I don't remember which Christmas it was. We were still living in Texas at the time, but I was old enough to have been questioning the veracity of Santa Claus for a few years. We had come over to Papa and Joie's house on Christmas afternoon to open presents and run about and pester Papa to take us on rides in his golf cart.
The Christmases of childhood seem to have such established patterns: we did this and this and this for 700 years. For my family, the 700 years was spent going down to Lake Jackson. We stayed at my mother's parents' house and had a big Christmas in the morning, then went over to Papa and Joie's for another Christmas and lunch.
I can't remember if my father imposed this rule or if I imposed it upon myself, having developed his sense of propriety from an early age, but the Christmas spoils of the morning were never taken to the second Christmas at Papa and Joie's for fear of sparking a diplomatic incident with the other grandkids. The policy had positives and negatives. I never got in a fight with Shawn Jr. over whose Christmas presents were better (thank goodness -- he would have kicked my ass), but I spent the time at Papa and Joie's wishing I could get back to my new toys.
That sense of propriety stems from Joie, my father's mother, who gave each of the grandkids the exact same gift. This was the Christmas that she gave us all little AM radios that looked like Sunkist oranges. These were items collected at the local Texaco, where they had been offered for 99 cents with the purchase of a full tank of gas. At the end of the day, my brother and I were piling into the minivan when Papa came out with a secreted additional Christmas gift just for me.
A pen set.
Who gives a kid a pen set? What the hell kind of gift is that? A pen set would be no match against my friends' invasion-force-sized G.I. Joe haul. I muttered a thank you and got in the car. On the way home, my dad told me that I shouldn't mention getting an extra gift to the other grandkids. Yeah, Dad. As if I would.
We moved to Minnesota and Christmas tradition became me barbecuing a rack of ribs in sub-zero temperatures. I started writing. My journal; insufferable poetry aimed at getting girls to make out with me or feel really bad about not doing so; short stories. I wore a pen around my neck. I went to college.
In my first attempt at college -- in Moorhead, Minn., some 12 years ago -- I was particularly fond of writing letters and so managed to stay in contact with Papa better than I ever had or have since. In one of his letters back to me, he told me that he thought I was a pretty good writer and that he hoped I'd do something with it some day.
And I thought back to that pen set.
For the past several months, Papa has been in hospital -- unresponsive and in an existence that arguably goes against the wishes of his living will. On Wednesday, the family were all gathered in his hospital room, discussing with doctors the possibility of taking him off life support, of finally letting him go.
Then, click. Papa was there. He was slow. He was groggy. But he was there, suddenly talking for the first time in four months. The doctor started asking him questions to check alertness: name, date of birth, etc. Then he asked: what do you do for a living?
He's been retired for years, and hasn't been a sports writer for even longer, but the answer resonates with me. If he had been at his most lucid, I like to think that he wouldn't have answered differently. It's what he is.
These days I go around calling myself a writer (it's catchier than "Z-list foreign celebrity"). And much of what I am, and how I approach writing is inspired by him:
- Most notably, my policy on using profanity comes from him: "Sometimes it just fits."
- From him I get an admiration of (if not necessarily adherence to) athleticism in writing: removing cliché, unnecessary adjectives, etc.
- And from him I get the life lesson that the dumb option isn't always the wrong one.
The only person with a copy of my novel is my Papa. And the greatest compliment I've ever received about my writing came from that:
"I had to put it down," he told me. "It was so real, man. Really real."
The family gathered in Papa's hospital room sat and chatted with him for two hours, exhausting him with any questions they could think to ask, almost fighting with him to not go gentle. Everyone but my brother and I was there -- Jon and I tied to our worlds hundreds or thousands of miles away -- and they all got to tell him that they love him. It tears me up that I wasn't there, too. To shout: "I love you, Papa. I steal all your ideas!"
If you call yourself a writer, it's one of those things you feel is imprinted on your soul. You hope that if there is a heaven, you will spend eternity wearing a little name badge with just that word on it: "writer." And if you give someone the tools of your trade, what you are trying to give them is the ironically indescribable something that means so much to you.
I don't know where that pen set is now. I think it may be in a box, inside a box, somewhere in my parents' storage area. It doesn't matter. I've got what my Papa was trying to give me.