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My Son, Myself: A Father's Cross Country Journey With a Son He Doesn't Understand

When your child has special needs, the questions faced by all parents are morphed, magnified and writ large.
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Gerry and Zach Bissinger were born three minutes apart in 1983, and those minutes made all the difference. They arrived nearly three months early; while the fact that either survived defies medical odds, Gerry, the oldest, was left with no impairments, while Zach, the youngest, was deprived of oxygen while waiting to exit, and will forever function at the cognitive level of an 8-year-old.

"The three minutes that define my twins, and the three minutes that define me," is how their father, the writer Buzz Bissinger (whom you probably know best as the author of "Friday Night Lights"), described them in an interview. Those three minutes mean "everything is accentuated when Zach does it, all the normal questions and firsts."

They mean that Gerry went to college, and then earned a PhD in education, while Zach attended special schools and has jobs where he bags groceries and organizes office supplies. That Gerry is buying a home and working as a teacher and dating a woman, while Zach will never drive a car, or live on his own, or have a family. And they mean that Buzz is reminded every day of what it means to be a parent.

There are universalities of parenting -- moments of frustration, joy, doubt and acceptance which might differ in the particulars from one family to the next, but the generalities of which come into all our lives. When your child has special needs, then you live morphed and magnified versions of those moments. That is the message I took from Buzz Bissinger's beautiful and unsettling new memoir, "Father's Day: A Journey Into The Heart And Mind Of My Extraordinary Son." It's the tale of his twin boys, and of himself.

Start with the trade-off between allowing a child to be independent and keeping him safe. Bissinger says he "worried" the first time Gerry took the train alone, "like every parent does," but when Zach did the same "I was wracked with anxiety." And yet, he says, Zach wants his independence as desperately as his brother -- perhaps even more so.

The mundane challenge of sibling tension is also more fraught when a child has extra issues. Gerry, for instance, was "embarrassed" by Zach when they were younger, Bissinger says, and "you can't turn to a 6-year-old kid and say you have to be more understanding of your brother."

Every parent, too, has moments when they realize they don't really know the child they've loved and lived with and nurtured all these years. The difference is that a neurotypical child is editing you out on purpose, in order to highlight where you end and he begins. Zach, in contrast, is a cipher to himself, too. He can't share what he is feeling because he often doesn't know. As described by his father, Zach is a savant who can remember the name and birthdate of everyone he ever met, and can tell you the day and date of every event in his life. But, his father wonders, does he know that his brain is damaged? Or that his future is limited as a result?

The narrative spine of "Father's Day" is the road trip Buzz and Zach took across the country during two weeks in 2007. Buzz hoped to use the time to raise subjects and ask questions he had never discussed with Zach, and in doing so he took on yet another core realization of parenting -- that your child is different both from who you are and who you thought they would grow up to be. "I live internally, I'm a writer," Bissinger says. "I analyze everything I do and I dwell on everything. I live in the abstract and Zach can't do that. He lives in the concrete."

While on the road, Buzz did ask his questions, and Zach answered as best he could. Yes, he knows his brain isn't "right," he said. Yes, he is happy. No, he wouldn't mind moving to a group home with friends someday.

There was no neat tidy ending at the end of the trip. Buzz comes away with a better understanding of Zach, but "we are both still the same people," he says. "I am still goal-oriented and driven by success. I always will be. Does it still hurt that he won't move on from where he is? Yes. I think he'll be doing the same things for as long as he lives. I think he's always going to be stocking supplies at the Philadelphia Daily News. But I have a better understanding that he is going to be what he is."