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.
Robin Wright is a contributing writer for newyorker.com, and has written for the magazine since 1988. She is the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”