My Last Conversation with My Father

As my sister, Jana, tells it, my father and I had one long conversation
that spanned thirty-four years. “From the time I remember, you and dad
were always talking—about the world, about sports, about everything,”
she told me recently. My dad often told us that he assumed that he would
have sons, but he ended up with girls. He eventually adjusted. I was his
firstborn; I became his mission.

My father, L. Hart Wright, was the son of conservative Baptists in
Oklahoma—his father was a bank president and his mother a snob who
boasted of having descended from a signer of the Declaration of
Independence. He became an agnostic, a liberal, and a law professor at
the University of Michigan who ironed his own clothes. He wore bow ties
most of his life. My mother made them. He ended up with four hundred,
kept in boxes marked “Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer,” and “Fall.”

He taught his children and his students with ferocious passion. My
mother was an actress and my father could be a stage-door Johnny, doting
on her performances. But he rivalled her for theatric flare. “For him, a
class was a dramatic piece,” his colleague Douglas Kahn once told a
campus publication. He made his classes into morality plays, full of
flawed characters and human drama and life lessons—often a bit of
mischievous humor as well. Sally Katzen, one of his students,
wrote about being perpetually late for his 8 A.M. classes—until the
day Dad greeted her with a tray of eggs, bacon, toast, juice, and
coffee.

When I was eight, I became one of his pranks. He frequently told
students who fumbled a question that even his little girl would know the
answer. So, in 1956, he took me to class. It was a football Saturday—he
insisted on teaching Saturdays, to get the committed students—and the
Michigan Marching Band could be heard warming up through the windows. At
the end of class, Dad set up some poor student with an impossible
problem and, when he couldn’t answer it, called on me. I was so little,
I had to stand on a chair. “You might apply Eisner v. McComber,” I
proclaimed, “or you might say it was a two-headed monster, partly
compensation.” More than a half century later, I still remember.

My father read to me when I was a small child and would add his own
interpretations. “Cinderella” was about injustice, “Snow White” about
the corruption of power and privilege, and “The Wizard of Oz” about
individual rights.

Once I started going to school, we would talk over breakfast. He would
arrange my cinnamon toast into butterflies, then shout up the staircase,
“Breakfast is served in the outer lobby.” My mother and sister were
slowpokes, so Dad and I would listen to the morning news. It was a
turbulent era—the Cold War, the civil-rights movement, antiwar protests,
and a world changing shape as empires imploded and new states were born
in Africa and Asia. He would explain every issue, then ask what I
thought. He expected an answer. Our discourse continued when he got home
with the evening paper. We’d read and then swap sections. I spread mine
across the floor. Mondays were special. Those were the days of Supreme
Court decisions, which my father explained with relish. At dinner, we
played word games. His favorite was Geography, where each player names a
place—a city, state, country, or continent—that begins with the last
letter of the place named by the previous player. My sister and I
frequently scoured the atlas to find places that ended with X, or V, or
Z—we discovered Essex, Kiev, and the Hejaz at very young ages—to stump
my father. He tricked us into learning the world.

The conversations that ultimately determined the course of my life were
about sports. My father was a fanatic, and, as the oldest child and
substitute son, I was designated to accompany him to football,
basketball, and baseball games. He’d explain the role each sport played
in American history, and he knew compelling personal stories and stats
of major players. By the time I was a teen-ager, we were debating which
players deserved to be on the best teams in history—like whether the
Dean brothers (Dizzy and Daffy, pitchers in the nineteen-thirties) both
deserved a spot in the ideal baseball team.

I went to the University of Michigan, my home-town school, and during my
sophomore year I bumped into a classmate who urged me to go with her to
the Michigan Daily, the student paper, to hear the editors’
beginning-of-semester spiel. I had no interest but she was quite
insistent. None of the editors inspired me until I heard the sports
editor—and I had an epiphany. I would pull a prank on my father. I would
write one article, just one, on sports. Of course, the surprise was on
me. I kept on writing. My senior year, I became the first female sports
editor in the paper’s history. I’ve been a journalist ever since.

For all his devotion, my father was not an affectionate man. There were
no hugs, and he never told his daughters outright that he loved us. More
than once we wondered whether he felt short-changed because we were not
boys. He was emotionally sparse, even in his farewell letter as I flew
off, in 1975, to cover the turmoil and transitions in Africa.

“You start on what should be a most unusual experience realized by few
Americans,” he wrote. “As is always the case when one does something
quite unusual, there will be high moments and also low moments, some so
low you will ask, ‘Why in the world was I even tempted to undertake
this?’ Ask instead whether you are doing precisely those things you
ought to be doing to give you that feeling of happiness—a feeling that
you are doing those things which reflect accomplishment.”

In 1976, I came home for a visit after a particularly harrowing
experience. I had been one of some two dozen people—out of over three
hundred—who survived a battle during the Angolan Civil War. I had fled
on a little tugboat across the Congo River. My father served in the
Second World War, although he never talked about it when I was growing
up. But during that trip home he told me about being at Ohrdruf, the
first Nazi concentration camp liberated by American troops. It was a
subcamp of Buchenwald. He confessed, with rare emotion, becoming ill
when he saw the piles of bodies, from both fear and disgust at what
human beings could do to each other. We talked about our experiences of
war many times after that.

My father died in 1983, a month before he was supposed to retire. He had
cancer. The doctors overdosed him with radiation; it was a medical
mistake. I raced home from covering another war, this time in Beirut. By
then he was on a ventilator and could communicate only by pointing to
letters on a board. During the last three weeks of his life, my mother,
my sister, and I rotated shifts so that he was never alone. On one of my
shifts, he kept gesturing with his finger for me to return to Beirut.

“Daddy, you’ve been with me for every crisis in my life,” I told him. “I
want to be with you now.” Almost as an afterthought, I said, “Don’t you
love me?”

He pointed to his board and, heavily medicated, slowly spelled out,
letter by letter, “It is precisely because I love you so much that I
want you to go back.” It was the last conversation we had.

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