Hamlet: My father—methinks I see my father.
Horatio: Where, my lord?
Hamlet: In my mind’s eye, Horatio.
-Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2
It’s Thursday, October 4th, the day of my father’s birthday. He would have turned seventy-nine today if he were still alive, but he died just under two years ago. I don’t remember the exact date of his death, and I see no reason to memorialize it.
My father and I didn’t always get along; in many ways we were too alike to avoid butting heads, especially since one of the ways we were alike is a deep stubbornness. But my father was an admirable man in many ways; he always took care of his family to the best of his ability, which was usually very good indeed. He and my mother were married right up until the day he died, which is more than I can say about myself, and I admire them both for it. That they were best friends and constant companions is an unarguable fact, and they got along as well as any long-married couple I’ve ever known.
It was from my parents—both of them—that I got my love of reading, and more indirectly, my love of writing, of making stories. It was my father who received as a gift, and who proudly wore, a tee-short quoting Erasmus in saying, “When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.” This wasn’t quite my parents’ literal attitude, but it was damn close.
I didn’t quite realize how proud and supportive my parents were of my love of reading and writing until in college I came to a point of crisis.
I had always intended—for as long as I thought about it—to become a scientist, though I’ve also always written stories, books, plays, and even screenplays (the latter too laughable to discuss). By the time I was ready for university, I had decided that I wanted to be a physicist. I went to Cornell as a Physics Major, and in my first year did quite well in all my physics and mathematics coursework (while also thoroughly enjoying my freshman seminars, first Fantasy and then Writing About Film). But then, during the summer after freshman year, I underwent open-heart surgery to correct an atrial septal defect (quite a large one) that had only been discovered that year.
In later times, in medical school, I learned more about some of the central nervous system effects of open-heart surgery, and I even wrote a review paper on the nature of the (usually temporary) cognitive decline that heart-lung bypass in heart surgery frequently causes. Its effects in triggering mood disorders such as depression (something for which I already have a familial and personal predisposition) are probably more widely known than the temporarily diminished mental capacity that comes to most people who have undergone such surgery. The state of the art may have improved since 1988, but I doubt the problem has been eliminated.
Anyway, I returned to college at the beginning of sophomore year (only two weeks after my surgery!), and over the course of that semester and year, with the combination of a low-grade-sometimes-veering-into-high-grade depression and a dip in my mental acuity, I had a hard time keeping up with the higher level math courses (and the physics was getting into the intro to serious quantum mechanics and other areas, with matters requiring vector calculus, tensors, partial differential equations, and all that fun stuff). I think if I’d just had the temporary cognitive impairment and not the depression as well, I might have muscled my way through, and brushed up on things once my mental clarity improved. Alas, not only was I not so lucky, I also had no idea why I was having such difficulty; I felt merely that I was an intellectual and moral failure as a Physics Major.
I didn’t fail any classes or anything like that—I don’t think I got anything below a low B—but I could see myself having more and more trouble as I went forward, if things remained as they were. At the time, I was already close friends with the woman I would eventually marry, and she had read some of my writing (and really liked it). She talked to me long and hard about my options, and with her help, I came to the decision to switch majors to English.
I was mortified about this. I felt that I was failing myself in some important way, and worse, that I was letting my parents down, but I didn’t see any alternative. So I called them, and I very nervously told them the decision I had made…
They were practically ecstatic. My father in particular said that he just thought that English suited me better, because I loved reading and writing so much, and was good at it. They’d always been supportive of my love of science, too, of course, and had been behind me all the way in my goal to become a scientist, but they’d apparently thought that such a career wouldn’t fulfill me…though they were wise enough not to try to change my oh-so-stubborn mind. I think my parents—and particularly my father—would have been prouder of having a son who was an author than of having a son who won the Nobel Prize in Physics. I hadn’t ever thought of that before. But the fact that they were so supportive of, and even excited by, my choice was an incredible, tremendous relief and encouragement.
I’ve occasionally wistfully looked back and wished I’d gone farther in my formal studies of physics and math, but…well, those are things I can study on my own, and I do so when the mood strikes me. But as an English Major, I realized my deep and abiding love of Shakespeare (at one point I took two Shakespeare courses at the same time; that was fun!), and I learned of the works of Spenser and Mallory and Milton. I read Paradise Lost (my personal nomination for the greatest English language work of all time), and innumerable other great works beside, ancient and modern. I’ve never regretted those exposures. Who would? I also learned how quickly I can write at need, when I discovered that I’d mis-marked the due date for my honors thesis, and I had to write the whole thing in one weekend. That was pretty stupid, but maybe I can blame it on the residua of my cognitive impairment, which thankfully seems to have faded completely in the intervening years.
Anyway, it was thanks to my parents’ support, and my father’s words—and the example he set—that I was able to feel good about my choice. We had some pretty serious interpersonal problems in subsequent years, but eventually we put them behind us, and though I didn’t become an “official” writer directly after college (I went to medical school instead…go figure) I am finally now finally fulfilling my destiny, as the Jedi and the Sith are prone to say.*
I’m tremendously happy that my father lived long enough to see me publish my first few books, though I wish he’d been alive to read The Chasm and the Collision, since his advice had real, beneficial impact on its style.
And now I have my own version of his tee-shirt that reads, “When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.” It was a gift from my sister, and I come as close to embodying the words as my parents did, if not closer. I’m more like my father, probably, than I am like any other person I’ve ever known. I’m a little more playful than he ever was—he was quite a serious man most of the time, and he was exceeded in stubbornness only by his youngest son—but he’s still the only other person I’ve known who had the patience and desire to spend as much time in zoos and museums as I do. He always loved to learn new things, and I consider that shared love (which also came from my mother) perhaps the greatest gift that I could ever have been given.
I miss him terribly, and my mother as well. But as Arthur Bach said in the original movie, Arthur, “I was lucky to know him at all.”
*If there is such a thing as destiny, then surely it’s impossible to do anything but fulfill one’s destiny.