By Roy Lincoln Karp
Special to the Reporter
When I was a boy, I had a secret hiding place in a musty closet in my bedroom, a room that doubled as my father’s office. I would scamper up a set of angled shoe shelves, past out of season clothing, to the very top of the closet. This was my office. Like my father’s work space, it was equipped notebooks, pens, and an old-fashioned typewriter. In my mind, I was a writer who, like my dad, used words to expose the wrongdoings of the bad people.
Looking back on this memory, I am struck by my lack of creativity. I had no castles to storm or dragons to slay. I created a fantasy world in a closet that was a little kid’s version of the world right outside that closet. My imagination took me no more than several feet from my lived experience as the son of a working writer. This was the fantasy of a child who felt safe and comfortable, who felt no psychic need to escape to a different world.
What I wanted more than anything else was to feel connected to my dad. He was my greatest hero, my knight, my dragon slayer. His life work as a political writer was a noble calling, one in which I took great pride. My sister once recalled how much she loved writing “Freelance Writer” in school forms asking for our father’s occupation because it had the word “free” in it. Our father was beholden to no one, and with his freedom he wrote biting critiques of the most powerful people and institutions in America.
When my father passed away after my freshman year of high school, my childhood sense of safety came to an abrupt end. I can still remember the last time I saw him alive. I was heading to my aunt’s house on Long Island to get out of the city for a few weeks. My father and I said goodbye to each other and I went into the hallway to wait for the elevator. But then I went back into the apartment. I stood silently by the closet in my bedroom as I watched my father working at his desk. “Goodbye Dad,” I called out, but he was deep in thought and did not hear me. He died a few weeks later in St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital due to complications from a colon infection. He was 55 years old.
During my senior year, I started a student newspaper, The Free Spirit, which I dedicated to my father’s memory. The paper featured lengthy political essays with strident headlines like, “How our School System Stifles Free Thinking” and “Why We Won’t Be Drug Free, Just Unfree.” When administrators at my school threatened to suspend me and my peers for distributing the newspaper on school grounds, we waged a successful campaign for our First Amendment rights.
As I entered adulthood, though, I put aside my dream of becoming a writer. I did not want to live beneath the long shadow cast by my father, who wrote six books and was a contributing editor at Harper’s and American Heritage. Instead, I charted my own career path in the field of secondary education. I took on a variety of roles including teacher, mock trial coach, curriculum writer, and most recently director of an alternative high school in Lowell for students facing significant barriers to their education.
In November 2014, I stepped down from my job to care for my daughter Lucy, a micro-preemie with complex medical needs. I’ve been a full-time stay at home dad since my wife Courtney and I brought Lucy home from the Beth Israel NICU, where she spent the first five months of her life. Lucy came home requiring 24/7 Oxygen support through a nasal cannula. We also had to monitor her heart rate and blood oxygenation levels day and night and feed her exclusively by feeding tube.
Lucy’s first winter home was incredibly stressful, as we struggled to keep her out of Children’s Hospital. That spring, I began carving out an hour each week to write in a local coffee shop, which provided a brief respite from all the medical equipment and alarms. At first, the writing helped me process some of the traumatic events of the previous year. Then I went further back in time to memories from childhood, including many stories about my father.
I continued to write regularly for the next three years. Lucy, with her resilience, irrepressible spirit, and sense of humor, became my muse. As I watched her grow, I filled up notebook after notebook with fiction, poetry, and personal stories. Writing became a deeply meaningful practice for me and an important part of my life. I shared pieces with Courtney and she encouraged me to start a blog, advice I resisted.
In September, Lucy started pre-school at the Henderson Inclusion School in Dorchester, which gave me more time to focus on my writing. I started exploring opportunities to share my work with a wider audience. One idea was to write a piece for the Dorchester Reporter about our experience sending Lucy to the Henderson School. I sent my proposal, along with a resume and writing sample, to its editor Bill Forry.
A few weeks later, Bill and I spoke on the phone. We talked about my writing, our shared love of history, and my dad. To my surprise, Bill then invited me to contribute a column to the Reporter. I told him he was helping me fulfill a dream since childhood of writing for a newspaper. When I got off the phone, I shared the news with Courtney and experienced the pure joy and giddiness of a little kid. I was right back in that musty old closet. I was with my dad once again.