In the past several weeks, in the trailers and articles I’ve seen and read about the upcoming Mister Rogers movie, much has been familiar. As many of you know, I, too, was a deeply troubled journalist who met Fred Rogers on assignment and became the beneficiary of his otherworldly presence, compassion and love.
“The entirety of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is staged as a most loving conflict between two people: Rogers and the damaged inner child of the man who’s come to understand him,” Vanity Fair wrote after the movie, starring Tom Hanks as Fred, recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
That would be an accurate synopsis of my book, “I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers.”
In the movie, the journalist’s issues with his father figure prominently. They were certainly foundational to “I’m Proud of You.” It was in June 1996 that I sent a desperate letter to Fred, telling him about the years of life-threatening depression and self-loathing. All my life, I wrote then, I had been trying to get my father to be proud of me and never felt I had succeeded.
“So I have a question to ask you, Fred. Would you be proud of me?”
His reply, of course, was one for the ages.
But Fred’s compassion didn’t stop with me.
“Tell me about your dad,” he wrote to me a short time later. “What was ‘his childhood’ like?”
I confessed I didn’t know because I had never asked my dad about his early life. When I did, what I learned broke my heart. His childhood had been a nightmare. Little by little, compassion for my father took the place of the old pain, proof of another Fred Rogers truism: It’s much easier to love someone when you know their story. By the time of Dad’s death eight years ago, all I felt was the purest forms of love and sorrow.
It was this past June, on the morning of Father’s Day, that I came across a passage in my book that I hadn’t read in years, from the afterword of the most recent edition. I’ve published millions of words in a writing career that has now stretched on for more than four decades. Those that follow might be my favorite.
The describe a snowy Sunday morning in St. Paul, where my parents lived with my sister’s family. By then, that Saturday in 2009, Dad was deep into Alzheimer’s disease. He had been weakened by pneumonia and his moments of lucidity were more and more infrequent.
I helped him into the shower, helped him with a bar of soap, and I don’t know that there has ever been a time in my life when my heart was so full of love. Later on that same morning, I sat down close to Dad in his living room, within a few inches of his face so I could hear him if he spoke. Outside, huge snowflakes fell on a silent and beautiful Minnesota winter morning. Dad looked at me and his eyes moistened.
“May God bless you,” he said.
Then he was gone, back into the recesses of his disease. But in that moment, in that one look, in those few words, the heavens parted for me. I felt I had received the benediction from my father that I had craved for so long. I wept that morning during the long walk to a Starbucks and wept again on the walk home. I thought of Fred Rogers and my desperate letters to him in 1996. I remembered Fred’s love and unconditional support for me then, but also how his compassion extended immediately to my father. With that compassion, Fred had planted yet another seed, one that flowered on that snowy winter morning. On my next trip home a few months later, my father didn’t recognize me at all. That didn’t matter. I recognized him.”