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Through Virginia Tech death, a life is reborn

Michael Bishop, at his home in Pine Mountain, Ga., says, “I’ve learned from my dead son, that it’s possible to do more than I’ve done. My own son is teaching me how to live.”

ROBIN TRIMARCHI | Special to the Times

Michael Bishop, at his home in Pine Mountain, Ga., says, “I’ve learned from my dead son, that it’s possible to do more than I’ve done. My own son is teaching me how to live.”

LAGRANGE, Ga. — Michael Bishop, whose son was a German instructor at Virginia Tech, sat one morning last month in a classroom at LaGrange College, ready to read one of his stories to his students in Creative Writing 3308.

"This was Jamie's idea," he told them.

Jamie Bishop left behind on his computer 10 notes. Michael Bishop, an award-winning science fiction writer, saw them and saw stories. At first he wanted to honor his son by finishing what the son could not. It was a way to keep a connection, and to cope.

Everybody who was close to the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings a year ago has dealt with the deaths in different ways. Scholarship funds were established. Trees were planted. A science lab was named after one of the professors. Friends organized a schedule to mow the lawn of one of the others. Races were run. Michael Bishop has advocated for sensible gun control laws.

He also has been writing.

The story that he read to the class was the third he has done off the notes.

It was about a father, a son and a lesson, but with a twist.

• • •

A year ago this week, on April 16 in Blacksburg, Va., 33 people died. There were 32 innocents, and also the shooter, student Seung-Hui Cho, who went from room to room on the second floor of Norris Hall, with a blank look on his face and guns in both hands, before killing himself.

Michael's son was teaching elementary German in Room 207 when the door opened.

Down in Georgia, at his home in tiny Pine Mountain, Michael got a call that morning from his wife's cousin. Something bad was happening at Virginia Tech. He got on his knees on the floor of the kitchen to pray.

In the middle of this emerging awfulness, when he knew people had been killed but did not yet know that his son was one of them, a box came in the mail. In the box were the first copies of a book that he had edited, an orange paperback called A Cross of Centuries: Twenty-five Imaginative Tales About the Christ. But he didn't look at the book, not right then, and so he didn't read until many weeks later his essay inside that starts on page 155.

• • •

The 10 notes came about 10 weeks later in an e-mail from Jamie's widow. Michael saw snippets of suspended thought. Parts of potential wholes.

He saw his son.

"I'll tell you something that I think about," he said in his office after class last month.

When Jamie was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany in 1994, Michael and his wife and their daughter went to visit him in Munich. Jamie was acting as guide and translator. In the subway, he ran to catch a train just as it was pulling out of a station, leaving the others behind.

Michael got on the next train to try to find him. As the doors opened at every stop he yelled for Jamie. Finally, at the end of the line, on a crowded platform, there he was.

First thing Jamie said: "I'm not going to apologize."

Michael's wife, Jeri, didn't always like their son's long hair or his mostly casual dress. She didn't always like that he no longer went to church and that he acknowledged Jesus Christ as one of the most important figures in Western civilization but not as the son of God. His son could be so focused, Michael said, on his art, his Web sites, his hiking and his foreign films, he could come off at times as self-centered. "He could be very hard-headed," Michael said. "He could be very exasperating."

None of that changes what he thought that afternoon on the train in Munich.

"We really did need him," Michael said. "We were completely lost without him."

• • •

Not all 10 of the notes are great. In them are mentions of piles of trash outside some apartments, a cat on a lap that takes over its owner's soul, a library of never-ending noise, a Mexican field worker who has a heart attack while hallucinating, a melding of the right and left brains, an "anti-Buddha."

Michael might not be able to turn all of them into stories.

But he's trying.

Back in 2002, in a "self-interview" on his Web site, Michael seems to be a man who is, or was, conflicted about his work in the science fiction field: "Sometimes, when I don't write sf, I don't write it not only because other images and vocabularies have seized my imagination, but also because the stigma that attaches to such work … has made me suppose … that I CAN'T do work that matters." He has published more than 30 books, and hundreds of short stories, but he hasn't published a novel since 1994, and there are short stories that haven't sold, either, and his non-science fiction work hasn't sold as well.

He's 62. That's 27 years older than his son when he was shot through the head and the heart.

The first story he wrote off the notes, "The Pile," ran in the Subterranean Press.

The second, "Purr," was bought by Weird Tales.

The third, the one he read in class, goes like this:

The father is called upon to discipline the son after the son blows from an ocarina "three notes of such pitch and intensity" that a teacher's glasses break. They walk and they talk and they end up at this library where everything and everyone makes a racket. The son loves it. The father hates it. At some point an angel emerges and tells the father that this library is a "training ground." But the father can't take it anymore, and the son sees this and leads him outside, where it seems so quiet, and the son says: I know a secret. And he pulls out his ocarina and this time what comes from it is beauty: the son's "vivid breaths and the notes of God's harmonium."

• • •

All of this started off being about what Michael was doing to help finish his son's work. What it has become, he said last month, is more about what his son is doing to help him finish his own.

"I've learned from my dead son," he said, "that it's possible to do more than I've done. My own son is teaching me how to live."

He has two stalled novels. He's going to look at them again.

• • •

Rainy day. Pine Mountain. The Bishop house has a wraparound porch, high ceilings and bookcases in nearly every room. Michael took from a shelf one of the orange paperbacks that arrived the morning of April 16.

He stood in his kitchen, the book cupped in his left hand, and turned to page 155.

He read out loud the words he had written many months before any of this had happened.

"The demand on the artist is to overcome the unforeseeable problem — to handle it in such a way that it becomes a new and unforeseen richness in his work. The artist fails not when he confronts a problem but when he abandons it: and he proves his greatness when he leaves no problem abandoned. Our faith in the Creator is that he leaves no problem abandoned and no evil unredeemed."

He closed the book and looked up.

"If I have any faith," Michael Bishop said, "it's that no evil will be unredeemed, and if it's going to be redeemed, we have to do it.

"We are the ones," he said, "who have to do the work."

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4617.

Through Virginia Tech death, a life is reborn 04/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 1:47pm]

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