Opinion Photo

All his life, 75 years, my father was careful with his money, so he would be appalled by the waste. He never liked to spend a dollar, not when he could save a buck. My dad passed away in March, though, which means the decision isn’t his to make anymore. 

So the phone stays on, even though there’s no one left to answer it. The line rings four times before it passes over to voicemail. 

The message is a perfect metaphor for my father: Short, economical, nothing needless. He must have recorded the greeting a decade ago, when he and my mother finally decided to get rid of the ancient answering machine they’d had since time immemorial. The phone company must have sent them a coupon.

It’s just two sentences.

“Hi, this is Harvey,” he says. “Go ahead and leave a message.”

So I do. Even though I’m well aware that no one will ever get back to me.

Sometimes I tell my dad about my day: What’s going on at work, which clients have which problems, how I’m hitting the golf ball, how I’m doing on my diet. Other times I tell him which moments sparked memories of him and my mom. Usually it’s a song on the radio. My parents loved music from the ‘60s and ‘70s: Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Beatles, John Denver. 

When I called last week, it was brought on by a song: “Black Water” by the Doobie Brothers. 

It was a hit in the spring 1975, about the time I turned 10. I know this because that was the spring break my parents packed my brother and I into their Volkswagen Beetle and drove us from New York to Florida to go to Disneyworld. 

That was back when no one booed at the Hall of Presidents and before they cut out the sexist portions of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. We spent days packed into the VW, 2,000 miles in each direction, a family of four cramped and too crabby to play license plate bingo. The Doobies played on an endless loop as the FM stations faded in and out. But it was all worth it for the E-ticket rides: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Haunted Mansion, the Jungle Cruise. 

My father was 30 then, a paint factory worker with a wife and two kids in elementary school. Whatever childhood dreams he’d had for himself – All-Star basketball player for the Knicks, law school, airline pilot — were never going to come true. 

I imagine he knew it. He owned an old Super 8 movie camera and he shot lots of footage of his sons and his wife, but not much of himself. My father was always present, though, never the focal point, always right off-screen, circling around us at the edges.

Sometimes when I call his phone number now, I wonder aloud about how that made him feel, why my father’s life so rarely seemed to be about him, at least to the people it was about. He doesn’t answer, of course. My father always was a man of few words. He spent them the way he spent his paychecks: Like there was never quite enough to go around.

My voicemails to dad’s old number always end with me telling him “I love you.” It was the way we always ended our phone calls back when he was alive. It was a sentence he said with conviction, like it mattered to him, and I never doubted it. 

Maybe that’s why I still call, even now, even with no one there to answer.

To hear his voice. Always there, always nearby. Even from heaven.