‘Fathers and Sons’


Back in 1986, I heard that a guy I’d gone to college with was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We’d been friendly for a year or two in school but hadn’t been in touch since. His news found its way to me because I was then just in my second year of remission from lymphoma, and somebody for some reason thought maybe I could be of some use to him.

I saw him a bit, as his health allowed, but mostly we talked on the phone. I was working in publishing in mid-town, and he had been doing law and was already working as a clerk for a superior court judge in New York City, who to her lasting credit kept him on the payroll until the end.

He wasn’t interested in talking about cancer and neither was I. We both wanted to be brilliant writers and we talked about that instead. We wanted to figure out how to make our dreams come true as if all we had to do was crack some secret code to make it happen. My God, we laughed so hard at ourselves even then.

We started a book club with each other before that was a thing. We didn’t call it that but agreed to read the same book and talk about it. I remember we talked way too much about what we’d already read trying to figure out what we could read in the time left. One of us heard something about Ernest Hemingway hating Ivan Turgenev, and we both worshipped Hemingway so we thought we should read Turgenev and learn to hate him too.

We picked up Fathers and Sons.

What a crazy choice. One of the main characters is this brilliant young man who dies of a wasting disease in his 20s. But because the overwhelming power of denial had us in its grip, I guess, we didn’t notice that, and instead focused on how love drove the plot.

And we liked it. It was written in 1862 on grand themes about which we knew nothing, but it was the kind of writing we could maybe do, we thought, for some reason. We’d read other Russians, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and you wanted to shoot yourself before it was over. But Turgenev was different. “I don’t know what it is, that thing he does, but I feel it,” my friend said.

His dad asked me if I could get him marijuana to ease the strain of chemotherapy. His doctor had only very subtly suggested it since at the time it was absolutely illegal. I never smoked pot or used other drugs but working in publishing in New York City in the 1980s exposed me to a range of associates in various businesses, including a DEA agent who wanted to be a writer and was friendly with some quality dealers. Bottom line — no one charged anything for delivering to his father whatever I asked for, and what I think now he needed to use as well.

The pot seemed to make a difference to my friend but after a few weeks he abruptly stopped. He said it didn’t help his nausea, pain, or fatigue. “It does make me hungry,” he said. “But hungry for other things.” I thought, naively, he meant food.

He died a month later. We were both 25 with good jobs and promising lives, but we were living like kids, always wanting to do something else. He died like a kid, meaning still full of dreams.

Ten years later, I was hacking away as a freelance writer on the shores of Puget Sound when my son was born. My wife was a busy professional, which meant I stayed home with our boy exploring cable channels at all hours. I got to know “the other young moms” at the YMCA, spent a lot of time exploring playgrounds, and developed a deep connection to mac and cheese and the Teletubbies. Later I embraced the nirvanic bliss of tee-ball, followed by the grueling hell of scorekeeping in Little League.

Our son learned to be a man at 10 when I collapsed one morning while waiting with him for the school bus. Nothing an ambulance ride and heart surgery couldn’t fix. He held my hand and told me to keep breathing, though I don’t remember that. He accompanied us to the weddings and funerals of our friends, and we stood by him when he had to bury a kid we’d known all his life who died by suicide at age 11.

We spent years riding our bikes and the neighbor’s horses up and down the roads around our rural home, stopping only to pick blackberries or swim naked in a secret saltwater cove, which the horses particularly enjoyed. There was his first time in a tuxedo for prom or homecoming, I can’t remember which, but I do remember dropping him off at his date’s house and her father’s hesitation when he opened the front door before saying, “Good evening, Mr. Bond.” Then came the pandemic and the social isolation teenagers handle so well, punctuated by the illness and deaths it brought to our family, including another friend’s death by suicide. And then college — ending now — and his designs on the future.

I remember my friend saying about Turgenev, “I don’t know what it is, that thing he does, but I feel it.”

I remember my son at those funerals, standing, expressionless, saying nothing. Like me at my friend’s funeral. I shook hands with his dad, but he didn’t look at me and we didn’t say anything. I knew what he was thinking, why did you live, and my son die? Because I was thinking the same thing.

I couldn’t put it this way then, but it was so simple. It didn’t matter that you could never change anything, your friend, your parent, your child, your fate. You loved, that is what mattered.

Ted Olinger
Ted Olinger
Ted Olinger is an award-winning writer and associate editor of the Key Peninsula News.


  1. Amen re. Turgenev. I’d imbibed the same bias against him, though not from Hemingway. Then I finally read ‘Fathers and Sons.’ What a fine novel–humane and incisive at once. Maybe Turgenev gets no respect because he didn’t write at Tolstoyan/Dostoevskyan length?
    I also recommend his wonderful short story ‘The Singers,’ collected and glossed in George Saunders’ ‘A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.’

  2. I like Turgenev. He didn’t like Tolstoy. Neither did Chekhov. Both liked him as a writer but not as a person. Although Tolstoy wrote sympathetic stories about peasants, he did not treat his own peasants very well, according to Turgenev and Chekhov. Turgenev, on the other hand, somewhat of a landed gentry, treated his peasants well. Chekhov, of course, grew up very poor.


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