Sunday, September 1, 2013

Behind the Scenes with Dr. Bob Z and John Livingstone

I love a good backstory. More than deleted scenes, it tells the tale behind the scenes, the storyline that may or may not find its way into print or onto film. Backstory means getting a glimpse of the life J.K. Rowling imagined, but didn't fully reveal, for Harry Potter between his final duel with Voldemort and the end of the story, 17 years later. Similarly, I've been taking a long look at the conversation between Dr. Bob Z. and Jessie's father, John Livingstone, on the occasion of John's birthday, in Pink Hats 20: Untarnished and In Uncharted Territory, and I'd like to tell a bit of their backstory.

Let's start with the basics of what we already know about them. John has been widowed and raised three children, putting them through medical and veterinary school, on his own. At 72, he operates a full-time, large-animal veterinary clinic along with his son and serves part-time as an unpaid pastoral minister in his late wife's church. Bob is 62, divorced, and his father is dead. A former opthalmologist, he eventually changed direction, completed a second residency in pediatrics, and has a busy practice in Portland. This isn't your typical confab between a young man starting out and an older, established parent of the bride-to-be. Our characters are grown men who have experienced some of the worst and best life has to offer.

If Bob were thirty years younger we'd naturally expect their exchange to have a somewhat different tone as well as focus. Bob would nervously do his best to speak convincingly of his love for Jessie and describe his prospects for the future. John would patiently offer advice about life, marriage, and what he himself has learned about being a good son-in-law. But that's not the case here and the conversation has to ratchet up several notches to take this into account. Bob is a mature man and he and John are more likely to relate as peers, a subject that comes up again in A Different Drummer.  

The pace of the conversation is also different. Both are direct, get to the point, no nonsense New Englanders. John has known marriage was on his daughter's mind since visiting with Jessie several weeks earlier (Life is too Short for Playing it Safe), so he's had time to do some thinking. It would make sense for him to have talked it over with her siblings, too. We can presume he's been observing Bob throughout the festivities, noting how he, Jessie, and the rest of the family interact, and no doubt, he's formed some impressions. By the time the two of them are sitting on the front porch, I think it's safe to say, he's already got a pretty good idea whether he's going to bless their relationship. What he needs to hear are the reasons for doing so in Bob's own words.

Now, unlike a younger prospective husband, Bob has clarify why he believes he should ask for Jessie's hand. I'm reminded of medical school admissions interviews and having to explain, Why do you want to undertake something of this magnitude now? It's not exactly the kind of question you're going to get if you're 22. Though John appears to casually break the ice by saying, "So, you want to marry my oldest daughter," what he's thinking is, Sooner or later Bob's going to ask, why not make it easier on us both? Bob knows he really doesn't need to ask because asking, in itself, implies a power differential that doesn't exist between peers. He wants John's blessing, however, because he understands how important her family is to Jessie. Asking, for him, is an act of love. It's undeniable proof he means it when he says, "She's always been more important to me than I was to myself." John also knows they don't need his approval -- Jessie can make her own decisions -- but Bob's desire to seek it anyway says a great deal about the kind of man he is and the kind of man she's getting. 

There is another element these men have in common, besides Jessie, that alerts us to the possibility their conversation will take us in directions we might not imagine. Both are admittedly skeptical about religion. John deals with his doubts by actively debating with his faith. Bob is more of a theologian than he gives himself credit for, but his theology is existential; it grows out of his experience of living and loving. John's is, too, but it bears the marks of conscious reflection and that enables him to help Bob make sense of, and give expression to, the deeper implications of what he's feeling and saying.

While some relationships entail one partner secretly wishing to remake the other into a romantic ideal, Bob openly wishes he was more like Jessie. He admires her as much as he loves her. He tells John that he feels as though he's being changed as a consequence of their relationship, but he's not sure how to describe it. He feels, not "young" as we'd expect, but "new and untarnished," which is much different. John interprets Bob's experience in terms of baptism -- death and resurrection -- and points out how some relationships, such as his with Jessie's mother and now theirs, can be profoundly transforming. What Bob is describing isn't simply a metaphor; it's real and observable. In essence, he says, relationships like yours don't come along every day, but when they do, there's no mistaking them. John can see the effects in his daughter and Bob can see them in himself.

I like this conversation and I hope I'm not alone. It reflects not only Bob's appreciation for Jessie and her family, but also the quality of his experience of being a son, an often neglected aspect in romantic relationships. How well we  integrate our same-sex parent into our identity as adults has an enormous impact on the kind of spouse we're capable of becoming. Bob exemplifies someone who, despite his father's absence, maintains their relationship through memory and demonstrates its influence in the way he treats those he loves. His children won't know their paternal grandfather like they'll know John, but through their father, they'll know him just the same. 

(Creative Commons image of a front porch such as the one where John and Bob have their conversation by nanetteturner via Flickr)
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