When I reached adolescence, I began to notice a change. I would answer the phone at our house, and people would say, “Oh, you sound just like your father!”
It wasn’t something I aspired to at the time. Teenagers want to be their own selves, and the fact that people mistook me for my Pop didn’t thrill me.
But like an anvil sinking to the bottom of the sea, there was no stopping it. We were becoming one voice. On occasion, I would mess around with it. When I called his office, my dad would answer the phone, “Albom speaking.”
“Albom speaking” I would mimic.
“Very funny, Mitch,” he would bellow.
“Very funny, Mitch,” I would repeat.
“OK, knock it off.”
I knocked it off. You didn’t push my father. Even if you sounded just like him.
As the years went on, our voices meshed even closer. At family gatherings, relatives would challenge us to go back and forth, and my dad would say something like, “What do you want me to say?” and I’d repeat “What do you want me to say?” and then he’d use a phrase he often uttered when lying in a beach chair, “The breeze is delightful.” And I’d spit it back, spot-on. “The breeze is delightful.”
Everyone laughed. But my dad would cut it off. I don’t think he loved the game. His voice was, after all, his voice, not a genetic football to be tossed back and forth. And the fact was, we didn’t use it the same way.
Music to my ears
My father, as a young man, wanted to be an opera singer. He was gifted. But he and my mother married young, and priorities like food, rent and caring for her family were more important.
Still, his singing voice remained booming. A wonder of the world. I would play piano for him in the basement sometimes and I swear you could watch that voice bounce off the walls, that’s how powerful it was. He’d sing slow songs, only slow songs, “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “Sunrise, Sunset,” and if I tried to speed the beat in my impatient, youthful way, he’d snap, “Slow it down, Mitch.”
I, too, loved music, and went into it as a career early on. But I had no interest in slow songs. I was belting rock and roll, pushing my voice higher and louder.
“It’s singing, not screaming,” my father would say. I shook him off. Maybe, in my own way, I was trying to pull out of our DNA connection, make myself sound as different from my father as I could.
Over time, I, too, gave up music for other things. And eventually, when people noted how much alike we sounded, I’d just nod and smile. It wasn’t the worst thing, I accepted.
As the years passed, and I moved farther away from home, I often reflected on the various shades of my father’s voice. The deep caress of it when he woke me up from sleeping, the drill sergeant bark when he told us to respect our mother, its long ball power when he yelled from our porch for me to get inside for dinner — and I was all the way down the block — the relaxed pride it revealed when I did something he approved of, and he’d gush, “Ah, that’s great, Mitch,” like a big bear leaning against a rock having just finished a jar of honey.
That voice, that bowing ball of sound, was a constant throughout my life — until a few years back when my father suffered a stroke, and then another.
And something changed.
Just one more time
Suddenly, there was a warble. The pitch rose a few notes. Breath creeped inside that voice and its power was thinned, like a football lineman who quits the game and goes on a crash diet, until you barely recognize him.
When we spoke, my vocals were now deeper and thicker. Dad was in his 80s and fading. I was in my 50s and at full bore. In his final days, that once magnificent voice was but a shade of color behind a grey whisper.
And then, one terrible day, it was gone.
Today is Father’s Day, and while there a million suggestions of what to buy, eat, or do for the fathers who are still with us, no one talks about how to celebrate if your father is gone.
For me, I do it by coming full circle. From not wanting to sound like my old man, to sitting here, as I write this, trying desperately to re-create his resonance, pushing my voice deep into my throat and mumbling, “the breeze is delightful,” and embracing the sound as I squeeze my eyes against tears, wishing it was his instead of mine.
Here’s to all the departed dads on Father’s Day, the ones who did so much for us and whose voices we grew so used to. What I wouldn’t give to hear that voice again. Everything, Dad, everything.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.