Father's Day: Across America with an Unusual Dad and His Extraordinary Son

Father's Day: Across America with an Unusual Dad and His Extraordinary Son

by Buzz Bissinger
Father's Day: Across America with an Unusual Dad and His Extraordinary Son

Father's Day: Across America with an Unusual Dad and His Extraordinary Son

by Buzz Bissinger


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"Gorgeous and brutally honest . . . As much as this is a book for parents, who know well the crushing vulnerabilities of the job, it is also a story for grown children who understand what it means to love an imperfect parent." – Entertainment Weekly

“Blunt, tender, sometimes harrowing, and always affecting, Father’s Day is a triumph.” — Susan Orlean, author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief

The bestselling author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August travels cross-country on a road trip with his son Zach, whose premature birth left him with a mix of remarkable skills and profound disabilities known as savantism. As father and son journey through the best and worst of America—and the best and worst in each other—Buzz learns to see the world through Zach's eyes.

Buzz Bissinger’s twins were born three minutes—and a world—apart. Gerry, the older one, is a graduate student preparing to become a teacher. His brother Zach is a savant, challenged by serious intellectual deficits but also blessed with rare talents: an astonishing memory, a dazzling knack for navigation, and a reflexive honesty that can make him both socially awkward and surprisingly wise.

One summer, striving to understand the twenty-four-year-old son who remains, in many ways, a mystery, Buzz convinces Zach to join him on a cross-country road trip. As father and son drive from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, revisiting all the places they have lived together, Buzz learns to see the world through Zach’s eyes. Father's Day is a powerful account of this journey, and a universal tale of the bond between parents and children.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544002289
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/30/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.86(h) x 0.67(d)

About the Author

Buzz Bissinger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of four books, including the New York Times bestseller 3 Nights in August and Friday Night Lights, which has sold two million copies and inspired a film and TV franchise. He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and a sports columnist for The Daily Beast. He has written for the New York Times, The New Republic, Time and many other publications.

Date of Birth:

November 1, 1954

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; Nieman Fellow, Harvard University, 1985-1986

Read an Excerpt




I AM MEETING ZACH AT Brooks Brothers in the sodden, sullen aftermath of Christmas. He has just come from work at the supermarket where he has bagged groceries for four hours with one fifteen-minute break. I cannot imagine my son doing such work at the age of twenty- four. It shames me to think of him placing sweat-drenched jugs of milk into their proper place and learning initially, with the extensive help of a job coach, that the eggs must be placed separately in double plastic bags. He has been doing the same job for four years, and he will do the same job for the rest of his life. My son's professional destiny is paper or plastic.

Except for brief lapses in which he pesters fellow employees like a seven-year-old, following them and calling out their names in a purposely aggravating singsong voice when they are trying to work, he does his job well. He limits his conversations with customers, although by nature he is ebullient and friendly. He no longer interjects his views, as he did several years ago when he was working at K-Mart one summer stocking supplies. When a customer asked where to find work gloves, he announced that he found it an odd request: "What do you need gloves for? It's the summer." It defied his sense of logic; gloves are for cold, not hot, and Zach just wanted to make sure the customer understood the order of things.

He is well liked. Female cashiers call him "my guy" and "my baby" and treat him with protectiveness. He calls them by their first names, as if they all served in the trenches of World War I together. But he lacks the dexterity, or maybe the confidence, to handle a register or work the deli section. He fears change, because routine is the GPS that guides him. He orders the same entrée virtually every time we go out for dinner: salmon. He occasionally ventures out into the uncharted territory of a Cajun chicken wrap or even a crab cake, but it is the pink flesh of salmon, even if it is more gray than pink and flaking off in dry chunks, that safely brings him home. He leans back in the La-Z-Boy I once gave him for his birthday and often watches the ten o'clock news on Fox, not because he wants to keep up on current events, but because he takes comfort in seeing the usual television newsmakers like the mayor and the police chief and the indicted city official proclaiming innocence although the payoff money was found inside his pants. He also liked learning the names of the anchors and the weatherman. The world by its nature is chaotic and unpredictable, but Zach always narrows it down to a reliably straight line.

Because of trace brain damage at birth, his comprehension skills at the age of twenty-four are roughly those of an eight- or nine-year-old, although he is quite verbal. He can read, but he doesn't understand many of the sentences. He has basic math skills, although he is still prone to using his fingers. He understands money to a certain degree. Because his mother, Debra, and I encourage independence, he is allowed to use public transportation to go to Philadelphia where his other job is, stocking supplies at a law firm, and where his brother lives. The train stops at 8th Street and Market. He is supposed to walk the rest of the way if it is daylight — about seven blocks. But sometimes he sneaks in a cab ride. The fare is ten dollars. He dutifully pays the meter but then he leaves a five-dollar tip, making him a favorite among Philadelphia cabdrivers who otherwise drive in silent misery.

He can't add a hundred plus a hundred, although he does know the result is "a lot," which is close enough when you think about it. He goes to movies, but the action and plot don't filter down to him; he seizes on images that he has seen before. I took him to see Spartacus once, when he was eight, and, after a blood-flowing scene at a Roman villa where Kirk Douglas single-handedly kills two million buffed-up soldiers with a plastic knife, he turned to me and said, "Look Dad! A pool!" He has always loved pools. In his early teens, he belonged to a swim club that competed against other clubs. He swam the fifty-yard freestyle. He finished far behind the other contestants, but it didn't matter. He still finished, every stroke like swimming against a frothing high tide. To this day, I don't know how he did it. It is the most monumental athletic feat I have ever seen.

His IQ, which has been measured far too many times, is about 70, with verbal scores in the normal range of 90, but with performance skills of about 50. I love my son deeply, 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. I have dedicated my life trying to fathom its inner workings. I can make educated guesses, some of which I think are accurate. I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but I have spent nearly a quarter century trying to pinpoint the best learning and life strategies for Zach, so I am far more confident of my conclusions about him than theirs, some of them so haphazard they might as well have been made during the fourteenth hole on Maui before the convention luau.

It is strange to love someone so much who is still so fundamentally mysterious to you after all these years. Strange is a lousy word, meaning nothing. It is the most terrible pain of my life. As much as I try to engage Zach, figure out how to make the flower germinate because there is a seed, I also run. I run out of guilt. I run because he was robbed and I feel I was robbed. I run because of my shame. I am not proud to feel or say this. But I think these things, not all the time, but too many times, which only increases the cycle of my shame. This is my child. How can I look at him this way?

Because I do. Because I think we all do when confronted with difference, reality versus expectation never at peace or even truce.

As his father, I should go to watch him work at the grocery store every now and then. I should offer support and encouragement because he is my son. I did go once. Zach was in one of the aisles on a break, and he didn't know I was there. I saw a coworker approach him. I thought they were friends. It made me feel better. The coworker spoke with rapid excitement.

— Hey, Zach!

— Oh hey Brian!!

— Hey, Zach, you know the woman with the big tits? She wants you, Zach! When you gonna put the move on her?

— Yeah.

— She's waitin' for you, Zach! You better do it soon!

— Okay Brian okay!

Brian knew Zach was different. He knew from the way Zach talked aloud to himself. He knew from the way Zach paced and took in breaths like he was gasping for air. He knew from the sudden tics that sometimes overcame his arms and torso. He knew from the way Zach walked, slightly hunched and Chaplinesque, one foot toward the east and the other toward the west. He knew from the way Zach had difficulty understanding. He preyed on Zach with leering joy. He laughed at Zach and walked away. But that wasn't what hurt me most. What hurt me most was how Zach welcomed the attention. He yearned to please Brian. He yearned for Brian's acceptance, although he did stop short of seeking out the woman with the big tits.

And that still wasn't the most painful part. I should have grabbed Brian by the neck. I just ran.

I am forever running. I am still running from that moment I first saw him through the window of a hospital operating room on a suffocating August day in Philadelphia in 1983. Doctors and nurses surrounded him in a tight circle. He was a bloody quiver in their hands, born thirteen and a half weeks too soon and weighing one pound and eleven ounces. They held him with their arms high and outstretched almost as if they were offering him as a sacrifice. They held him ever so gently as if he might break into a thousand pieces or just crumble into dust. His skin was almost translucent. His arms could snap in two like a wishbone. His fingers could break like the point of a pencil. His legs were tissue paper. They knew the odds of his survival were very low. I also knew that if he survived, he would not remotely be the son I imagined. Which is a nicer way of saying he would not remotely be the son I wanted. I had little clue about medicine, but it was irrelevant to the obvious: any baby born so many weeks prematurely, with immediate difficulty breathing, looking the way he did like a weightless feather, would suffer long-term effects.

Debra and I were married at the time. She had been on bed rest in the hospital for nearly two months. I was on my way to visit her. It was a Saturday. I was dressed in a polo shirt and shorts and loafers without socks. I'd stopped at a convenience store and bought a can of Diet Coke and a bag of chips. I had no idea she would be in labor by the time I arrived. All I wanted to do was drink that can of Diet Coke and eat those chips as I watched Zach glow with blood in the bright bath of lights in the operating room. I felt like eating because I felt like a stranger. I felt I was just there by coincidence, wandering into the wrong room and seeing through the glass a woman I did not know giving birth. None of this made the slightest sense. None of this matched fatherhood. I didn't feel like crying. I just felt like walking away. And this was only half of what had already happened.

Another bloody quiver had already been taken from the womb by the time I got there. It was Zach's twin brother named Gerry. He weighed three ounces more. He had been born three minutes earlier. Because of those three minutes, and his positioning in the womb, his lungs were more developed than Zach's. He could not breathe on his own, but there was enough oxygen flowing through him initially to protect his brain from harm. Zach's lungs were not developed enough to give his brain the oxygen it needed in those crucial first moments.

Brain damage settled like a patchy mist, some places forever abandoned, and yet some places heightened and magnified. Zach would eventually be able to walk and talk. Remarkably, he would suffer no physical side effects from his birth. He loves to communicate in simple snippets, mostly by asking questions. He can be unwittingly funny because he tells only the truth of his feelings. But his IQ places him on the borderline of mental retardation. Why sugarcoat it? My son is mentally retarded.

You can boil an egg in three minutes. You can fetch the morning paper in three minutes. You can empty the dishwasher in three minutes. You can reheat the leftovers in three minutes. You can call for Chinese takeout in three minutes. You can eat Chinese takeout in three minutes. You can determine the very course of a life in three minutes.

It was Gerry who was able to breathe on his own after a month. It was Zach who fought for his life in the neonatal intensive care unit, his tiny chest pumping up and down, never at peace, the frantic pulse of wanting to live and the frantic pulse of not wanting to die, always on supplemental oxygen with the green tube taped across his lips so it would not slip from his nostrils. Gerry who left the hospital after two and a half months plump and mirthy. Zach who stayed there for seven and a half months, intubated dozens of times, which like all medical terms has a clinical beauty to it that purposely hides what it really means — shoving a plastic tube down Zach's trachea into his airways so he could breathe as his tiny body shook with the tearless cries of pain that is equal to that of an adult if not more so. Gerry who made the benchmarks of sitting and standing and walking. Zach who remained tethered to supplemental oxygen for another year and a half after he came home, with the canister always beside the crib and the alarm monitor on in case his breathing and heart rate perilously diminished.

Gerry went to the fine Quaker private high school in the shadow of the Philadelphia Art Museum and then college. Now he was getting his master's degree at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Zach went to the private school for children with severe educational handicaps and then the self-contained program at the high school where he learned vocational skills and basic hygiene such as remembering to brush his teeth and use deodorant every day. Gerry deserved all of what he got because of his sheer will to live, and Zach deserved none of it despite his sheer will to live.

Debra and I threw a graduation party for Zach after he got his high school diploma, a symbolic milestone since he hadn't fulfilled any of the normal requirements. It was a grand occasion. Nearly a hundred people came from all over the country because he was and always will be truly beloved. I got up from the head table to give a toast. "Today Zach is a high school graduate!" I yelled. The cheers rose into a standing ovation. He received dozens of gifts that night, piled up on a table like a bonfire. He was the epicenter of the galaxy. I wondered if he would ever have a moment like this again since there would be no wedding or birth of a child or golden anniversary. I knew Gerry's future would include all of that. I knew Zach's future would always include bagging groceries.


Zach is already inside Brooks Brothers on Walnut Street in Philadelphia when I get there. He is tired from work. The stacks of shirts and the cold-cut platters of striped and solid ties on circular tables and the racks of khakis and flannels pleated and unpleated and cuffed and uncuffed overwhelm him. He bends down to touch a tie. He has always fixated on ties. When he was a little boy he insisted on picking ones out for his grandfather and uncle, deliberating between one covered with little whales and a classic striped. Later on he asked for ties every Christmas. He has gotten so many, he still has some he has never touched a decade after receiving them. Now, among questions he uses every time to communicate with someone new, he asks whether he wears a tie to work. The other four basic questions he asks in his rote way are: "Where do you live?" "Where do you work?" "Do you drive to work?" "What is your birthday?" He never forgets the answers to these questions. Throughout the year he calls dozens of people, some of whom he hasn't seen in twenty years, to wish them a happy birthday. He is the Birthday King, and many now call him to make sure they haven't missed one that could lead to unwanted trouble. He is always right. They don't even try to remember anymore.

Zach acts like he's happy to see me. Since Zach does not know the meaning of acting, he really does welcome my presence. I am not like him. I have always been terrified of making an ass of myself, hyper-self- conscious, sometimes social but often beset by anxiety and depression and the downside of mild bipolarity: a morning cocktail of Klonopin, Effexor, Wellbutrin, and Lamictal that my wife Lisa makes sure I have taken, terrified of medicated-less consequences.

— Oh hi Dad!

— Hey, Zach. How was work?

— Pretty good.

— Did you bag a lot of groceries?

— I did.

— Did you talk to any customers?

— I didn't know anyone there anyway it was a Friday people I know don't come until Saturday like around two because that's when my shift starts maybe Sunday after church sometimes.

— Remember you are there to work. You can't talk to them very long.

— I know.

— Did you pay attention?

— Yup.

— Did you bug anyone?

— Nope.

— Did you break any eggs?

— Oh Dad ...

— Are you ready to spend your gift certificates? You have five hundred dollars' worth.

— I'm ready.

— Do you know what you want?

— A tie maybe.

— You have a hundred ties, most of which you have never worn.

— Oh.

— I think you need to get some other things.

— Like what?

— Maybe a sports coat.

— Maybe a sports coat.

— Maybe new pants.

— Maybe new pants.

The smell of the new clothing in Brooks Brothers is aromatherapy. It takes me back to the once-a-year pilgrimage with my father in the 1960s to the flagship store on Madison Avenue and 44th Street in New York to get clothes for school. I can still see the button-down shirts and flannels and khakis we'd chosen piled high on a table. I can remember my father looking at my haul and saying, "Maybe we should throw in a blue blazer." After we threw in a blue blazer another suggestion followed: "Let's just take a little peek at the men's section." So we went to the men's section. "Can I help you with anything?" the salesman always said. "Just looking," my father always said. "Let me know if I can be of help," the salesman always said. "You got it," my father always said. He went through the racks of clothing twice. He made a move to the elevators. "You should get something, Dad!" I always told him. He always returned to a certain jacket on one of the racks. "Let's just see how it fits," he always said. "Of course," the salesman always said. He always bought two. Then he always bought a couple of shirts and a couple of ties and a couple of pairs of socks and a couple of pairs of socks and a couple of pairs of underwear.


Excerpted from "Father's Day"
by .
Copyright © 2012 H. G. Bissinger.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Author's Note,
Bon Voyage,
Blue Box,
Is That All There Is?,
Failure to Forget,
Embassy Suites!,
Lost in Milwaukee,
Cardinals and Cookies,
"It Will Be Okay",
I'll Do Anything,
Scene of the Crime,
Mom and Dad,
Hollywood Blue,
Viva Las Vegas!,
Coming into Los Angeles,
Picture Perfect,
Zach and Gerry,
Reality Bites,
Zach's Acknowledgments,
Buzz's Acknowledgments,
Sample Chapter from 3 NIGHTS IN AUGUST,
Buy the Book,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Blunt, tender, sometimes harrowing, and always affecting, Father’s Day is a triumph. Bissinger unfurls the whole fabric of love and pride and heartbreak and salvation that makes a family, with an honesty that will make you gasp."

Susan Orlean , author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief

"Bissinger has the great writer’s gift of showing us we are not alone. Here he explores the religion all parents share: that our children’s essential goodness will somehow grant them safe passage through a rough world. What a book! Every parent should read it. "

Chris Matthews , host of Hardball and author of Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero


"I loved this unflinching, heartbreaking, and ultimately triumphant tale of disability and difference, and what it means to be a father, a son, and a man."

Jennifer Weiner , author of Then Came You and Fly Away Home

"Buzz Bissinger's memoir — a paean to his remarkable son — is tender, funny, frightening at moments when love is re-stated; even brave — which memoiristic writing rarely gets the chance to be. It also reads as unflinchingly true , which should give it a long and useful life in the reader's heart." 

Richard Ford

"Father's Day is the story of a road trip like no other. Searing and heartfelt, this is not just an unforgettable portrait of a father and his son; it is a love story that speaks to the mystery, pain, and exhilaration of being human. "

Nathaniel Philbrick , author of Mayflower and The Last Stand

"This brave and beautiful memoir gets at the core of what it means to be a parent — how painful it can be, how scary it can get, and how rewarding it is. By facing a challenge that would try any of us, and beat many of us, Bissinger emerges a better man. He not only finds his son, but himself, and the reader finds something, too. After reading Fathers Day, I’ve rethought my assumptions about what makes a successful and worthy life. Ultimately, this is a mesmerizing story about how we can all be better."

David Sheff , author of Beautiful Boy


"Buzz Bissinger has given completely of himself in this moving book about his son Zach, who was born too small, too soon. There is the father's disappointment and guilt, his confusion and frustration, his wonder and love. That Zach has a twin brother, who grew up unscathed, and that Zach's mind is as divided as his father's emotions, makes the story all that more compelling. Father's Day is wonderfully, achingly written, with all the doubt that tells you how truthful it is. "

Frank Deford , author of The Old Ball Game and The Entitled

"Every father of a special needs child should read this very insightful book." 

Temple Grandin , author of Thinking in Pictures and Animals in Translation

"A fiercely honest memoir about the complex hard drive of a son's brain and the balky software of a father's heart. Though his story is singular, Bissinger makes it feel like part of that eternal saga — fathers and sons trying to connect."

J.R. Moehringer , author of The Tender Bar

"Gorgeous and brutally honest . . . As much as this is a book for parents, who know well the crushing vulnerabilities of the job, it is also a story for grown children who understand what it means to love an imperfect parent. Would that we were all as forgiving as Zach.  Grade: A” – Entertainment Weekly

"Riveting . . . Impossible to put down." —New York Times

"Visceral, arresting, and frank."—O Magazine

"A really good book, no matter what its genre, delivers a level of humanity that is both breathtaking and elemental. In Father’s Day, Buzz Bissinger has delivered such a work . . . It's every bit as good [as Friday Night Lights]. By telling his own story, Bissinger has given voice to parents of special-needs children everywhere. Moreover, he has given everyone a story of hope, humor and humanity." —Houston Chronicle

"Gorgeous and brutally honest . . . As much as this is a book for parents, who know well the crushing vulnerabilities of the job, it is also a story for grown children who understand what it means to love an imperfect parent. Would that we were all as forgiving as Zach.  Grade: A” – Entertainment Weekly

“Bissinger may not seem like a likely candidate to pen a tender memoir—but he has.”—People

"A raw, intimate memoir that holds nothing back . . . Achingly tender."—Seattle Times

"A testament to his searing love for his disabled son."—Boston Globe

“Bruising yet tender.” – Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"[Bissinger's] greatest accomplishment to date is sharing with the world the inner life of his son Zach  . . . 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."—Philadelphia Inquirer

"A wrenchingly honest road tale." —Publishers Weekly

"Moving . . . By being so open about his own struggles as a father, Bissinger turns our eye back toward ourselves, prompting, perhaps, a similar honesty in our own self-reflections. Although its subject matter is vastly different from that of the popular Friday Night Lights, readers of that book will note the same keen eye for character and emotion here."—Booklist

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