My father died in 1995. I didn’t hear about his death for at least a week after it happened. My oldest brother – half brother actually, his first son – found my mom’s phone number, called her, and she called me with the news.
A week after he died, I learned that he had succumbed to TB. This was his second battle with TB in a few years. He was 68.
At that point, I hadn’t talked to him for at least 2 years. So I guess the extra week that it took for me to find out that I would never actually be able to hear his voice again, didn’t really matter. I mean it was just a week, right.
That voice. My dad was a singer. He never really made a living at it, but that was what he was. Anything else he did, was just to pay the bills. He sounded almost exactly like Billy Eckstine, but he always maintained that it was Eckstine who sounded like him. I’m not sure why he said that, since Eckstine was born in 1914 and my dad was born in 1927. But that’s what he said, and I think he was serious about that. He was a very serious guy.
After my parents split up, he’d call and ask to talk to me. My mom would hand me the phone, and he’d say “Brian, it’s me . . . your father.” Every time he said that, I’d think how clueless he must have been, how could I not recognize him and that voice.
He was little, 5’6″ and no more than 150 lbs. But he had this intensity that was genuinely scary. He didn’t smile often, and he wasn’t quick to give praise. He was liable to explode at you for some infraction that seemed pretty minor, but which he took very seriously. He was not an easy person to live with. Looking back, I’d guess that he was very hard on himself about not feeling that he had reached his potential.
Three months after he died, I was sitting in a restaurant in Johannesburg. It was kind of an odd restaurant – a bohemian hangout that served Thai food and played American Blues records – loudly. The owner seemed to be enjoying himself, but he clearly had no patience for anyone telling him how to “improve” the place. If you didn’t like to food, or the music, or the waitresses or the service, well you could just go eat somewhere else. That is exactly how my dad ran his restaurant. And the rest of his life as well.
I was sitting there at that restaurant by myself, eating my dinner and enjoying the music, and all of a sudden he was there. Sitting across from me, with his legs crossed, enjoying one of his signature unfiltered Pall Malls. He didn’t say anything, so I couldn’t hear his voice. But I felt it. He was smiling. He was proud of me. He was at peace. Finally.