I admit that it was a misguided undertaking. That I showed not the best judgment. That a few minutes of additional forethought on the matter would have led me to conclude, "Nah! I won't do that."
I was in a fiction-writing workshop at the esteemed, if self-important, liberal arts college I attended. And I had the idea to write the story of what happened to Dad and then pass it off as fiction. Which meant that my classmates would sit around and discuss it in front of me and comment on how I could have done a better job with the whole thing.
So, no, it wasn’t the cleverest idea.
But I started writing. Diligently, like the eager student I was. Since, as long as I was going to write it, naturally I wanted the professor to give me an A.
I pondered the details of the story.
For instance, that there are a lot of possible reasons a 54-year-old man might feel unsettled with the news of blockages in his coronary arteries. One such reason might be the wish to live a long life and enjoy scenic golden years with his spouse while his kids had the chance to bring home prospective mates to introduce to him, their proud father. That’s definitely a reason a man might not want to hear about any coronary blockages.
Or another reason – this you could even call the big one – might just be the really human desire to avoid reckoning with Mortality. Ick, who wants to think about that, you know? That’s absolutely a top contender for reasons a man might not want to get news of any malfunctions/defects/shortcomings in his heart’s machinery.
But not for Dad!
Dad’s central concern had to do with his fondness for tennis.
The man loved tennis, what can I say. He played several days a week in warm weather, and during the colder months he played a game called paddle tennis.
“I’m in great shape,” he said.
And so he didn’t think this heart thing could actually hurt him. Instead his concern was that the diagnosis and the doctor’s orders and the meds would get in the way of his tennis game.
I wrote it all down. I wrote the whole story of what happened – what he said and what he did and how it all came to a head in a Sunday morning paddle tennis game in late November.
And maybe you don't blame me for wanting to write it down. For wanting to see if, in the writing, I could make some sense of this thing that otherwise was beyond sense, was more like a multi-dimensional vacuum that had sucked up my life as I’d known it and had left me in this changed world, wherein nothing was certain, where nothing could be relied upon.
I called it “The Tennis Player.”
And after I wrote it and handed it in, I listened to my classmates hash it out. They really seemed to like the story, which was gratifying, at first.
But my professor kept quiet. And I picked up on that, and started to obsess over it, as my classmates talked. I was harping on whether she, the professor, would give me a mediocre grade. She had these wire-rim glasses and a ponytail and I’d developed a girlish crush on her, and I had this gnawing sensation at the thought that maybe she didn’t think my writing was any good.
Also, to a lesser degree, that she was unmoved by the story of Dad’s death.
“Don’t you guys see the satire here?” was what she finally said, when my classmates had come to a pause.
She looked around the room.
There was some awkward shifting, people shifting from one butt cheek to the other, everyone worried that they’d been dense and missed the point of the story.
“I thought it was clever satire,” she said.
My classmates looked at me.
Not that I’d meant it as satire. Actually at that moment I couldn’t have said precisely what “satire” was, though I knew she meant that it was a joke somehow, a spoof.
But she said it was clever satire, and I wasn’t going to spoil that by disagreeing with her.
My allotted time was quickly over, and the professor moved the class on to someone else’s story. I sat completely still. I heard nothing.
Maybe I had written satire: a criticism of Dad. And that would be just like me, I thought, because he always said I was so critical of him.
I felt a flash of guilt; I looked down at my lap.
Plus here I was so concerned about whether I was going to get a good grade for it.
I should be ashamed of myself, I thought.
Though of course Dad loved it when I got good grades. He always commended me and I’d get the good warm feeling.
So wasn’t I just doing the thing he wanted me to do.
And doing it not half bad, I thought, shrugging a little as I sat there.
This would be a great thing to tell Dad, actually. Like if we talked on the phone tonight it would be the sort of thing I’d report to him:
"Dad the professor said my thing was ‘clever satire.’ ”
“Doesn’t surprise me one bit,” he would have said, and I could just see him nodding into the phone. Though logically also he would have asked, “What was it about?”
Which ruined this little fantasy I was having.
“It was the story of how you died, Dad. The story of how a couple blockages in your heart weren’t going to keep you from playing tennis. So I guess also it’s the story that makes it impossible for us to ever have a conversation like this one, ever again.”
And there it was, the heavy sick feeling. My eyes closed.
I got my A.