I did not think about it too much until I was watching my Dad dying, but I bet my fascination with newspapers came from him. Or, as I once put it in a column I wrote, “I have ink in my veins due to my father.”
Why is this a big deal to me?
I entered the writing field, became a liberal (a pacifist even), and protested against societal norms in my own way because I wanted to rebel against my conservative, engineer father. He wanted me to be a computer scientist. He wanted me to see why President Reagan was right and I was wrong. I wouldn’t give in to his rhetorical pushes. It wasn’t stubbornness; I just felt sure I was right and he was wrong. And he disagreed.
This scenario repeated itself for years. He would bring home the libertarian Orange County Register, the conservative Wall Street Journal, and the more liberal Los Angeles Times. He’d get home from work about seven and be asleep by nine. But during that time, we’d both pore through the newspapers. If he saw an article or column that reflected some point he wanted to make, or reinforced his argument, he’d rip it out and hand it to me. And I’d do the same to him. Many was the day when I would wake to find a stack of dog-eared newspapers on the kitchen counter waiting to be read by me so I could learn the error of my ways – about Reagan, the Star Wars initiative, etc. At night we would debate the issues over whatever food he picked up on the way home. God, I miss those conversations. Now when I pick up a newspaper each day or see a stack of unread newspapers, I think of him.
Maybe I didn’t become a Republican or enter the sciences. I worked in a profession he may not have shown respect for (many was the time he rallied against reporters for oversimplifying issues), but one he appreciated.
The first day I saw him in the hospital after he got cancer, I brought a newspaper with me. I think it was the Los Angeles Times. I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to talk to him and figured we could always discuss the articles. I quickly set the newspaper aside when I saw how dire the situation was. The cancer had advanced, and an experimental procedure had backfired. He tried hard that morning to talk. Maybe too hard. I worry he pushed himself too much to talk to me and to others when he should have been resting. He asked about the newspaper and I read a little bit to him, but he would fall asleep mid-sentence and wake with a jerk 15 minutes later. He was polite about it: “What was that you were saying? Please repeat.” But we gave up eventually.
The next morning, a new edition of the L.A. Times was lying on a table by his bed. At one point I asked if he wanted to read it and he said he couldn’t focus on it enough. I offered to read it to him but he said that wouldn’t do because he couldn’t concentrate. The papers piled up for the next two days, like so many unaddressed issues and emotions. I just stopped setting them by his bed.
I joined him for dinner in his hospital room. During the meal he suggested we watch the local television news, something totally unheard of in our past relationship. He hated local television news, even more than I do. But again, because of his health and the drugs, he kept falling asleep. Finally I turned it off. And it was the last time we watched television together.
I flashed back to the times we would watch television programs together. He would hold the L.A. Times in front of him as if he was reading it, but if there was something entertaining to him on the TV, he wouldn’t let on he was viewing it. After about five minutes, one could conclude that the Peanuts cartoon in front of him was either pretty damn fascinating or else he was indeed watching the wacky show.
Who knows what he was thinking and feeling during his last few days when he couldn’t speak because he was intubated and medicated, but I made a point of reading the newspapers just like old times, as if somehow that would help. Like him, though, I had trouble concentrating. He asked for the newspapers to be left by his side whenever I would go away for a break but they were untouched when I’d return. The last time I left a newspaper was the last time we discussed the articles.
Within a week he was dead and I flew from California back to Maryland, where I returned to work. At some point I realized I could no longer rebel against him since he was no longer there, and I found myself emulating the parts of his personality that I admired. In the months after his death, I would find myself interviewing someone and hear a reference to engineers and I’d think of him. I’ll read an article or an editorial and think, “Dad would get a kick out of this.” And then I remember he’s gone and feel like someone kicked me in the stomach. And for a minute, my world seems to slow down and I get mad at others for moving at a regular pace as if things haven’t changed so much for me. Then I resume working, knowing that he’s up there looking down on his reporter son, cranking out more stories that, one day, we can discuss and debate. I owe him that, I think.
So here, Dad, is one more to set aside for future discussion.