Death and Wheatgrass


_ An assistant professor finds that teaching and grieving are a surprisingly well-matched pair _

It only took standing in front of a crowd of students for an hour and 15 minutes with my fly open to turn me —a bona fide member of the American intelligentsia —into a jackass. I spent 26 years in school, kindergarten to Ph.D., but I still can’t handle the mechanical device that separates me from public embarrassment and potential jail time. The lecture was good, too —coherent, lively, illustrated. My zipper ruined my teaching high.

And I needed that high.

The night before classes started, my father died. He fought cancer for over a year, then fell in the kitchen, hit his head, and perished in the hospital within a day. It was a blessing; the tumor in his stomach was poised to eat him alive. I lost my father, but the damned tumor lost as well.

I caught a plane to Colorado, consoled my mom and sister, let them console me, and flew home five days later with a hangover from the wake and a backlog of books to read and lectures to finish.

Teaching and grieving have occupied me since. They’ve proved a surprisingly well-matched pair. I’m relatively new at both. Although I’m surrounded by a loving family and attentive students, I’m alone most of the time with my texts, notes, photographs, and memories. I’m unsure whether I’m doing either right or well.

I want to prod my students to lead thoughtful lives, to set their sights higher than grades and professional achievements, to take a shot at originality, humor, and compassion. I have similar Miss America aspirations for my grief. I watched my dad mourn his own father. The pain lingered in him like gangrene. He never acknowledged it or shook it. I’d like to turn his death into something good, stirring, and healthy. But I haven’t found the gumption yet.

My father died at the age of 59. He won’t get to see his 18-month-old granddaughter or his 4-year-old grandson grow up. I can’t call him for advice when the car breaks down or the lawn mower conks out.

My father took care of stuff: his family, his friends, his garage, and his yard. Last summer, during his final trip away from home, he spent four days pulling weeds from the flower beds in front of my Indiana house. The chemotherapy had numbed his touch, but he still found comfort in the idea of attacking rogue vegetation, even though the blades and stems must have felt like ghosts in his fists.

Now I have the pleasure of uprooting those weeds’ descendants, but it isn’t the same. My dad was a maniac. Determined to bring an unruly universe to order, he scrubbed and plucked, mowed and tidied. I can’t be like him, battling chaos with a power sprayer. I lack the outrage.

I’m a metaphor guy, not a neat freak. Dad loved putting things in their place; I enjoy dislocating language and ideas. Indeed, I’ve been diagnosed with metaphoria, a syndrome that combines the effusiveness of diarrhea with the sensations of euphoria. Puns, analogies, synecdoches, similes, and metaphors pour out when I write.

I can’t govern myself, so my wife acts as the floodgate. She, for example, would not let me write that an anomalous piece of historical evidence stuck out like a goiter on a prom queen. But I have snuck gnomes, sponges, water bugs, cocktail parties, mopeds, and Pontiacs into scholarly treatises.

The highlight of my career came nearly a decade ago. My wife, a historian of the American West who studies the ski industry, wrote a brilliant article (I’m biased, but it did win an award) about racial identities and mountain recreation. Searching for a title, she asked me for a suggestion and I blurted out “The Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing.”

That pun generated so much marital good will that she still listens to my lamer attempts to integrate roller-skating beavers, foul-mouthed nuns, and amoeba discothèques into the discourse of higher education.

I am not my father. I rarely wear a tie; my garage is a mess. Dad worked as a systems analyst at IBM for 30 years. As a teenager I dreamed of careers in forestry or roofing, any job in the sun and wind that placed me outside the pinstriped sterility of corporate America.

Then I had children and the sharp distinctions between myself and my father that I had always insisted upon began to blur. I parent like him, and my son will no doubt bounce his identity off of mine. He’s probably fantasizing about being an investment banker at this very moment.

Many grown children re-evaluate their parents after they meet, and try to manage, their own offspring. Over the final years of his life, my father ambushed me with other, less predictable insights as well. He taught me not only that I resembled him as a parent, but that he resembled me as a writer.

The summer before his diagnosis, my parents attended their 40th high-school reunion. Both graduated from Boulder High in Boulder, Colo. They stayed in town while most of their classmates scattered to Denver, California, Texas, even Sweden. The reunion committee asked people to send in their reflections on life as everyone neared 60, and Dad chose to ponder the changes he’d seen in Boulder and himself since he charged up and down the main drag in his Chevy Bel Air. All of his teenage landmarks were gone or radically altered. Favorite burger joints had closed, 3.2 beer was no longer on the shelves, and the drive-in movie theater was a memory. Members of the class of 64, he wrote, had traded their Playboy magazines for AARP bulletins, their after-school jobs for 401(k) plans, and their chocolate malts for wheatgrass smoothies.

Wheatgrass smoothies?

I’m pretty sure no such concoction ever crossed my father’s lips. He drank Budweiser. Yet, there they were, radical alien health beverages set in print to help enliven a reunion essay. Dad’s reflection was a nifty piece of writing, and the wheatgrass smoothies epitomized its flair.

To me, good writing stretches to meet its audience. Authors and readers step out of their natural orbits and clasp minds on a ground both common and strange to both. Dad reached beyond himself when he included wheatgrass smoothies in his reflection, and in doing so he turned what could have been a mundane bio into a work of literature. It was the kind of art both he and I could appreciate. Not a museum relic, but a hot rod. The result was cool and surprising —a souped-up genre piece. The essay roared instead of puttered. And it destroys me every time I read it.

I did not know my father as completely as I thought. He seemed so closed off, so contained and decipherable in his retirement.

What’s mysterious about a person watching a TV, drinking a cup of coffee, watering a lawn, sweeping out a garage, and spray-washing a patio? Yet beneath that fierce dedication to routine and orderliness lay an observant and imaginative man, a metaphor guy in management drag, and, given the chance, he could take you for a ride.

In the months after his death, I’ve been trying to catch such rides from my students. I’m a historian, but I teach writing as well. I can’t seem to separate the two. Some students appreciate my efforts; others pine for multiple-choice exams. I force them to rewrite their papers and pester them about run-on sentences and passive-voice verbs.

I want them to hand me something thoughtful and cool, to learn how to turn a genre piece —in this case, an American-history essay, an academic sedan if there ever was one —into a lowrider, a monster truck, or a chopper.

Most of those young men and women will enter professions more akin to my father’s than mine. They will write reports instead of articles, memoranda instead of book reviews, and impact statements instead of monographs. They may not remember my lecture on the Constitution or the import of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but if I can convince some of them that every act of writing carries the potential for disruptive creativity, perhaps they will inject a strain of wildness into American business, law, medicine, and government.

You never know when someone will commit art. My father taught me that.

_ Jon T. Coleman is an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. _

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