Friday, September 30, 2016

Cortez the Killer

This morning I woke up to a strange sound, like a miniature helicopter. A black witch moth the size of a bat was thumping against my bathroom window. A window below was open but the moth had no plan B. I grabbed it and chucked it out the open window. It flew away.

Here in Mexico they call the black witch moth ‘Mariposa de la muerte’, meaning butterfly of death. If one enters a house where there is sickness, it is believed the sick person will die. 

Ever since we brought dad home from hospital our house has been infested with black witch moths. Every day I rescue one, help it circumvent a closed window or a screen door. But they just keep coming back. Even now, as I write this, there’s one on the wall above my desk. From the white V mark across its wings, I know that it’s a female. She hasn’t moved since morning.

Caring for dad at home has thrown up a plethora of new challenges. There’s no pattern to his needs, and he has no sense of time. Often he’ll come up with a whole new hair brained plan about what needs to be done, in the middle of the night. Still, he’s never short of praise, thinks mom and I are consummate caregivers that should be in business together. 

“Rectal cleaning service, mom and son business,” he quips, “$60 a crack. All repeat business - people need to shit every day. Discount for a month’s coverage. Market to Gringo retirees and seniors living in the South. No competition…Who the hell wants to clean assholes? No one!” 

He likes his wit like he likes his martinis, dry.

It’s hopeful and heartwarming to see him laugh heartily, but those moments are the exception not the rule. My time with him is mostly spent watching him sleep or just lie there, mouth agape, staring at the ceiling. Occasionally he looks up at me, but without his glasses I’m just a blur. 

What’s he thinking? Does he want to die? He hasn’t said as much lately. “I’m helpless,” he said last night, with a voice laden with confusion and remorse. “What can I do?”

“Not much.” I replied.

“Something has to happen…and I can’t do it from here.”

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t know…Do you?”


“Can we let it happen tomorrow?” he asked.


“Whatever…Will you come and look in on me from time to time?” 

“Of course.”

It took some effort and we shopped around a bit but we’ve finally got dad the home care he needs. Ernesto, a nurse who speaks fluent English, comes to bathe him on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Rossio, a physiotherapist, comes to help him with his muscle work on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. She’s hopeful he will eventually stand on his own two feet.

As many people have been coming to fix the air conditioning. Like my father, it’s been working on and off lately. The situation is more bearable now that the temperature in Los Cabos has dropped a few degrees. But the workmen are unreliable, say they’re coming and never show up.

Gerry knows a guy who can fix air conditioners, and thinks we need a third opinion. “You don’t have to tear up the tiles to replace those air-con pipes,” he says, with an accent that sounds like both Cheech and Chong. “You can just put a little box against the skirting like this…” He bends down and runs his hand along the crease of the wall of my father’s room. “That way they don’t have to disturb Ian.” My mother frowns at this suggestion.

Considering our failing air, there sure is a lot of thin ice in this house. Caring for the old man is stressful. Sometimes we crack. Yet despite my mother’s anxieties regarding methodology, she is highly resourceful and practical. I admire her more than I let on; she thinks I talk down to her, regard her as intellectually inferior. But I don’t. She’s proved to me time and time again that she knows things beyond my scope, that subtle intuition trumps hubris, and that she has extra sensory sleuthing powers (she missed her calling as a private detective).

She keeps both husband and home functioning, has done for six decades. Her ultimate home, here in Los Cabos, was woven from the fabric of the more than two dozen rental homes all over the world that she made cozy for us to live in. Every new city to which we got posted involved my father flying out ahead of time and finding adequate digs. A month later the rest of us would follow. My mother would then correct his poor choices and find us somewhere magical to live. 

For me, home was never truly home until the shipment arrived. Therein lay my richest treasures, trapped for months on the high seas, possessions that grew more mysterious with the passage of time: Frogman Action Man and his blow-up Zodiac boat, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath LPs, and my six-inch reflector telescope. 

Toys and records aside, the family keepsakes too were a comforting continuum from one place to the next, the string that held together the bead of one posting to the bead of another. Now when I visit the house in Baja I see some of those totems on the walls and shelves, juju that triggers time machines, opens portals that I easily fall into.

Cortez is an angry sea. At night its waves strike the beach with an asymmetrical beat. For days now it’s been pounding the Baja coastline with massive swells, the consequence of a hurricane passing north west of the peninsula. Today, however, it’s calm.

Sitting on the beach, gazing at the salubriously tranquil water, and rubbing my injured shoulder, I think, “I could do with the hydrotherapy.” I stand up and stride into the surfy soup. Froth lashes at my shins. The currents are stronger than I had anticipated, but I continue wading out regardless. Once I clear the small stuff, I begin swimming breaststroke. It’s so refreshing.

Suddenly a swell rises up before me, much larger than anything I’d seen from the beach. Looking over my shoulder, I can see that returning to shore is no longer an option, and ahead, I cannot swim fast enough. All at once the wave brakes, thunderously avalanching a ton of brilliant white froth towards me. I dive underwater and swim beneath the surf. It sounds like exploding ordinance, like the beach is being bombed.

After surfacing, I barely have time to catch my breath when another massive roller, larger than the last, begins to rise up before me. “This one’s a killer,” I whisper. Hyperventilating to give myself more time underwater, I wait until the very last moment. On the face of it, time appears to stand still. Three pelicans skim across the crest of the wave, hunting for fish trapped in its pellucid sea wall. I dive under, and just in the nick of time, taking the brunt of force on my legs.

Resurfacing, I now fear for my life. The period between waves is insufficient to recover. Another comes at me, and then another, every time a bigger one. And I dive under them all, swimming longer and farther each time. Finally I get beyond the swell, and there are no more waves on my horizon. But I am some three hundred yards from shore and drained of all my might.

Under an azure sky, treading water just enough to keep my chin above the sea’s deceptively calm undulations, I think of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez the Killer’. “He came dancing across the water / With his galleons and guns / Looking for the new world / In that palace in the sun.” The song is about Hernán Cortés, a conquistador who conquered the Aztecs and colonized Mexico for the Spanish, and the eponym of this sea on which I am floating. 

With a slow butterfly stroke, or moth stroke, I carefully swim back to shore, occasionally looking over my shoulder to see what might be coming up behind me. Sure enough a whole new set of waves is on my tail. Swimming side-stroke now, with an eye on the breakers, I take a chance on riding them. Every wave, as mighty as it seems, simply picks me up and gently plants me closer to the shore, before breaking just beyond me. I can’t believe my luck. In due course, and much to the surprise of the Mexicans who have been watching me all along, I step out of the surf and calmly walk back up onto the beach.

Dad is sitting on the porch in his rocking chair, comfortably surveying the view. Rossio, his physio, got him to stand momentarily while she shifted him from his wheelchair to the rocking chair. Progress! Soon he’ll be back on the dry martinis as well.

Looking around I notice something is missing. The black witch moths have all gone. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Old Man Staring At The Sea

“Old age is like a plane flying through a storm. 
Once you're aboard, there's nothing you can do.” 
- Golda Meir

My dad’s eyes twinkle, a glimmer of triumph spreads across his grey bristly face. He has just had a sip of Scotch whiskey, his first in six weeks. My mother and I smuggled it into his ward at the Clinica San Jose. Seems to have done the trick. 

For a while there he thought he was in Singapore, in our old apartment on Mount Elizabeth Drive, and that our Scottish neighbors the Reeves were having a party upstairs. 

“It’s a storm, dad,” I tell him.

“Did you say storm?” he asks. I nod. “Oh Christ!” he moans.

“Lets spare him the details,” my mother says quietly. Hurricane Newton, with wind speeds of up to 95 miles an hour, is due to make landfall in Los Cabos during the early hours of the morning. “You’ll be safe here,” she says, propping up dad with extra pillows.

She has spent countless hours since he was hospitalized propping up his pillows, and at times thinking about putting one over his face. Now she would rather he was at home, with all the challenges that entails, than confused and alone in this hospital room, staring at the walls. “At home he can stare at the sea.” 

Yesterday I bathed him. Getting an uncooperative octogenarian into the shower, even with a rolling commode chair and my gorilla tracking skills, was no easy task. The ordeal seriously tested my commitment to be his caregiver. 

Earlier this evening his doctor dropped by, having been away for a week in Mexico City. “He is strong,” he said, “my best patient.” He agrees that the old man should return home soon. “But not until the day after tomorrow, because things will surely be chaotic after this hurricane.” 

Six weeks ago when I got the call I was thousands of miles away on the Kenya coast. My mother phoned to tell me my father had suffered a stroke and a bout of infections, and was critically ill in hospital. His doctor didn’t think he’d make it through that night.

Unable to change my air ticket, dazed and confused by the distance, and not knowing his condition from one day to the next, I was sure I’d never see my dad again. How does one prepare for the death of a loved one?

I took comfort in knowing that earlier this year he and my mother had visited me in Kenya, a journey halfway round the world that others thought they were mad to make. Returning to where they first expatriated 50 years ago, the fountainhead of all our peripatetic lives, completed a circle for me, if not for my parents. They stayed for 6 weeks.

When I finally reached his bedside, I was surprised by how healthy he looked. His breathing was labored and he was suffering from a bundle of aches and pains, but as far as I could see there was not much else wrong with him. 

These days he’s more compos mantis, if not always sure of his whereabouts. And because he is one of only two patients, both of whom are men, in a maternity hospital run by nurses and nuns, he is going a bit stir crazy. 

A nurse steps into the room, says in Spanish that the rain has started to fall quite heavily and whomever is going home should probably do so now. My mother promptly leaves.

Now it’s just me and my dad in the hospital ward, listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra, a few of his favorites. “It’s not unpleasant,” he says, drifting off to sleep. 

My father, my captain, architect of my life, how could I not care for you in your dotage? I am a creature of your design, the product of a lifetime spent moving from one Third World posting to another. For better or worse, you made me the Third Culture vulture I am today. I owe you.

Things are starting to go bump in the night. While my father sleeps soundly, I worry about my mother all alone in her home. 

Home is a boutique, beach-front villa on an estate called Sampaguita, one of fourteen semi-detached, two-storey units shaped into a horseshoe around a palm-shaded desert scape with a pool and jacuzzi. For all it claims to be a “secure gated community”, my parents’ home abuts a beach-front wall that’s barely a meter high. 

Despite the fearsome clangor outside, the Sea of Cortez rising up to reclaim its shoreline, I lay down on the cot next to my father’s hospital bed and fall into a deep sleep.

It’s 8:30 am and he’s still sleeping. I step outside to observe mother nature in action.

Since daybreak the wind has died down a bit, though gale-force gusts still batter the barrios. Tin roofs and door frames rattle, and palm trees oscillate like VU metres in a Thrash metal studio. Still, from where I am standing, on the front steps of the clinic, the damage does not look too bad. But where is mom? The networks are down.

Back in the ward, my dad is awake. “I need to get out of the market,” he says. “I made a big mistake, fell asleep after it dropped. I may have lost over $10,000, which was a lot money back then, though not for the big players.” He’s lost in time and space.

My dad has dementia, a persistent disorder of the mental processes marked by memory disorders, personality changes, and impaired reasoning. Gorillas, those hairy mountain cousins I've dedicated a lifelong career to saving, don’t suffer from dementia, even though they share 97 percent of our genetic makeup. Research into the great ape genome has revealed that the gene which causes dementia is common in gorillas but does not cause them ill-health. When they discover why, it will probably be too late for my dad.

“Is the hurricane still blowing?” he asks. Alas, he’s back in the moment.

“Gusty but not so bad,” I reply. “Doesn’t seem to have done much damage.”

“Christ, I hope not,” he sighs. Two years ago Hurricane Odile devastated the Baja peninsula. In the aftermath there was no water, no electricity, and many hundreds of Gringos had to be evacuated, he and my mother included.

My mother steps into the room. “Damn, am I glad to see you,” I sigh. “How’s the house?”

“Flooded,” she smiles. “I’ve spent the last hour mopping up. Still, it could have been worse. At least the electricity’s back on. How’s he been?”

“Slept soundly through most of the night.”

Leaving my dad in his hospital bed, we drive home. Although nothing major has been toppled by the hurricane, the town looks like it’s been dunked in the sea a few times. The streets are littered with palm fronds, highway signs, cacti, and a few fallen palm trees, and none of the stop lights work. Meantime the downpour continues unabated.

Closer to the beach the streets are cluttered with a lot more detritus, and everything is coated in drifts of wet sand and mud. At the entrance to Sampaguita, my mother taps in the entry code. The gates open jerkingly, grinding against a sand encrusted mechanism.

Outside the house is coated with sand and inside flooded with seawater. After a slap-up breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, and toast, we begin a marathon mop up. Then the electricity cuts out. Now we’re trapped on an estate where the electrically-powered security gates no longer function. The only solution is beer. I drink half a dozen before tackling the sand caked patio, shoveling it up bit by bit with a dust pan. Late in the afternoon the power kicks back in. 

Remarkably by nightfall, while storm swells continue to pound the beach, the sky is almost clear. My mother and I sit on the patio, drink Don Pedro brandy, and watch Mars and a half Moon descend beneath the arches. The coastline is unevenly lighted. Many homes have yet to see their power return. We are the lucky ones.

She tells me how after Hurricane Odile she got the barbecue going and cooked up all the fish, beef, pork, and chicken she had in her freezer. “There was no electricity, so it was all going to go to waste anyway. I cooked and Gerry distributed the food to the local community. It went down well.” (Gerry’s good people, brought me some weed today without me even asking.)

My mother is sitting at the dining room table, sifting through bits of paper. “I wish your father had half a brain,” she says, grimacing at the pile of paperwork, “so he could help me understand what some of these things are for.” Overwhelmed by the full magnitude of managing both of their affairs, she is prone to panic at times. 

My sister and her husband are helping her sort it all out. After my father fell ill, they made staggered visits to Cabo to offer their support. My brother came too, despite a flight cancellation that reduced his visit to less than two days. They’ve all since returned to Canada. I arrived late but I’m here for six weeks, until my mother’s 81st birthday.

She’s quite dynamic for her age. I cannot believe how much energy she has. Half the time she can’t find what she’s looking for because she put it somewhere unknown to her now. Consequently, she’s kept busy by an endless treasure hunt of her own making. She is also a control freak. It’s not enough to try and help her, if you don’t do it her way you’re not helping at all. 

And yet, we've always been close. I was her willing accomplice when she searched for Yoruba wood carvers in the backstreets of Ibadan, or master painters in Colombo. And she was my mine when, with just three months left in my senior year, I got expelled from boarding school in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, for smoking marijuana. She subsequently convinced the faculty to allow me to graduate, which they agreed to only if I lived off campus with her.

Dad is home from hospital. We parked his wheelchair out on the patio then let him stare at the Sea of Cortez. Maybe now that he's back home, in the comfortable surroundings that he worked so hard to acquire, he'll find pause to die peacefully. His quality of life only gets progressively worse. I think it would be a blessing if he passed sooner rather than later. I am not comfortable about praying for my old man’s death, but there you have it… 

It’s four days later, and he’s staring at the same scene. “Take me back to bed,” he moans.

“Already?” I ask. The strain of lifting him in and out of his wheelchair is starting to take its toll. “But you’ve barely been up ten minutes.”

“I want to go back to bed.”

“I only got you out here because you asked me what the hell you were doing in bed at ten to twelve. Now you want to go back in again..? Okay, no problema.”

I’d be lying if I said me and my old man don’t still got beef. Nothing I did ever warranted his admiration. He couldn't find it in himself to forgive me for getting expelled from boarding school, spiriting his wife away to some godforsaken island for 3 months, all because of pot. Consequently, we were at loggerheads when I needed him most. Pooh-poohing my ambition to be a writer (not cool), he railroaded me into engineering instead. In due course, I dropped out of three universities.

“Three strokes and you’re out,” he says, lying in bed in the adumbrated light of his bedroom. “I’ve already had two, so one more and I’m gone.” He’s surprisingly lucid, waxing lyrical on the subject of his impending death. It’s official, at 5pm today he says he’s going to pass. “An hour earlier and you get minus points. An hour later and you get plus points.” 

He wants to know that the booze he bought - a bottle of Black Label, bottle of gin, bottle of vodka, and the brand of beer that Peter Hatton likes (Modelo) - is in the fridge. He expects a bibulous wake. He never bought nothing.

“Are we in Singapore, Thailand, or where?” he asks.

“Mexico,” I say.

“Mexico? How…” He stares into the nothingness for a moment, searching for the portal which opens the corresponding memory. “Los Cabos?”

“That’s right.” I turn up the music on my Beats Pill, a silky smooth crooning diva of the Golden Age who's seducing the spirits. “Who’s this we’re listening to, dad?”

He concentrates on the music, closes his eyes for a bit. “Sarah Vaughan,” he says. I nod satisfactorily, then wonder.

Last night he almost turned down a glass of Black Label. The effort needed for twisting his wrist and tilting back his head was just too great. He shook his head in despair. We wondered if this was it… But in the end he used a straw to finish his whiskey. 

Keep on keeping on, mzee.