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Father's Day: A Journey Into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son - Buzz Bissinger

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Genre: Travel / Author: Buzz Bissinger / Hardcover / Publication Date: 2012 / Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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      12.08.2012 17:31
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      A painfully honest account of a road trip with high achieving father and mentally disabled son

      Buzz Bissinger is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who has a mentally disabled son called Zach who is now in his late 20s. Zach is the younger of Bissinger's twin sons who were born 13 weeks early. Zach was born a mere 3 minutes after his brother Gerry but the difference between them in adulthood is stark.

      Gerry is a student at Penn University and plans on becoming a teacher. Zach has spent his childhood attending special schools and retains a childlike innocence well into adulthood and has an IQ of 50. This is painful for his father to deal with - he's a high achieving, intellectual titan who is faced with a son who speaks as if punctuation doesn't exist.

      Zachary has one incredible gift however - he is fascinated by maps and has an acute sense of direction, along with a memory as reliable as a good quality computer hard drive. His navigational skills are so good that his father suggests a road trip from Zach's home city of Philadelphia to Los Angeles, taking in places that have meaning for both father and son along the way. Zach is initially reluctant as he would prefer to fly but Buzz gets his own way, planning a trip that takes in places that both men have visited in the past.

      Buzz Bissinger is an incredibly gifted writer, and this memoir is both searingly honest and captivating. What struck me most about the book is the almost reversal in roles between Buzz and Zach. As the parent of an autistic child I had expected "Father's Day" to feature meltdowns from Zach and Buzz describing coping strategies for dealing with them. The meltdowns however do not come from Zach but from Buzz himself whether it be over getting lost in Chicago or leaving a camera bag containing irreplaceable content outside a hotel in St Louis.

      It's hard for a parent to admit to their shortcomings but Buzz does this throughout the book - with admissions of failure on his part throughout. Perhaps his biggest shortcoming is immediately blaming Zach when something goes wrong as opposed to immediately accepting responsibility himself. Zach is an uncomplicated man who doesn't deal with emotions when he speaks. Although he shows some traits of an autistic person his genuine interest in people seems to have precluded that diagnosis.

      Buzz also admits to how difficult being father to such a low achieving child was for him and how he eventually passed most of the responsibility on to Zach's mother.

      The conversations which Buzz has with Zach are written verbatim and work far better for it, giving the reader a genuine insight into Zach's nature. Buzz has several deep conversations with his son about things such as his divorce from Zach's mother and the fact Zach nearly died at birth. Zach's answers tend to be very short and truncated and lacking in much in the way of emotional understanding but there are times when his understanding of his situation is staggeringly clear. When his father asks him in conversation if he knows that his brain is "not a little right", Zach answers that yes he knows and that it makes him a little sad.

      The simplicity of Zach's responses initially hide that sadness but when his father perseveres he admits that he feels that sadness most over not being able to go to school like his brother did, revealing a level of understanding his father hadn't previously noticed. What his father and the reader cannot fail to spot is a complete lack of any self-pity on his son's part however.

      It's all too easy to be inspired by people who have challenges put in front of them which they overcome but what I find inspirational about Zach is how he uses his gifts of navigation and recall to teach his father that you can be successful without winning a Pulitzer Prize or getting top grades in education. He also somehow prises out of his father admissions of his own failure - including a particularly ill-fated spell in Hollywood as a TV writer - which come across as both painful yet therapeutic for Buzz. Zach doesn't have deep and meaningful conversations with his father which bring out these revelations however - it is his manner and his limitations which are the catalysts for them.

      For all the road trip aspect of the book this isn't really a travelogue - it's more a book about coming to terms with having a child who can reach their full potential as an adult even if the potential isn't what you would have hoped for.

      I really enjoyed it but as I came to the end I realised it was because Zach is, quite simply, a magnificent person. Buzz's realisation of this is a revelation too. It's not that he doesn't love his son as it's evident throughout the book that he does, it's just that it takes a while for him to realise that his son doesn't have to be top of his year in grad school to be magnificent.

      It is painful in places to read - especially when Buzz is in the middle of one of his frequent meltdowns or is in danger of succumbing to self-pity himself. However his self-awareness is to be commended along with his refusal to sugar coat his feelings about parenting a child who will, in his own words, never drive a car or kiss a girl. What Bissinger leaves the reader with is a sense that none of those things matter along with a realisation of a far better understanding between father and son - with father being the one who learned the most.

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