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.

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