The Mission: She hadn't been to her father's grave since she was 13 but questions were drawing her back

Clockwise from top left: The author with her parents and siblings on the flight line; her father at a 1969 swearing-in; the author and her son during their recent trip; her son at the cemetery.
Clockwise from top left: The author with her parents and siblings on the flight line; her father at a 1969 swearing-in; the author and her son during their recent trip; her son at the cemetery. (Photo illustration by Alicia Buelow )
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By Karen Houppert
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sometimes the rending of parent and child is abrupt, sometimes gradual.

Always, it is painful.

It happens at age 13, in my experience. It was the last year I spent with my father. It is the age my son is now.

My son does not want to be here, camping by a lake in a state park near Selma, Ala., with his parents and his dog. He wanted to bring a friend. My husband and I had debated the matter but selfishly decided against it; had Zack brought a friend, they would have spent the time tethered to either half of the iPod earbuds, speaking in cryptic code about Linkin Park, Katy Perry and "Family Guy," barely giving us the time of day.

Now I watch him stare moodily into the fire he has lovingly crafted. He is perched on a log, hunched forward with his skinny arms wrapped around his skinny legs -- a bony pterodactyl poised for flight. Reaching for a stick, he pokes a pine cone closer to some glowing embers and waits. He is rewarded moments later with a burst of flames that light up his face -- and his grin of pleasure.

Zack is a burgeoning pyromaniac. To fulfill his apprenticeship requirement for seventh grade this year, he took a job at a glass-blowing studio. He's still trying to wrap his head around the idea that anyone would call this -- powering the blowtorch for a man twirling molten glass -- a job. He picks up every abandoned lighter he finds on Baltimore's litter-strewn streets and flicks it relentlessly for a spark. On Facebook, my husband discovers, our son has posted a photo of himself and a friend igniting a squirt of bug spray. In his bedroom. Several action figures -- only bad guys thus far -- have met their deaths in our back yard, coated with Axe deodorant and burned beyond recognition in a Bustelo coffee can.

When I worried aloud to a friend who teaches middle school about this love affair with fire, she laughed at me: "Yeah, him and every other 12- and 13-year-old boy I've ever met."

I remember 13, but I recall the time before my father's death as though I am watching events taking place behind a scrim that blurs the edges and blunts details. That was the year I decided not to talk in school. At all. Ever. I was awkward and shy, and my lips felt pleasant resting closed against each other, because they were clearly not up to the task of keeping pace with my flurry of confused thoughts -- which came to rest only fleetingly on the topics of class discussion. Though this was not my purpose, I wondered vaguely whether anyone would notice. They did not. I got all A's.

My father inquired after my studies that year the same way he did every day of my life; I responded in kind.

"How was school?"

"Fine."

"What'd you learn?"


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