From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

The Sound of My Father’s Voice

I have never forgotten the sound of my father’s voice as he knelt by my bed with his back hunched, his head craned low and his hands resting on his lap. It’s his storytelling voice that I remember—a voice that dropped a note or two but still managed to rise above the murmuring noise of the fans that scattered the hot air in the room. Slow, even and controlled, my father’s voice, his presence, filled the room and diffused itself just as the single bulb from the brass lamp cast a dim glow of light over his face.

Growing up, I was always known as the kid with the fun father, the tall dad with the raspy voice and funny African accent who was always willing to throw me on his shoulders or wrestle me to the ground. It was my father who brought my best friend, Chris, and me to car shows, who took us to basketball games, coached our soccer team and, on occasion, took us fishing. In my father’s mind, the future took precedence above all else, which is why he was always there, at every soccer game and outing, tracking and mapping my every move. It was never really a matter of where I was, so much as where I was going. For my father, the purpose of the present was to point the way to what lay next. “What,” he asked me nearly every day, “do you want to do when you grow up?” I began following the stock market in second grade as a way of giving him an answer. My father would come home and I would tell him how the market had done. “Up fifty points today, Dad.” “Down thirty yesterday.” Where the market actually went I never knew, and still don’t to this day. I knew though that it went somewhere, and that my knowing mattered significantly to him.

When I entered high school things began to change between my father and me. I suddenly became known as the kid with the mean father: the father who barged into high-school parties, disrupting the flow of alcohol in order to pull his son out and take him home. “Not while I’m around,” he had always said every time I broke a rule. “Not while I’m here.” His presence was almost omniscient, amazing in its ability to trail me around every corner and stand within earshot of every word.

My father and I had what would be the first in a series of small fallouts during those first two years in high school. My friend Chris and I had both suddenly found ourselves thrust into a world where being “cool” meant skipping classes and staying out late at night despite how much work we had to do. When Chris’s father left him and his mother our freshman year, I followed him out night after night as he searched for solace or comfort away from home. My grades began to slip, and my father said he couldn’t understand what was happening. When I came home late one weekend after another, he would look at me and say that he didn’t know who I was anymore or where I was going. He began to grow angry. I began to grow angry. “I won’t wait for you to mess up,” he said to me one night. “That won’t happen while I’m around.” This was tough love for him. This was my father telling me openly, directly and honestly that he would never let go of everything he had raised me to believe, everything he himself believed, if I were to fail myself. When my best friend, Chris, and I were caught skipping class, I could visibly see the anger in his face for the first time in my life. “Don’t you know what it took for me to be here?” he asked me as we walked out of the principal’s office. Didn’t I know how much my mother and he had sacrificed to come to this country? Didn’t I know how much was thrown away in the name of hope to bring me to where I was now? “Everything,” he would say, “everything has been for you kids.”

By then, though, I no longer feared his presence. We were beyond that now. He seemed distant and far removed from the world I was in. How, I thought, can he possibly understand all that is happening in my life? His words were still there though, as was the voice he had once used to read to me. No longer intimidating, they stood now as the hallmark of our relationship. They reminded me of what we had once had, and what I wanted to have again. I began to look at my face in the mirror every night after I came home, and I knew that my father was right. I didn’t recognize the reflection staring back at me.

In the middle of my sophomore year of high school, just before Thanksgiving, Chris ran away from home. His mother came to our house looking for him. She was tired and desperate and on the verge of tears. Before she could finish telling me her story, my father walked into the room with his coat on and his car keys in his hand. He had already heard all that he needed to hear. “We’ll find him,” he said, as he put his arm around me and walked to the car.

My father and I drove around Chicago for over two hours that night looking for Chris. My father asked me how I was doing, and all I could muster up the courage to say was, “Fine.” He asked me what I thought had happened to Chris in the past two years to bring all of this about and all I could say was, “I don’t know.”

It was below freezing that night, as it is during most Chicago winters, and we both knew that if Chris were here, we probably wouldn’t find him, and that even if we did, he probably wouldn’t come with us. Truth was, he was out there, and I was with my father, and no amount of pleading or begging would bring us together.

Driving that evening through the nearly deserted streets of the west side of Chicago, I couldn’t help but constantly turn my head to stare at my father sitting behind the wheel of the car. I found it strange that he should be driving me again to pick up a friend. I knew then, perhaps clearer and better than ever before, just what he had meant when he had said, “Not while I’m here.” I knew then, too, that had he not been there all those years, sitting by my bed or behind the wheel, then I wouldn’t have been where I was now, and that he, more than anything else, was the larger-than-life portrait that framed the backdrop through which I viewed theworld. I must have thanked him for driving me that evening, for being there, just as I had thanked him a thousand times before for doing just that.

When we returned home that evening Chris had already found his way back home by himself. His mother called to thank my father. He told her that Chris was like a second son to him, and there was no need for thanks. Years later now, I can see that my father’s search for Chris was also a search for me, and that in the end, I also found my way back home that night.

Dinaw Mengestu

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