Lisa Radhika Kaul
They said that he never listened to anyone. One couldn’t convince him of anything, or talk him out of things. He did what he wanted to. He was just plain stubborn.
I call him. He’s watching the evening news. I am going through my morning rituals. We start with our customary,
Can you hear me?
Yes, I can!
Hello? I can’t hear you.
But I can hear you. Papa, turn your television down. Can you hear me now?
Wait! Yah! That’s better now. I can hear you.
I’ve been gone from his house for over twenty years. For the first five years we wrote to each other. Once a week I would walk to a phone booth with a fistful of coins and call him. I’d be distracted watching the amount diminish with supersonic speed on the telephone screen. I’d try to look away, but the unfailingly unreliable pennies would loudly clatter to the bottom, leaving me forlorn and in mid-sentence. Now, seventeen years later, I have a phone service that allows me unlimited talk time. I can chat to my heart’s content. Sometimes, I even listen in on telephone calls he takes on his other phone while he’s “talking” to me. Against the background orchestra of barking dogs and beeping cars that sporadically plays outside his apartment, I hear him make plans for the next morning with his friends. I hear him call the local butcher, and place an order. I often catch the news on his television. I am 7,235 odd miles away, but I can always hear him and his life. Or so I like to think.
We have fallen into a pattern. Every couple of months, we start making plans to visit. Of late, I have been the only one doing the traveling. He has tried hard to summon the strength to board a plane and make the journey. But he is over seventy years old and has several chronic conditions. Insurance companies are loathe to vouch for him even though he is ready to fork out a considerable sum of money. Unfortunately, I live in the goldeneh medinah- the golden country – that is determinedly hostile to those who are uninsured against medical disasters. And then there are memories of the last two visits, both of which ended abruptly with a change in plans and a return home sooner that he had planned. So, in the interim I fly home. However, nearly every trip demands that considerable time be spent planning the departure and arrival dates. This is ironic because neither of us is bound to a schedule. He is retired and I am jobless. But it has become a ritual for us, that has only been by-passed twice: once, when I surprised him on Boxing day, and second, when he temporarily lost the facility to distinguish surprise from a plan, but was nevertheless glad to see me walk through the door. I call him, throw out some dates, he has an opinion, and I dither from actually purchasing a ticket. I am always ready to go home sooner than he thinks he ought to be ready to welcome me back.
This time is a little different. His health has been steadily deteriorating over the past eighteen months, and he is finding it increasingly difficult to swallow, breathe, or talk. I am pretending that all is well and have even managed to convince myself against going home for Christmas. I know that my parents pine to have the entire family together on Christmas and I am besieged by the thought that this might be the last time that we can pull it off. But I tell myself to think otherwise. Maybe if I pretend hard enough and act as if everything is “normal,” the angel of death may not catch a whiff of the fear that crushes me. So, I plan instead to visit him on his birthday in February and spend Christmas day confronting my fears in a sleepy fishing village in sunny Mexico.
It is the middle of January. They say a ballerina in the Arctic has pirouetted out of control and descended on my town. The picture window in my living room is boarded up, and I do not miss the sunshine. I haven’t purchased a ticket yet. I hesitate from doing so because some sixth sense warns me that I may have to travel sooner than I anticipate. One day, as we are trying to chatter about the weather, diplomatic ties between my country and his, and the relevance of technology, I find that we are in constant disagreement. Usually, we can complete each other’s sentences. This collision is more jarring than I can bear. Wrested from the comfort that I’ve always known, I am cast into an unfamiliar and desolate wasteland. I no longer have a compass, and don’t know how to recalibrate. I cannot summon the energy or the desire to agree to disagree with him.
That is when my mother breaks the news. They have found a new specialist who has offered an alternative diagnosis with a more optimistic prognosis. The specialist wants to admit him to hospital to carry out tests and maybe provide treatment. I have a hundred questions, and want to be on the next flight. But he refuses to entertain my need to be with him as he is prodded and healed. I don’t have strong rational reasons for why I want to be there. All I know and feels in every fiber of my being is an inchoate and overwhelming need to be there. Why is he pushing me away? I hang up the phone and spend the day in restless sorrow, intermittently expunging the deluge of tears that willingly swarm out of my red eyes.
I try to rationalize the situation in my head. Why, I ask myself, do I need to be there? Is it because I feel responsible? Is it because of the guilt of choosing to live so far in another country that constantly gnaws away at my life? Is it because I feel so helpless being so far away? Is it because I want to be the one to fill in the paperwork and soothe out the logistics needed to find a hospital bed? Or is it because I feel so utterly useless in my life here? I just want to be useful. How can I tell him about the crown of thorns that nestles in my head, or the voices that tell me that I am useless? Is this really about him or about me?
Why do I stay away? Why do I listen to him? Why don’t I do what I want to? After all I am not someone who does what is expected of her either. I don’t brook injustice and am fearless in standing up for the underdog. And yet, I can barely murmur my dissent to my father.
I am restrained in part by the worry that I may have contributed to his current travails. I worry that I haven’t been proactive enough in pursuing other options of care for him; that he need not have spent the last twelve months in an infernal hell if I had been more insistent in listening to my gut feeling that there was more to the diagnosis than that we had been presented with. But since he had, in a moment of forgetfulness, ignored the strength of his spirit that continued unbidden to soar, and resigned himself to his fate, I, too, decided to submit his life to a higher being. When it is time, it will be time. So, stuck in what seems like an overcrowded and stifling waiting room, I peruse the world-wide web and try to find etiologies for my father’s symptoms. One, or maybe two of them, might lead to a diagnosis. And perhaps a diagnosis might lead to a cure, or at least an attenuation of symptoms.
I am able to contain myself and don’t proffer any suggestions of returning home for a few days. I bide my time reading about the new diagnosis, the tests, and the treatment. But as the time nears for his hospital visit, I can no longer be silent.
I am unprepared for the ferocity of his response, which is oddly discordant with the weak sound that he is trying his hardest to coax out of his larynx. Words fly like missiles and detonate on impact. I cannot understand his resistance. He cannot understand my refusal to acknowledge his plea. I can’t bear the thought of him being alone, or of my mother keeping a solitary vigil. I worry about my mother’s health. He tries to explain that he hates being such an inconvenience. Why can’t you understand? he croaks. I wish I were dead.
The words, born out of despair, hurtle across the land mass, the ocean, and the time difference, gathering momentum until they hit me with the force of a hurricane, and decimate me, before vanishing. I am stunned into silence. A rigor mortis envelopes my body. I am paralyzed. Yet, my heart feels like it will explode, my head is on fire, and every bone in my body demands my attention. These words have been hovering around, but seeing even a hint of their shadow is unbearable. I cannot begin to contemplate what will happen if he were to truly die. Silently, I hang up the telephone.
Do you truly not want me to be there? I feel spurned, hurt, cast aside. Why is he saying this to me? It is not that I cannot empathize with or understand my father’s position. In fact, I have been ill for over a decade and am only too familiar with the helplessness and anger that accompany a chronic illness. I hate being dependent on others. I hate the intrusion. I want to be able to control whatever little I can. So, I ought to be able to respect my father’s wishes to have some semblance of control over who hovers around him. I can hear his pain, but I don’t want to believe it. I know that this isn’t just about controlling his ambience.
He’s nervous about the upcoming days. He copes through sheer will power. He survives through the power of positive thought. Like me, he is trying to focus on the positive. This is not an emergency, he wants to believe. He doesn’t want everyone rushing over, as if he is on his death-bed.
An hour later he calls to apologize. You are always with me, he says. My eyes swell again. And then I hear what I had chosen to previously ignore, I don’t want you here because I feel so guilty. At 75, he is still unable to ask, or to take from, me, his child. I can’t bear the guilt of disrupting your life, he says.
He’s stubborn. But he’s rarely done what he wanted to do. He’s just done what he thought needed to be done. And now there is no wiggle room.
All text and photographs © Lisa Radhika Kaul and humble puddle.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lisa Radhika Kaul and humble puddle.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.