Author Tim O’Brien is best known for his book “The Things They Carried,” about the Vietnam War. His latest book is a compilation of anecdotes and reflections on becoming a parent in late middle age, and what he wants his young children to know about him before he dies. This conversation was recorded in front of an audience at the Portland Book Festival in the fall of 2019.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Tim O’Brien wrote his latest book partly out of fear. It’s called “Dad’s Maybe Book.” It reads as a kind of guidebook and gift to his young sons because he feared he might not be around when they’re older. O’Brien was 58 years old when his first son was born. His second son came two years later. His sons are in their teens now, which means O’Brien himself is in his seventies. The book for and about them is an unusual mix. It’s full of loving memories about their years as babies and toddlers, harrowing retellings of O’Brien’s time as an infantryman in Vietnam and life lessons about politics, language and love.
I spoke to O’Brien in front of an audience as part of the 2019 Portland Book Festival. Here he is reading the first chapter of his book.
Tim O’Brien [Reading]: Dear Timmy, a little more than a year ago on June 20th, 2003, you dropped into the world. My son, my first and only child. A surprise, a gift, an eater of electrical cords, a fertilizer factory, a pain in the ass and a thrill in the heart.
Here is the truth, Timmy. Boy. Oh, boy, do I love you. And boy, do I wish I could spend the next 50 or 60 years with my lips to your cheek, my eyes warming in yours. But now as you wobble into your 16th month, it occurs to me that you may never really know your dad. The actuarial stuff looks grim. Even now I’m what they call an older father and in 10 years, should I have the good luck to turn 68, I’ll almost certainly have trouble keeping up with you. Basketball will be a problem. And 20 years from now, well, it’s sad, isn’t it? When you begin to know me, you will know an old man. Sadder yet, that’s the very best scenario. Life is fragile, hearts go still.
So now, just in case, I want to tell you about your father, the man I think I am and by that, I mean not just the graying old coot you may vaguely remember, but the guy who shares your name and your blood and half your DNA, the Tim who himself was once a Timmy. Above all, I am this. I am in love with you, pinwheeling, bedazzled, aching love. And if you know nothing else, know that you are adored by your dad.
Miller: Let’s go back a few years from when you wrote that. You write elsewhere in the book that your boys - you have two sons - delivered joy to a man who once believed there would be no more joy. It’s a huge question, but what was your life like, your conception of what the world had ahead of you, before you had kids?
O’Brien: It was a lonely life. I’m a slow writer and I would spend 12-15 hours a day at the computer and I’d spend the rest of the day worrying about whatever I was writing, the scenes working or will people like it? Will I like it? Dialogue - is it working or not? And I was so immersed in my writing that it became the all of me, my self esteem, my sense of self love is all wrapped up and how much I liked a scrap of dialogue or a sentence.
This isn’t to demean my writing and I hope my kids will one day read those books and stories from long ago. But it is to say that for me, I needed so much more which was delivered in a really unexpected way. I didn’t want to be a father. I fought it with my wife to be. We had a huge argument over it in which we actually split up. Yeah. She thought I was selfish and I thought she had the heart of a crocodile [laughter]. Sort of heartlessly reproductive.
Miller: It was an interesting debate because I forget the exact words. But it was something like your argument that she loved something that didn’t exist, a future child or future children that she loved that possibility more than what you had together.
Miller: What was her response to that argument?
O’Brien: Her response was, “Yeah.”
Miller: And you broke up.
O’Brien: She had a really tough life. Her older sister was committed to a mental institution when Meredith was in 10th grade and remains there today and will die there. Her younger sister was wrapped up in God to the extent that one day she drove her car at 80 miles an hour into a church in Poughkeepsie and suicide. And Meredith’s mother died young. So at this kind of tragic stuff happening in her family.
Meredith had yearned for years and years for a stable, normal, happy, loving family life. And I told her stories about my background, an alcoholic dad whom I idolized. He was fun and he was funny. He was well read, articulate, intelligent, but he also lived inside a vodka bottle and the late night screaming inside my house, arguments with words like bitch and divorce coming out to a seven-year-old kid made me realize in memory that I yearned for it as much as Meredith. So we, through six hours in our restaurant talking about our lives, we realized that we each wanted the same things.
Miller: Did you think that you could create something that neither of you had had when you were little? You came with all these fears, right? Or experiences of dysfunction. Were you scared that you wouldn’t be able to create a function?
O’Brien: Terrified. Meredith was afraid that she had transmitted to our firstborn Timmy this crazy gene. She had escaped it. She was bracketed by these two sisters.
One, suicide, and the other in a mental institution. Timmy didn’t stop crying for the first six weeks or so of his life, he just didn’t stop. He cried when he was hungry, he cried when he wasn’t hungry, cried when he was in a crib, cried when he wasn’t in his crib, but never stopped. And we’d keep calling the pediatric nurses and they’d say to us babies cry, as if we didn’t know [laughter], and they called it colic and they had all these, colic is symptomatic. It’s symptomatic. It’s not about causative stuff, like what’s causing the kid to cry. And we both felt that guilt of bringing into the world Jack the Ripper.
And eventually one day this got infectious, Meredith just started weeping outside the boy’s bedroom and I didn’t really plan it. I just did it. I put us into a car and we drove to the emergency room of a hospital and about, I’d say 6-7 hours later, we emerged with three prescriptions: Xanax for me, Xanax for Meredith and a drug called Prilosec for Timmy. He was suffering from acid reflux. We didn’t know this. We were rookie greenhorn parents. We thought we had caused this boy’s seeming hatred for the world living in
Miller: In your defense, the earlier doctors didn’t know it either.
O’Brien: They didn’t take the trouble to look at him till I brought him into the emergency room that day. They just pooh poohed it, put him on top of a clothes dryer and in a little basket and it kind of worked, but it worked only on Meredith, she’d go to sleep, but the kid just kept screaming. So that was our introduction to …there was also the issue of our crusty over the hill chromosomes that we were both older parents. And we therefore assumed a lot of the blame.
Miller: You write that one of the ways you tried to get Timmy to stop crying was by singing him first “Row, row, row your boat.” And then pretty quickly just dirty versions of that to amuse yourself and I guess pass the time and try your best to get him to sleep or at least stop screaming. And then throughout the book, when your boys both get older that phrase “row, row” keeps coming back. What does it mean to you?
O’Brien: Now, it means let’s say you have a toothache and you pull the tooth. So the ache and the hurt is gone, which is when Prilosec pulled the toothache of Timmy’s crying. I missed holding that little boy in the dark making up these filthy lyrics to “Row Row Row Your Boat.” That it was a way of keeping myself sane. It’s a round and you can’t sing “merrily, merrily, merrily” for six hours without going nuts. So I’d insert my own lyrics, most of them political lyrics sort of going after people I despised. [laughter] But in the filthiest language I could do it. It’s a way of keeping myself there and I missed it.
The tooth is out. You don’t miss the pain, but there’s something different which was, I wasn’t doing that any longer holding that boy. And now that the same child is 16 years old, I miss him in kind of the same way. It’s the teenage syndrome of shutting doors, physically shutting doors to a bedroom. But the doors of his head keep getting shut.
Public school. “Fine.” How is your buddy Sean? “He’s OK.” It’s just monosyllabic stuff coming at me where when he was young, he’d blubber on forever about these things. And that’s over now.
Miller: You describe your life pre-kids as being essentially all about writing, either actively writing or thinking about writing and to a great extent that stopped when you had your boys. Did you miss it?
O’Brien: No. Because of my own background with my dad, I made a decision right away when I found out Meredith was pregnant, I was going to quit writing and I did for 10 years.
O’Brien: Because you have to be present as a father, above all else. If you’re not present, what else can you do? You can’t discipline, you can’t instruct, you can’t cuddle and show love. You can’t do anything if you’re not physically there.
And as a writer, as I mentioned a moment ago, I was spending 12-15 hours a day at a computer and the rest worrying. So I had to do it. I’m so glad I did, but I did not miss it because my life was filled almost instantly, like having a vacuum and something else is sucked into the vacuum, which is this enormous sense of responsibility for the life of a human being and a sense of love that came on me like gunfire, it just was all around me, only good gunfire love. And I didn’t miss it. I would occasionally jot down little messages in a bottle for the two boys. My second son was born two years later and they were just a little one or page two vignettes that I would write every couple of years and I put him in a desk drawer with the thought that, well, I’m going to die sooner than most fathers. And the odds are really good that when they’re in college, they’re not going to have a father anymore and certainly not in middle age.
I wanted to leave behind something of the sound of their father’s voice that would come through the vowels and the consonants and pages of a book or not a book but at least pages. One day when my younger son was about seven, he came into my study, he saw the stack of pages, maybe 30 of them that later became this book. And he said, “What is that?” And I said, “These are love letters to you.” And he said, “Is it a book?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, if you wrote more pages, would it be a book?” And I said, “Maybe.” And very, very sternly, He said, “Well, you got to call it what it is. You got to be honest, call it your maybe book.” And I kind of pooh poohed it. I put the idea aside. But later when he went to bed that night, I was chuckling with Meredith about his suggestion. And she reminded me that every book is a maybe book, “War and Peace” was once a maybe book until the last period went on these 600 pages and every book is that way.
So many books end up at the bottom of a trash can or unpublished. Time and love and passion go into these things, and they end up not being books. Insanity intrudes, heart attacks happen. You lose the desire to write all things, all kinds of things can, maybe book and do a never book. And that struck me, and it also struck me that back in Vietnam, I was infected with this kind of maybe-ness thing when every step was a maybe step one. We live, we worked in an area of operation that was heavily landmined and almost, I’d say 85-90% of our casualties in Vietnam came from mines…
Miller: Can I stop you there? What does it mean to have one of the deadliest things around you not be a person that you’re fighting against but literally the ground?
O’Brien: It’s horrible. Your myth about wars, you shoot back at something but you can’t kill a landmine. It’s inanimate, it’s made out of plastic and gunpowder. So frustration builds up and a kind of bitterness, guys losing their legs and arms and lives and nothing to shoot back at. And it happened so repetitively. That was my war essentially. And that’s what the danger of my war was. Other soldiers had different experiences in different parts of the country, but that was mine. And that idea of, maybe that’s my last step, maybe in the next one, and that infected me for pretty much the rest of my life that everything became maybe for me.
I had a difficulty and still have difficulty getting a statement out of my mouth without instantly modifying it or qualifying it in my head. It’s hard to get rid of that. And now in my old age, I’m 73 now, that maybe thing is back with a vengeance when you got these two young kids and you’re my age and given what biology is, tomorrow’s a maybe. And finally, it occurred to me that we’re all leading maybe lives full of maybe tomorrows, maybe not, followed by another maybe tomorrow until the last period is put on that final sentence. So we’re all in it.
So what had begun as kind of a clever little line coming from Tad made me decide to call the book what it is. There’s a bad side to this. The bad side is people think it’s a parenting book [laughter] which has bedeviled me now for a month on this book tour. If you want to buy a maybe book, there’s plenty of Powells. You can buy a parenting book there. They got tons of them, but don’t buy mine because you’re going to throw it at the wall. It’s not, I couldn’t even advise myself about what to do as a parent. It’s all trial and error. I wouldn’t advise you.
Miller: That gets to one of the things that you actually do want to instruct your kids though. One of the things that you, I think it’s fair to say, both hate and fear is various versions of absolutism. You write, “The bizarre vanity of killer certainty scares me.” But how do you teach people, in this case our two boys, to not be certain about things, to resist surety?
O’Brien: I teach them. But I mean, I don’t teach them. I try to teach them. They don’t always pick up on everything, but I told them, for example, the word “maybe” is not immoral. You’re not going to get put in jail for it. It’s not evil. It’s a perfectly good word. And so are the words like I think, or it seems to me, in my opinion. There’s a whole arsenal of words that aren’t full of this sort of decisive certainty about things like slam dunk, sort of the opposite of that. My wife does the same thing. We’ll stop them if they say, for example, “oh, that teacher is just awful” and we’ll stop and say “that’s a little too certain and why don’t you wait and give the teacher a chance and see if you modify it.” And they’ll reluctantly do it and over time they start using it. It’s a language thing, they’ll start using language. It seems to me if you say a thing enough, you start using it repetitively.
Miller: Why are you so passionate about this?
O’Brien: Because absolutism can kill people.
O’Brien: And it has, and I watched it happen for too long in my life, not just in Vietnam, but all around me. It’s a killer thing. And I don’t want to be the parent of Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler. I’ll take Jack the Ripper over them. And then the converse of that, of course, is that I don’t want my kids to be the victims of absolutism.
Miller: Are there any kind of moral absolutes that you do want to give your kids?
O’Brien: Well, if there are, I don’t know what they are.
Miller: The golden rule. How about that one?
O’Brien: Yeah, the golden rule can apply…I’ll give you an example of what is a problem with that example.
O’Brien: So, because that’s what I’m holding on to my four-year-old and two-year-old. So one day Jimmy asked me, “Are you a pacifist?” And I said, yes. That’s an absolutist statement, right? And he said, “Well, what if somebody broke into our house with a gun and put the gun in my mouth and threatened to kill me? What would you do?” And I said, “Well, I didn’t try to talk to him first.” [laughter] And Timmy gave me this long disbelieving stare like you’re my dad and you’re only going to talk to the guy.
And so he said, “Well, what if, what if the guy is really, really, really nasty? And his finger starts to twitch? Would you kill him?” And I said, “Yes, I try to.” And then he gave me another stare and said, “What kind of pacifist is that?” [laughter] And I said, “The father kind.” That’s an explicit response to your question that there’s a rule I value, nonviolence. And I don’t believe in slaughtering people, including children. And that’s a core belief that I’ve had since Vietnam that I run through everything I’ve written. I don’t declare it explicitly, but I try to display it through story. And yet there’s an exception even to that, which is a kind of golden rule to do unto others as they do unto you. This pacifism that’s deep in my heart comes from that. And yet there are exceptions. And that’s an example of one that I find it really hard to fasten on. Absolutely.
Knowing that I’ve been so wrong in my life, at least as wrong as often wrong as I’ve been right. And I’ve come to recognize that and probably the only wisdom I’ve accumulated over my 73 years is you’re not always right and you change your mind about so many things.
Miller: You write about the war at one point in the book, “In a way, all these years afterward, it’s as if none of it ever happened, but in another way, it’s still happening and will never stop.” You wrote that about the entirety of your life. But if you think specifically about your life as a father, how did the war affect you as a father?
O’Brien: Well, this is one way. My belief in not slaughtering people came out of the war, especially to stop Ho Chi Minh from running through the streets of Portland or dominoes falling and all the sort of reasons that were given for the war. All so often I’ll speak to audiences much like this one and only they’re undergraduates usually at the college and I’ll tear up and talk about what I witnessed and did and then someone will raise a hand and say, “Who won?” I mean, 3 million dead people and the student doesn’t know who won and then another hand will go up. “What was it all about?” And all about means dominoes and containing communism, stuff they don’t even know about. And I’ll try to patiently explain it all, but in the back of my head I’m thinking 3 million dead people and 50 years later, they don’t even know what it was all about. Why all the dead people, if you can’t inherit anything from it?
My kids get this message, I am going to your question now and they get it though, not in explicit statements like I just gave you, they get it from what they watch when memory of Vietnam intersects with a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving, and I’ll sort of leave the dinner table in my head and they’ve come to see that in their dad where I fall silent.
Miller: What do you think they think is happening when that happens?
O’Brien: They think I’ve retreated in memory to something bad and they’re right. Their mom helps them understand this. She’s talked to them. I’ve never really talked to them about what was happening then, but my wife has explained to them that she’s been with me a long time and she knows what’s happening. I don’t get angry. I don’t tear up. I go quiet as so many veterans do. That’s the instinct that a veteran has. It’s partly to avoid pain, but it’s also who am I? And how did that happen to me? And why did I allow it to happen? And it’s not a tragedy exactly. It’s remembrance, a kind of solemn reverent remembrance. Much like maybe if someone who had breast cancer might 20 years later look back and go silent when the word brassiere comes up or some similar thing and falls silent, not crying, but just into a kind of silence. My kids have recognized that. They call it “dad’s bad place.” And it is.
Miller: It occurs to me now that as you described earlier, the entire kernel of this was you wanted to redress what you saw is something that was a huge gap in your life. You wanted to make sure whether you are with your boys or not, that they know who you were, at least on some level. And they have that. There’s a ton of you in this book, but it also seems like there is hopefully a huge part of your experience there that will forever be a gap that they will not–and I say hopefully–have that experience. Do you think that there’s some deep part of you that no matter what you write or talk about, they will never get that?
O’Brien: Well, it’s very true. I mean, it’s the circumstance that we all face. In the way, I’m facing it right now. My older kid is 16, he’s going to go away to college. I’m going to lose him. Fathers lose sons, not just to death. That’s not the only way, but when they have to get independent and start driving the car to a theater with a girl and you want to be in the back seat, still singing “Row, Row” on that first date and there’s that loss that you have when a child goes away to college and gets married. Yeah, you kind of celebrate all these things, the independence, but at the same time, there is a sense of accompanying loss. That’s part of the human predicament and worth writing about.
In the end, what I care to write about are things that all of us experience in one way or another. You don’t have to be in a war to know that war sucks. You can in your imagination, imagine it in your own lives how time sort of slows down and something bad has happened and you’re lying in bed at one o’clock in the morning feeling bad and you look at your watch and it’s now after a minute, 2 a.m., and another minute goes by and it’s 3 a.m. We’ve all felt that dripping sensation when we’re in a time of introspection.
So the effort I’ve made through my whole career and tried to make explicit in this book, not just through fiction, but explicit, is this thing we all share, whether you’re a father or a daughter or a son, whatever you may be, is that we’re going to share this sense of finality that the world has given us. The chipmunks aren’t aware of it. We aren’t chipmunks. So it’s a gift. It’s not a morbid thing. It’s human to recognize that the end will be coming and to, in a way, squeeze into what time there is, give all the love you can.
Can I tell one…this is related to what you just asked?
Miller: Does anybody mind if he tells this story now? OK, you have permission.
O’Brien: I feel like I’m in a church. I feel like I’m a minister [laughter].
Miller: It’s not me.
O’Brien: But this is why I trust the story. This exactly pertains to your question. So we as a family, we were in Southern France. The kids were then seven and nine years old and we were staying at this way too expensive resort, way beyond our means. Everybody there looked like George Hamilton. They were all bronzed and tan and movie-star-looking, rich, bejeweled, coiffed hair, toupee. I mean it was just rich.
Miller: But good toupees. Gucci.
O’Brien: Yeah, this is a Gucci and I look like this. I mean blue jeans and a baseball cap. So out of place and my wife and I were outside having a drink at an outdoor bar and we were watching our kids play ping pong at an outdoor ping pong table. And the phone rang, my cell phone rang, and I answered it and it was my sister calling to say my mother had died and I can as vividly as I can see you right now. And this setting that I’m in, I can recollect this indelible moment of this guy getting that news in a setting that seems so foreign to me in all ways, not just language in France, but the richness and the beauty of the setting, the Mediterranean below, the immaculate green lawns all around me and all these figures dressed in a white linen and walking around. I felt so Minnesotan as I heard this news. I went over to my kids at the ping pong table, seven and nine years old, and I told them my mother had died and they didn’t say much and I didn’t say much beyond that.
And for the next two hours, we just played ping pong in this expensive French sunlight around us, the ball going back and forth, much as my thoughts were pinging around–my mom is a young woman and my mom in a retirement home and then back to her middle age and back to her youth just pinging all over the place. And after two hours, dusk began to settle in and it got time for dinner and to avoid the expensive restaurant, we, as a family went down a long sloping hill into a small village about a quarter of a mile away. And I can still see that purple twilight around us and this solemn beauty. And I took Timmy’s hand and I said, “Are you thinking about grandma?” And he said, “No. I’m thinking about you thinking about grandma.”
And so much happened inside me. It just happened again for a second, right to draw a breath. I had so misjudged my own kid. I thought he was wrapped up in his little boy thoughts of ping pong balls and Rubik’s cubes stuff and basketball and he was capable in a way I just didn’t recognize of a thing called empathy, of otherness, of caring about what was happening in his father’s head and imagining what his father was thinking about, his own mother. That in a way he’d become a better human being than I was. I mean, I used to have, as a child, great qualities of caring about others, sometimes crying for other people.
Kafka calls this the mankind’s frozen sea. And he said that what books are for is to take the ax to the frozen sea inside us. And with that line of Timmy, no, I’m thinking about you thinking about grandma, it’s like an ax kidding into me. That’s literature. That’s a great line. I would be proud to have written. It’s in my book, but I didn’t write it. [laughter] I wish I had. So it’s not as kids say the darndest thing. It’s way beyond that. It’s a heart thing.
Miller: How did you approach bedtime stories for your young boys, given that you’ve made a career as a storyteller.
O’Brien: I tried to make them as dirty as I could. [laughter]
Miller: Oh, you wrote your own or you recited your own?
O’Brien: I didn’t use bad language. I just, I just had farting teachers and things like that. I had to make them listen and when I got them laughing, I knew they were listening.
Miller: Was it always in the moment or would you think about them in advance?
O’Brien: Almost always in the moment. Now and then as we prepared for bedtime, I thought, oh God, I gotta tell a story. What is it going to be? But I had a stable of characters I had created by that point and I could draw on their personalities to tell these stories. Personality is not quite the right word. They had bad habits. Each of them had a different bad habit and I’d say, which bad habit am I going to talk about? They were tied to things that were important to me. Each bad habit was something that one of my kids had only I gave the character in the extreme. I mean, they had what my kids had only a really bad absence of discipline. The characters would have no discipline.
Anyway, I did have something to draw on, which is kind of how it works. When you’re working in a novel, you’ve got characters you’ve established and as you come to work each day, you can develop the habits of those characters and even change their habits slightly and then return to them or complicate the habits we all have. The habit of solitude, the habit of falling in love with the wrong people or whatever it might be and you can complicate it. And that’s what I tried to do with my stories.
I trust the story in a way that I don’t trust myself right now, as I’m speaking now. It’s abstract, it’s generalizing and I am amending everything I’m saying. But when I’m telling a story, I completely trust it. It’s a way of saying no, I’m thinking about you thinking about grandma and the setting of it just got out to, I trust it to carry not just an intellectual message, but to appeal to the stomach and to the heart and to the tear ducts and to whatever the laugh ducts are and to the whole human being. I trust the story that way. And that’s basically how I talk to, try to talk to my kids. If they ask me about Vietnam, I don’t lecture them. I don’t give them history lessons. I’ll tell them a story.
Miller: You write a lot about pride in the book, an inescapable part for most parents. And it seems like you have pretty ambivalent feelings about it, recognizing that it’s almost universal, but also regret it a little bit. But what makes you proud of your boys these days? Feel free to brag.
O’Brien: Well, they’re kind, generous, spirited, polite, nice boys. How do I frame it? This is hard to say. Throughout my whole life, I’ve really not liked boastful fathers and I still don’t like boastful other fathers. So I’m trying to tamp down my boastfulness.
Can I tell another anecdote?
Miller: Yes. The last one you told was what I was hoping I would elicit from you. So you did it. Well, I just, it came out naturally. But yes, please.
O’Brien: No, I mean, this is, again, I think directly responsive. So, Timmy, when he was in ninth grade, he’d lived and breathed basketball from the time he was seven years old or maybe even a little younger. He could tell you the name of a retired Bulgarian point guard and all his statistics and how he’d done. He practiced constantly, loved the game and he got really good at it. And then in ninth grade, he was cut from his high school basketball team. He was devastated, it was catastrophic. He came home from school that day. He could barely get the words out of his mouth, “I’ve been cut.”
And then he went into his room, closed the door and didn’t open it for 6-7 weeks. I don’t mean literally, I mean, he did come to dinner, but he was silent. Now and then I had to ask him, “Are you ok?” He’d say, “I’m fine.” That was all. But he wasn’t fine. He was mortified. He was humiliated. He no longer could hang out with his old friends. They’d made the team. He didn’t, he’d lost his friends. He no longer went to basketball games. He just stopped going. He didn’t do anything except come home and close the door and it went on and on and on.
One evening I was sitting on the sofa and reading a book and he came out of his bedroom and came over to me and he’s really tall. He’s like 6′2″ or so. He’s the opposite of me. He’s tall and really skinny and a teenager, and he got onto the sofa with me and he put his arms around me and just cuddled me. Teenagers don’t do that. Especially tall male teenagers and he said, “I probably wasn’t good enough.” And I said, “Probably not.” And then he said, “But dad, I love you so much.” And to have those words come out of the tight-lipped teenage blue, just blows away basketball. I mean, it’s just that putting a big orange ball in a hole is not as important to a father as those words, “But I love you so much.” So out of something really catastrophic to him. He’s still mortified by it. This is not over two years later, but there’s something that came out of it that I was yearning for so much that had vanished since when he was young, when he got to those teenage years, the word love wasn’t uttered anymore, and kissing got hard to do. He’d sort of look around and make sure nobody was watching and then peck me as fast as he could. And that returned.
So it’s a story in a sense but it carries with it what I want. You can’t say exactly intellectually what because it’s not meant to carry an abstract or intellectual meaning It’s meant to appeal to your brain partly, but also to something inside you that I think is human and about all of us that in one way or another, we all crave love, maybe the love of God or the love of a woman or the love of children, the love of a friend. But it’s what being human is for me in its essence anyway. And to have it come out of catastrophe is pretty great.
Miller: How much do your kids know that you think about this? I mean, because in a sense what we’re talking about is death, right?
Miller: That’s at the heart of all of this - the end is not being there with him. How much do they know that this is on your mind?
O’Brien: Another little anecdote. So when Timmy was 10, maybe 11, it was late at night, maybe 12 or so at midnight and I was reading again on the couch and I thought he’d been in bed since nine or so and he had been, he came out crying and I said, what are you crying about? And he sat down on the edge of the sofa and he said, “You’re going to die. And I’m not going to have a dad anymore.” He had seen my hearing aids and my gray hair and my face [laughter] and he knew that the fathers of his friends are at least a full generation younger than I, at least that. And he put this stuff together. He’s no dummy. And it made him cry and he repeated himself, “I’m not going to have a father.” And I said, “I know.” Some silence went by and he cried some more and finally he said, “I guess we’re going to have to have some fun together.” Thank God he worded it that way because I was able to chuckle. I think what he meant was let’s play touch football until you can’t anymore.
They know and I’m near the end of this month-long book tour now and really surprising–this is again answering your question–a thing happened maybe two stops ago in LA. A friend of mine texted me. You know how Amazon has these comments you can post, when you write a book and so on. And this friend of mine texted me and said, “you got to go on Amazon. And I said, “why?” And he said, “there’s a good surprise waiting for you.” So I went on. So my son, Tad, who’s kind of the rascal of the family. He’ll say anything to anybody about any subject. And it’s almost always funny that that’s what he’s about, exactly the reverse of Timmy, sort of sober and earnest and gentle. And so I go on Amazon, there’s a literary, what do you call it, review, from Tad like, that’s one sentence long, “My dad wrote this book, it’s fantastic.” [laughter] It should have been a period. My brother, Timmy, and I are in it and we do really funny things that I like to recall, sort of run on problems with grammar and some sad things also happen.
And I think, well, that comment was made because I’d spoken to him on the phone the night before saying how exhausted I was and how depressing book tours are and sometimes humiliating, probably that’s how I’m going to feel when I’m done with this. I made the comment, I’m too old for this and he picked up on that thinking I’m going to help dad up a lot, help him out a little bit.
And there’s one other similar little anecdote and that is we were watching basketball one night and it was a Lakers-Celtics game, I think. I’m pretty sure. Anyway, it was a really tight, good game. Tad and I were watching it. He was at the time like eight, I would say, somewhere in there, and we were intensely watching this game, both of us really into it, and then out of nowhere, Tad said, “Hey dad, that guy in the Bible, Methuselah.”
Miller: Always a good start. [laughter]
O’Brien: How old was he? Yeah. And I said, I don’t know, maybe 1,000 years old. And Tad said, wow. But he was staring at me [laughter] and yeah, so the game goes on and we get to the very end. There’s like 20 seconds left in the game and it’s like a two-point game. I mean, anybody can win and out. I’m just staring at the TV. And out of nowhere he’s sitting over here, he says, “What exactly did he eat good?” [laughter] And I know at the time I laughed, but again I was Methuselah and he wanted to find out if he could keep me alive longer by eating broccoli or whatever, cauliflower. So he’s aware, too.
Miller: Tim O’Brien. It was a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.
That’s the author, Tim O’Brien. His latest book is called “Dad’s Maybe Book.” We spoke in front of an audience as part of the 2019 Portland Book Festival.
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