one of millions. It is a despicable situation, since these children should be a priority of our government, instead of the billions spent on futile wars. Many of them, with help, are capable of work and social integration. It is our moral obligation to make them into productive citizens. But without the assistance they deserve, they will always live outside the world or at best on the bare fringes of it. They will remain among the unwanted.
While he’s certainly right here, I don’t get the sense that Bissinger fully appreciates how fortunate Zach really is. Imagine what it’s like for the millions of families trying to find adequate care for their brain-damaged children without royalty checks from Friday Night Lights.
To his credit, though, Bissinger doesn’t sugarcoat his struggles to accept Zach. He’s not afraid to be honest and ends up dedicating as much attention to his own personal failings as to the moments of connection with Zach, and that’s what makes Father’s Day so powerful.
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.
Andrew Ervin is the author of "Extraordinary Renditions," a collection of three novellas. He lives in Manayunk.