Hour of Our Death

For Baba

There was no farewell; no goodbyes at the edge of the tarmac; no fading arms waving as the train pulled out of the station with engine smoke mushrooming the platform, of course in black and white.

Instead, it was a bored-sounding telephone operator reading a transatlantic telegram over the landline in midday.

It’s been 38 years since he died. He was 66. I was 33 then.

He and I are tethered. Not oppressively anymore though that was the case for decades. Or is it what I tell myself to lobotomize the unspeakable?

He was a gifted man. Gifted in his determination to get things done. Gifted in the things he did get done. Gifted in connecting with people and making them feel at ease. Gifted at wading into a crowd and making himself at home. Gifted in sucking the oxygen out of the room and leaving me gasping for breath.

He was a stupendously difficult and flawed man. My mouth runs dry at the ways he fell short.

And yet, I’ve become the chronicler of his memory, polishing, dusting, making the sharp corners shine. Why? Why, am I the chronicler? Because I am the loyal son? Or is it that the incandescence of his public life cast my shadow longer, larger, more muscular?

His footprints on his career, his life’s work, his public experiences and rewards were enormous. When you build something out of nothing; actually it was out of banana groves, and have it forever incised on a national postage stamp, you can claim your public life a marvel.

And the private and clandestine life? The one that all of us live? The secrets, the sorrows, the pain, the shame? If I weren’t his son, I’d go to town as the chronicler. But mercy is what I seek too. A place to rest my head next to his. Once more.

His effect on his children, his wife, and his closest in-laws was at times cyclonic and dark as the darkest night.

And then would come the dawn . . . and he’d get Didi and me up and say, “Let’s go and have breakfast in the national park.” And off we’d go as the sun would glint and shimmer, shoving the night’s dullness onto the wayside.

It took a lifetime to sort all that out and it still is a journey. No longer a dusty road but a path in the woods with surprising clearings along the way.

I often think: What would he have done? And tell myself, Don’t do that! But more often, I think: Do exactly that — be brave, be bold, be loving, give more than you receive, talk to people.

And more often, I think: Do what he couldn’t do ---ask for forgiveness.

Photo Credit: Amit Shah// Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind, Berlin, where Mr. Weidt hired blind Jews to manufacture brushes to keep them out of concentration camps.