My father, may he rest eternally in peace, had one singer he loved more than any other. Etta James, that was the list of all time greatest singers for my dad. Though he loved the music of Marvin Gay, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin to name a few of his other favorite singers, no one could touch Etta James when it came to the music Fikremariam Million loved the most.
My father was not the most emotive of people, he was like a drill sergeant in a way who nonetheless raised his kids with love even as he rarely expressed his inner feelings. Etta though, she was the one person who was able to penetrate his walls and induce emotions in my father’s soul even though his heart was guarded like Fort Knox.
My father and I used to be quite the pair back in the day. Our arguments were epic and our debates legendary. Neither one of us knew how to give an inch and both of us loved to thrust and parry as we discussed politics, sports and philosophy. He used to take me along while driving his cab; in the front seat of my father’s taxi I learned so much about life from the wisdom my father passed on to me. In the process, I learned to love music from the 60’s and 70’s.
My father was none too impressed with the music of the day and would always hearken back to the songs of his youth as the apex of music. This also became a point of contention as I tried to convince him that the music of the 90’s was nothing to sneeze at. All these discussions and arguments over sports, politics and music took a pause the minute Etta James’s music came on as he would get lost in the rapture of Etta’s voice.
One day though, something sublime happened. I entered the cab and instead of music from the 60’s and songs from Etta James greeting me when I sat down in the front seat of the Buick, what I heard was the soulful voice of Whitney Houston. I wanted to tease my dad and ask him why he was cheating on Etta James with a new mistress. But I could sense at that moment that there was something different about my father. As we were driving to DC, there were no discussions about politics or sports, it was just Whitney accompanying father and son on the way to the chocolate city.
Halfway to DC, I turned around to look at my father as Whitney was singing in the background, I saw tears trailing down my father’s cheeks as he was driving on 395 North. It was a moment that shocked me in all honesty, before that day I don’t think I’ve ever seen my father crying. The levees came tumbling down as the music of Whitney was taking a hammer to the stone walls my father put up a long time ago. Though my father and I never really talked too much about the struggles he went through as a child and for too long I looked at my dad as a super hero without feelings, on that day Superman became Clark Kent and I realized that my father was human—my dad hurt too. It took Whitney Houston singing “One Moment in Time” to let me see the one side of my dad I never saw before that day.
I never asked my dad what moved him to tears that day. Maybe something occurred that morning and Whitney became a cathartic moment for him to express his sorrow. Or maybe “One Moment in Time” reminded him of a time in the past and Whitney did nothing more than connect the present with yesteryear. All I know is that from that day on, Etta James had a new companion; my dad’s list of favorite singers went from a solo to a duo as Whitney became his new favorite singer that he listened to on his way to the post office or while he was driving his taxi in the DMV.
I would come to understand my father’s sudden outflow of emotion on February 11th, 2012. On that day, my dad’s second favorite singer concluded her time here on earth and joined my father Fikremariam in heaven. Breaking news of her death initially shocked me but the next day, while listening to her songs, a trickle from my eyes led to a gush of of broken water. One song after another induced a thousand tear drops as her songs connected February 11th 2012 to December 22nd, 2001. December 22nd was the day that my father too concluded his time on earth as he succumbed to stage IV cancer. A moment I had erased came flooding back in my cortex as I remembered my father crying and telling me he loved me shortly before blue lights begat an army of doctors rushing by his bedside to resuscitate my father’s still body.
There is no easy way to accept death, I want to rationalize that my father lived a full life, that at the very least he lived long enough to see his four children go off to college—which is why we immigrated to America from Ethiopia to begin with. I want to reserve sorrow for Whitney, an angelic voice and a gifted soul who left us way before her time. On the outside looking in, a judgement could be made that my father lived life as it should be and pity would be set aside for Whitney and the demons she struggled with until calm waters subsumed her pains. But all of us have our struggles, my father cried that day while listening to “One Moment in Time” because Whitney’s song reached the emotions that he learned to pack away a long time ago.
When we cry for others, we are really crying for ourselves. This is why music is so healing; singers do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. It’s like melodies become pathways to redemption. I had no intention of writing this article today until I sat down at Alley Cat to reflect on the day and in the background I heard “One Moment in Time” as Whitney made an appearance when I was not ready for her to visit. All the sudden, the booth I was sitting in transformed to the front seat of the taxi and my father was no longer a distant memory. Just like my father was moved to tears by Whitney with me by his side, I too was reduced to tears by Whitney’s angelic voice. This time I sat alone listening to Whitney when all the sudden tears started to trace down my cheeks remembering my father who is no longer with me.
I will never know why Etta James held such an important place in my father’s heart but I now understand why she did. Music speaks for us the emotions we are unable to express. Whitney is so ingrained in my heart because she takes me back to the time when my father went from a heroic dad to a father who I could identify with. May God comfort and keep my father for an eternity and likewise may Whitney find the peace she was always searching for. Our time here on earth is finite and so are our struggles, may we find music regardless of our circumstances and may we never be haunted by the past. Let love be the music that sets us all free. Click To Tweet
“Where words fail, music speaks.” ~ Hans Christian Andersen
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.