One Sunday morning during my senior year of high school, my father gave me a gift.
“I think you can write,” he said, “But you need to go to school to learn how to do it right.”
I’d just earned an honorable mention in a contest sponsored by the magazine we used as our Sunday school curriculum. Daddy taught the class that year with Leon, my gravelly-voiced next-door neighbor, both unlikely partners in discerning the spiritual needs of sullen teens.
The magazine offered stories about teens facing typical challenges – bullies, drugs, sex and friendships – with God helping them navigate this perilous world. Though I’d had plenty of experience with bullies, I never used drugs, didn’t play a sport, and would no more discuss sex with my father than with my priest – though I do remember a supper table conversation about both drugs and sex, with my sister and me yearning to crawl under the linoleum to escape our embarrassment.
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It’s likely everyone who entered that contest earned honorable mention, but finding the letter in the mail from Youth Magazine felt to me like I’d won the sweepstakes. I’d dreamed of being writer since I was about 6, no matter that I had no idea how to become one. I’d tried my hand at algebra and knew where my future didn’t lie. But diagramming sentences? Like designing beautiful buildings to me.
My father knew this and knew, too, that a smattering of talent didn’t mean much without study. And work. Two things I was not particularly good at. Give me a notebook and pencil and the muse would come, right? I was fairly sure typing was not required.
But when Daddy talked, we listened. And so in due time I found myself in college creative writing and journalism classes – finally immersed in equations I understood.
Isn’t that what we all look for as children, to have our fathers articulate the one thing we feel secretly called to and give us permission to try?
He may have rued that long-ago Sunday, when my talent for storytelling led me to write his own. On Father’s Day 1997, the story of his life held my byline in this newspaper, a few days after he retired from practicing medicine for more than 40 years. Daddy hated to travel but made sure to be on vacation in Alaska, of all places, when the story ran.
My father’s distrust of journalists in general and his daughter in particular forced me to submit my questions in advance. Would I embellish the truth of him? For weeks, he studied the questions, and when we finally sat down, he pulled the dog-eared paper from his pocket and wouldn’t answer any question not already there.
In the years since, I’ve written many articles, even a book or two, but no story has been as important to me as his.
When he lay dying two years ago, I turned to words to pull me through the fear.
Whenever a caregiver came into his hospital room, I told them all about the physician who lay there, wanting to “story him well, if that makes sense,” I wrote of that time.
Only sometimes, no matter how much we revise, there is no ending, but what is.
On that last day of his life, I read to him our old story – about a boy who loved magic tricks who grew up to perform a bit of magic on his patients.
“So with the sleight of his magician’s hand, he will end the show,” I wrote back then, the words catching in my throat as I read them, words appropriate for retiring, and in fact, for dying.
My father was. That sentence took some getting used to; for so long I could say, my father is. He was a private man who lived a public life, ironically, caring for his patients in their own most private spaces. People knew part of him because he entered their lives at their worst moments and with caring and training tried to heal.
He told me once that most of his patients would get better on their own. This truth holds for grief, too. Yet there are moments, like remembering halfway through browsing the Father’s Day cards that you don’t need one. Or the days when you hear Scott Joplin’s “Solace” on the radio and see him in his chair, tapping his taut fingers, and you so want to pick up the phone. Instead you take in the song and spend a quiet minute with the memory of the man who loved it so, knowing he is listening with you somehow.
And you wait for the gift of dreams, however fleeting, when he sits beside you in his best suit, saying, “Go do it. And do it well.”
Susan Byrum Rountree is director of communications for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh. She is the author of “Nags Headers” and “In Mother Words” and blogs at writemuch.blogspot.com