My Father was a great gardener. He could make vegetables sprout from the most unaccommodating soil. The aroma of fertiliser (just a nice name for chicken or horse shit) permeates the memories of my youth, as does the bounty of the garden tended by the old man.
For all his green-fingerish skills, his aptitude as a teacher who should pass these skills on to his children are none. My brother and I have trouble making grass grow. There were no Father-Son moments in the garden of our lives. No triumphant gathering of fresh cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, zucchini, peas, hanging beans, tomatoes, figs, potatoes, broccoli or cauliflowers (a small selection of what he grew). Not for us.
To be truthful, my brother and I didn’t actually seek tuition, but then neither was it ever offered as I remember. We would just get in the way, or we’d water incorrectly, or pick a too-green tomato, or just be trampling across freshly planted seedlings.
“Thank you, guys…” my father would try to sound encouraging, “but I don’t think that’s the … don’t … not there …not that way … what’s the matter with you.” His voice quickly rose with this blood pressure whenever my brother and I were around.
“What’s that? … I think I heard your mother calling. Go see what she wants… Go on off you go.” End of the lesson. It wasn’t just us, it was the same with his grandchildren.
I’m not complaining. However, if you saw what I was doing at the moment you may think differently. I am about to go visit my father at the nursing home where he now lives and take him a bag of lollies. Pardon the visual you are about to receive, but yes, I am currently pissing on those lollies.
I am standing over the toilet and pissing on one boiled lolly after another. They’re just ordinary boiled lollies. Come in bags of fifty. Wrapped in cellophane.
I love the boiled lolly. The whole simple idea of them is a wonder. Take a good handful of sugar, add water, a flavouring, boil, wait until it hardens, wrap, and there you have it.
I am now looking at boiled lollies that are enveloped with a thin covering of my uric acid. Perfect for visiting day.
My Father is one of the few men I know who is always complementary about his wife. “You know, I remember her as a young girl. She had that boyish shape. She was a late bloomer. But you should have seen her shimmy up a tree picking oranges. Her long, thin legs scuttling up the trunk stepping from branch to branch. She was amazing.”
And then it would always go onto “She was the best thing that ever happened to me, you know. I always consider myself lucky. Really fortunate to have ended up with her. I love her more than anything in the world.” He would say this in front of anyone and everyone.
We have never been a “lovey-lovey” family. Anything but. I find it impossible to hear my father say his “the best thing” speech and go “oh, isn’t that sweet.” It’s just not me.
My brother’s idea of brotherly-love goes something like “So, you got second place for athletics” I would be holding up the ribbon. “Not bad,” my brother would say disinterestedly, “but it’s the wrong colour, it’s not blue, it’s not a first. You only got a second. You weren’t good enough. Try harder next time.”
And even though my Mother was always encouraging to her children, I never once, not once heard her speak about love toward my Father; her husband. She never spoke badly about him. She just never spoke about any emotional tug associated with my father. Not about his legs, or whether he could shimmy up anything, never once dredge up a memory that was just about him.
I do often wonder whether he praised too often, too enthusiastically, too guiltily. He spent a couple of years here on his own before we arrived from Italy to join him. Did anything happen then? I am too scared to ask him.
The thought of asking him today does cross my mind as I carefully re-wrap the cellophane around each lolly so it looks like new.
I wash my hands thoroughly following the instructional poster plastered everywhere at my Father’s nursing home. Lather, then scrub carefully in-between each finger, encircling the thumbs (often forgotten), and the palms and backs. Rinse and done.
I look at the lollies sitting there on the table. Each is glistening, appetising, waiting in anticipation like a school boy on his first date. I place them in the lolly bag, grab my coat and car keys and head out.
My father has been in the St Ignatius Care and Retirement village since my Mother passed away a couple of years ago.
“Good morning, who are you here to see?”
“And his name?”
I come to visit my Father every week, at least once. And this is the same conversation I have every week, with the same, bespectacled, droopy-jowled, watermelon-breasted, nurse who manages the front counter with the zeal of a military drill Sargent.
“Milly, have you changed the beds in Section 5?” she barks past my left shoulder.
“Emily, don’t keep Mr Mumblebrain waiting for a pan again. Oh, the mess. Next time, I’ll make you clean it. “
Now she is looking at me. Her name badge with “Dianne” printed on it, floats and bobs on her ample left breast. “And you are?”
“The same person I was last week. I am his son.”
“His son? Oh how delightful.” She squeaks out as if I had just swum across the Pacific Ocean and they had been waiting for me. “Finally, you’re here. He’ll be so happy to see you.”
“He’s in room 5A down the corridor.”
“5A, has he been moved? He’s been in 5B for two years.”
She looks at me as if I have a pubic hair stuck in between my teeth. She removes her glasses and says slowly emphasising every word “5AAAAA, section threeeee, is where he has always been. If anyone should know, it is I.” Every beat of her voice feels like an enema slowly being pushed further into my anus.
The corridor that leads to my Father’s room has a mirror at one end. I once heard an elderly male resident (let’s be truthful, he was the guy Methuselah referred to as old) who had just seen his image reflected back, say quietly to his younger companion “Holy fuck, Benson, I can see Death coming toward me.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Dad” said Benson trying to appease his father with a smile “That’s not Death, that’s you.”
“Holy fuck, Benson, what’s the difference?”
For two years, I have been walking along this corridor looking at my own approaching spectre. Relatives have always said they can see my mother in me. Once when returning to the village I was born, a stranger came up to me and said “You must be Teresa’s son.” I had not been in the village for over 30 years.
Now, as I look at the person walking toward me I notice he looks more and more like my father.
My mother is disappearing. Even though I can still hear her laugh; loud, appreciative, thankful, and gracious. I can remember the floral dresses she so loved. I can remember how on wintery days she hid me from the cold, entombed in her big overcoat and invisible except for a couple of small feet protruding quietly from the bottom. But her face? I can’t remember what she looked like.
The person in the mirror is now my father staring back at me. My mother only exists in muscle memory, emotional memory that’s embedded somewhere deep inside. The thought of her brings up a swell of emotional waves, crashing down over me, holding me down, and leaving me breathless.
My father is in room 5B, as expected.
“Hello, Dad, how are things?” I place the lolly bag on his side table.
“Hola” I think he just greeted me in Spanish which is very weird. He thankfully continues in English. “Before I forget, the doctor said he wanted to see you when you got in. Needed to tell you something.”
Then looking at the lollies “Eeek, I hate those things. You can take them back with you.”
My father, straight to business, bypassing the pleasantries. “Yes, thank you, dad, all is well with me. Had a great week.”
“Oh, well … that’s good. Sorry, forgot to ask. I just had to remember about you going to see the doctor. I am glad all is good.”
“No problems, can I get you anything?”
“If I had wanted anything I would have started with that when you walked in. Now can you go see the Doctor, he sounded serious.”
Once again I return to the back yard garden. I come to see my father and he doesn’t really want me there. He wants me somewhere else.
The room is tiny. It barely fits a bed (single), a chair (previously used by residents now dead), a small television which is on and providing background noise, a cabinet where he keeps his clothes (three pairs of pants, three pairs of pyjamas, three sweaters, two sports coats, various underwear and socks, two pair of black shoes and slippers). There is a kettle rarely used, and drawers where he keeps biscuits, shaving equipment and odds and sods.
I can see that he hasn’t been washed in a while. There is an acrid smell of stale breath and urine coming off him. “When was the last time you had a shower, Dad?”
“Ha?” he jolts up as if he has been prodded. You can almost hear his brain rattling away looking for an answer. “Shower? Umm, … not sure. Probably yesterday. No, yesterday was Spanish day, we did Spanish things. Shower? Not sure. Maybe day before yesterday.”
“Spanish day. That sounds good. What did you do? Is that where ‘Hola’ comes from?”
“Hola what? I don’t know. We did Spanish things. I told you. Now go and see the doctor.”
I find Doctor Camden in his office behind the front counter.
“Hi,” I say from the door when he looks up “my father says you want to see me.”
“Ah, yes, … ah …” I know he is searching for my name. I decide not to help and he gives up graciously, “yes, well, come on in and take a seat.”
I sit while he shuffles through folders. “There it is. Okay. About your father. Look, there is nothing here you don’t know, but he is deteriorating quickly. His heart is not good and his angina is back. I have prescribed a nitrate spray.
“Overall activity of his lungs, heart and kidneys is sub optimal” he looks up from his notes, maybe I look stupid to him because he explains the word sub optimal as if I were a school boy “sub optimal, which means below what we would like it to be.”
“Who is ‘we’?” I ask.
“’We’? ‘We’ is the medical profession of course. We have standards that we would like certain functions to adhere to.
“I know this is hard” but he continues anyway. “Basically, your father is very fragile and we need to expect the worse at any moment. Currently, I can see he has a Please Resuscitate against his record. We will always do the best we can for any patient, but in this case, there is very little we can do for him now. If he were to have a stroke or some kind of seizure, AND he survived” he says this as the likelihood of this is very slim, “his quality of life will be terrible. Just so awful.”
“Is that ‘will be terrible’, or ‘would be’, ‘should be’ or ‘could be’?”
“Yes, well, what we’re suggesting …”
“This ‘we’ means it’s what’s what the entire medical profession is suggesting for my father?”
Again he looks up at me as if I am wasting his time. “The suggestion is that you should perhaps consider changing the Please resuscitate to a DNR, a Do Not Resuscitate. In the best interests of your father, of course.”
“Is this why my father smells like he hasn’t been showered for days?”
“We shower our residents as often as is necessary, I assure you. Sometimes we have a scarcity of resources to get across all the tasks that need to be done.”
“His room doesn’t look like it’s been cleaned for a while.”
Dr Camden exhales loudly as if to indicate I am wasting his time with these small matters. “I am sorry, I will look into it, but right now I want to discuss bigger issues.”
“Bigger issues?” I say, my iteration a little too obvious “My father is dying and the biggest issue he faces every day is whether to position his penis to the right or to the left?”
“Please, there is no need for… Your mother was …”
“Bigger issues? We’ve spoken about this before. My father doesn’t believe in DNR. He wants every breath this life owes him and he is going to take it whether his lungs want to help him out or not. As far as my father is concerned, there is no fat lady waiting in the wings, I don’t even believe he’s expecting to find a god, my mother, or a blinding eternal light. And I reckon it’ll piss him off no end.”
Dr Camden is now trying to calm the situation “I am merely asking as there is a drain on resources that could be directed more toward where there is hope than toward people who are just hanging on.”
I get up and walk out of the room.
“Well what did he want?” asks my father.
“Nothing, he said nothing. He wasn’t there.”
“Really, it means I have to remember to tell you next time you come back. Jesus, I don’t think I can remember that for a week. What are we going to do?”
“Don’t worry, dad, I’ll remember.”
A young person’s head pops in around the door. “Hello, oh, I see your son is here.” The face is deeply black, the accent African. She walks in and goes to my father.
“Oh, my goodness, you stink.” My father’s face drops in embarrassment. “We need to give you a good shower.”
I ask “When was the last time he had a shower?”
“Oh, there have been cuts here and I only work every second day, I try to get to each patient at least a couple of times a week.” She smiles at me and then whispers to my father. “It’d be a problem if you were going out dancing.”
I look over at my father ashamed about this existence here.
“Oh, look” says the young girl “you have those lollies Nurse Dianne likes so much.”
“You can take them the whole bag” says my father “I don’t like them at all.”
“Really, not at all?”
“They get stuck in my teeth. Please take them.”
She looks over at me. “Go on, take them to Nurse Dianne. As long as you come back after I go and bath my father.”
“Oh, thank you, of course I will. I promise.”
She grabs the bag and rushes out. My dad looks older and more tired than when I walked in. “You okay dad?”
“Okay? There is nothing okay about this life. It’s just a life. What do you want me to say? I miss my garden, I miss driving; and what else is there? I miss your mother. That’s about it. What do you want me to say?”
“Better than the alternative I suppose.”
“Really? At least your mother will be there.”
I look up at him and decide to ask him “Tell me dad, when you were here on your own here, before we joined you, was there ever any other woman?”
He looks at me as if I have brought back a memory, some spark from a long time ago, and then his face straightens. “What? Another woman? Are you crazy? What kind of stupid question is that? It never even crossed my mind. Go on, get out of here so I can get a shower. I am really tired.”
I bend down and kiss his forehead.
As I leave I see Nurse Dianne and Dr Camden at the front desk sucking on my father’s lollies.
“Thank you for coming” says Nurse Dianne. “Would you like a lolly? They are the best. One of the residents’ visitors left them for us.”
“No thank you. You enjoy. Doctor, I’ll speak with my brother during the week and get back to you about our discussion this afternoon.”
“You have a good week” says Dr Camden sucking sweetly on a boiled lolly.
“I brought in the lollies. I may bring in another pack of those lollies next week,” I say as I leave.
“Oh please do,” says Nurse Dianne so gleefully. I can barely wait for next week to arrive.
My Father always called the vegetables and fruit that came from the garden as his lollies. “These tomatoes, my goodness Teresa, you should taste them. They are like little balls of sugar. … Like lollies.” And I can hear my mother laughing.