Courtesy of The Pierce Family
My father stopped speaking two years before he died.
In 1989, John Patrick Pierce died from complications of Alzheimer's disease, and now I don't remember his voice. I don't remember how he sounded when he was happy, or sad, or angry. I remember many things he said, but not how he said them. In my memory, it's as though my father is a favorite book I've read, over and over again. It's as if he only exists now as words on a page in my mind, a collection of lessons learned, even if I didn't know I was learning them at the time. They come to me now unbidden, in sudden flashes, in something I write, something in which I can hear his words echo, if not his voice.
One night we were having dinner — my mother, my father and I — and he was talking about something that happened that day. For 35 years my father worked as a teacher and an administrator at what was then called an "inner-city" high school, in the same kind of neighborhood in which he grew up — the kind he made sure I wouldn't have to live in. His students were poor and working class, and a growing number of them were minority children, and they loved him for how he could affect a stern face while helping them solve their real problems. So, on this day, an outraged gym teacher had sent a student to my father's office to be disciplined because the student had fallen asleep during some arcane phys ed ritual. The gym teacher wanted something … to … be … done … immediately.
My father rode out the gym teacher's tantrum. He knew that the student's need for gym class was not very great; he was the starting center on the school's basketball team. So, once the whistle-blower had gone back to his sweaty lair, my father asked the student what had happened. That morning, the student said, there had not been enough food in his house for all the kids, so he, as the oldest, went without breakfast. My father told him that he would square things with the angry gym teacher. Then my father gave him $10 — big money in those days, more than enough to have a hearty meal with some left over to bring home — and told him to go have breakfast at a diner not far from the school.
"There's one thing I've learned," my father said. "You can't teach a hungry child. It's not possible." I can't remember if he said this sternly or sadly. I can't remember what the words sounded like. But the words themselves lodged somewhere in my psyche, and they come to mind, always, when I, as a journalist, am working on a story about poverty, and the people caught up in it. Occasionally, as an interview turns into a conversation, which is what all good interviews do, I will tell the story to strangers. Invariably, they nod and say my father was right.
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In the last years of his life, while he still had a few dozen words left, my father would occasionally need to go to the hospital for blood work and scans and other tests. Often we would be stopped — in the cafeteria or waiting for an elevator — by a former student who recognized him. "Mr. Pierce!" the now-nurse or aide or orderly would call out, "Do you remember me?" And my father (who could no longer remember that I was his son) would stop and nod slowly at this person. "Why, yes," he'd say, honoring the felt — if not remembered — connection. "Of course."
After he died, a letter came from the teachers' retirement board detailing my mother's survivor benefits. Across the bottom was a handwritten note from the woman who'd processed the papers. She'd been a student of my father's, and she was sad to learn he had died. Her senior year had been a tough one, she explained, and she had not gone to the prom. My father, with my mother, had chaperoned the dance, and the next school day, he brought in the prom souvenir and handed it to her. "Here," he said, "you deserve this." She still had it, she wrote. And I still have her story.
My father applied what he'd learned about parenting from his own father, an Irish immigrant who'd become a city cop because his parents were planning to send him into the priesthood in the old country. My grandfather died of cancer when my father was fighting in the Pacific. My father had been in law school when World War II began, and when it was over he never went back. Years later, his sister speculated that after what he'd seen, he needed the healing energy and optimism of young people. So he came home and taught for a living, and shared his gift for imparting lessons in such a way that his students, or his only son, would listen.
He lives on that way, a silent memory. The generations of my family were interrupted by the eruption of a disease that eventually had a hand in the death of my father and all of his siblings. In my case, I listen deep in myself for the echoes of what once was taught in a voice I no longer remember. And that is how my father and I stay together.
Charles P. Pierce is a writer-at-large for Esquire and the author of four books. He lives outside Boston.