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A Letter to a Son About His Father
This past Sunday, December 7 on MSNBC, I watched one of the best feature documentaries I have ever seen—ever, in my entire life, I kid you not. Made by Kurt Keunne, the film was originally intended to be viewed by only the friends and family of Andrew Bagby, to tell this man’s story to his son through their eyes, a tribute from one friend to another. But this film is anything but a simple story: It is gut-wrenching in its relentlessness, taking the viewer on a journey that is so powerful, so impassioned, that by the end, I dare you to come away from this experience unchanged.
Dear Zachary has already been named one of the top 5 documentaries by the National Board of Review, and it won Best Documentary at the Orlando Film Festival and the Audience Award at the St. Louis International Film Festival. The film will reair on MSNBC on Sunday December 14 at 4 p.m EST. Set your DVR’s now. I hesitate to tell you too much about the film or to send you to the blog page because I really want you to view this film through unadulterated eyes, and then I beg you to please react as many viewers have, and go to the website, www.dearzachary.com, so that you can join in the common cause for reform. Trust me, if you have read anything that I have written, and if you have been moved in any way by anything that I have written, you will want to watch this movie, and you will want to visit the website. But please do not visit the website before you have seen the movie.
Let me just say that I spent moments of this movie literally gasping for air at the injustices that unrolled before me, and many other moments in tears, sometimes in awe at the pure bravery of Kate and David Bagby, and at other times in despair because of the ways in which the human heart is expected to endure more sorrow than it should ever have to bear. There is a hero here; in fact, there are several. There are several victims, unfortunately. And there is most definitely a monster, seemingly unlikely, yet not at all so if anyone had bothered to look closely. There is bureacracy galore, and there is more than enough injustice for a thousand families. You will find it hard to pinpoint your rage, and well you should.
Yet it is this one family, an extended family to be sure, that endures this devastating sequence of tragedies. Keunne’s narrative honesty is almost too much for the viewer at times, making you feel as if you are intruding on moments that should remain private, and sometimes, you have to wonder at his ability to finish this legacy to his friend—where did he find the stamina to continue? But then you remember that it is because of his love for Andrew that he was able to bring this story to the public in the first place.
At its core, Dear Zachary reminds us to cherish what we have for as long as we have it, and it simultaneously reminds us of the ugliness that waits right outside our doors, just when we think that we are safe. Please watch this film. If you appreciate well-made documentaries, you will admire Keunne’s phenomenal skills. If you respect well-written, thoroughly researched stories that do not turn away from complex, riveting storylines, that dare to go down dark allies in the glaring light of day, you will be drawn in within the first few moments of Dear Zachary and be unable to turn away until the final pen scratches on the page.
A Personal Response to Dear Zachary
It’s odd how so many things lately are drawing me to my own poems. After watching Dear Zachary, I went into my poetry file and looked at a number of poems that I had written after Caitlin died. Most of them were pure grief on the page. However, the ones that I wrote years removed from her death were different: For one thing, they had the benefit of time and space, which allowed me to turn my raw grief into more than just rambling words on a page. I found several that I actually liked, and a few that I can work with. The one below, however, is one that I always liked because it wasn’t written specifically for Caitlin. I wrote it after reading a poem by the wonderful poet Michael Harper about his son Reuben. I learned a lot about writing about grief from reading Harper’s work. His poems were not full of maudlin sentimentality, yet they reflected sentiment and love, something I had struggled with when trying to write about Caitlin.
I had decided to write a poem in which I addressed Harper about his son Reuben and my daughter Caitlin, and in so doing, I think that I found a common ground between two grieving parents, even though we never met. Parents who have lost children are part of a strange society: No one wants to belong to this group, but once you belong, and you meet another member, you form an instant connection. This is one of the reasons why I still am very careful about what kind of movies I watch; I don’t like to watch movies in which a child is lost to an illness, and I surprised myself by voluntarily watching Dear Zachary, but I am so very glad that I did.
Perhaps wrongly, you assumed
“say nightmare, say it loud
nightmare begins reponsibility.”
— Michael S. Harper from Nightmare Begins Responsibility
that in 28 hours
your son, Reuben, never knew
that the cloudy sky of his isolette
was not home
to the night wind or morning rain,
that he was unaware
of how you kept your death watch
and then signed the papers in black ink
to consign him to heaven.
that he did not know that you loved him.
But if I am to continue with this existence,
to move past my heartmadness,
then I must assume
that Reuben waited patiently for Caitlin,
waited for the seven months,
eleven days, and
that was her life
to be over
so that he could show her
how the pattern of the stars
in the blackest of skies
are time’s eternal mirror
of Reuben, of Caitlin
and all who came before and after,
unreal, asleep, silent
As always, there will be more later. Peace.