by Despina Pirketti
As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 2, June 2013
Eating became a problem. For two whole weeks, each time my mother consumed a bite her face warped in a grimace of disgust as she squinted and squeezed her lips flat so dramatically that the veins in her throat dilated like blue threads struggling to hold. This image of aversion would take shape even before she’d swallow, at the mere sight of food. She did finish each meal religiously though, careful not to leave anything behind. And when my sister and I asked if she liked it, she would say “It wasn’t bad”, now with a mellowed expression of defeated repulsion. The truth was my mother loved food. She still does. But at the time, she thought it extremely irreverent on her part to enjoy her meals whilst her husband lay sick in a hospital bed. It didn’t make sense that she should abstain from nourishment altogether, so the least she could do was act like she was forced to eat against her will. In her mind, she fought against pleasure and she did so with the unspoken despair of a woman terrified of losing the love of her life. But in the span of those two weeks my father had spent in the hospital, she never once admitted to being afraid. Tired, yes. Worried, indeed. But not scared, not weak. Weakness is so embarrassing, really. Almost as embarrassing as death.
I was nineteen when my father died. It was Tuesday, March 7. Not a very cold day. I was wearing lime green corduroy pants with an orange cardigan and matching sports shoes. A ridiculous outfit it was. He had been in the hospital for several days and was supposed to feel better. He didn’t actually say he was feeling better but the doctors did. In fact, they released him on Saturday and asked him to come back on Tuesday for a follow up check. I drove the three of us to the hospital. When we got there, he was too weak to stand on his feet without leaning somewhere and there was no wheelchair or even a simple chair available at the waiting area. So he rested against the wall, careful to fix his gaze where nobody could meet it. I noticed it and felt my heart taking a plunge. Then I left them for a while to run and park the car somewhere near the hospital as I wasn’t allowed to leave it at the entrance. When I came back, my father was still leaning against the wall, but now his eyes were completely shut and his whole body was shut too, bent, exhausted, disfigured. “Did he fall?” I asked my mother and turned my gaze toward him. He opened his eyes and looked back at me annoyed, as if I had no right to ask. Or I had no right to ask anyone but him. He waved “No” with every crease on his face screaming “How dare you!” Of course he didn’t fall.
My father grew up in a middle class family of five. He had a brother and a sister. He was the middle child and physically, the less gifted one. At two he suffered an epilepsy crisis that left him with a curving of the thoracic spine – at least that’s what my mother related to me when I was old enough to realize that not all fathers had a bulge between their spinal column and right scapula. In later years I would question this version – can epilepsy really cause kyphosis? I had read that kyphosis could be an implication of tuberculosis or polio, a tumor or muscular dystrophy. But as a child he was rarely sick. Save the bone deformity on his upper back, my father was a healthy boy, much healthier than his healthy-bodied peers.
Even so, his eldest brother wouldn’t have him attend the same high school as him out of embarrassment for his slouching posture, and the only other school available at a close distance was a private institution. So he got himself a job after school and worked in order to pay the fees. He went on working part-time until graduation, from age twelve to eighteen, first at a dry cleaner’s and then as a subtitler at a local movie theater, tuning the Greek subtitles with the actors’ voices, which in the course of time afforded him a good working knowledge of English and some French. At times he has happy there, hidden in the darkness of his elevated booth, high above awe-stricken spectators, men and women entranced by the robust beauty of Robert Taylor and the angelic voice of Marilyn Monroe. He’d come to learn the actors’ lines by heart and took pleasure in whispering their words before they spoke them, his eyes firmly fixed upon the screen, shoulders retracted and torso lift out of the pelvis in defiance of his malformed spine. It wasn’t so malformed really; or it was, but only when looked at from the side.
His mother loved him, yet she had two fitter children to look after, and somehow it made sense to her that they needed her more than the young working pupil. From some point onwards, probably during his early adolescence, it seemed wiser that she should let go of him anyway, what with his physical weakness having turned into a rare kind of injured pride that made him seem unbreakable. Unbreakable, therefore complacent. After all, he’d achieved so much in so little time, her darling weakling. He earned enough money to sustain himself and very often contributed to the family budget. A learned, self-sustained young man with a flair for elocution, praised by his teachers for his ability to absorb dozens of unknown words in a day, appreciated by his boss for his punctuality, and cherished by his mother for his generosity. A good student, a conscientious worker and a providing son. And apart from some stiffness in the spine and some rare incidents of dyspnea, his deformity was not so hard on him either.
Then again, perhaps my grandmother had other reasons to withdraw her tenderness from my father. Perhaps she was overridden with guilt for failing to protect him from physical misfortune. And it was only natural her guilt would be easier to manage if ignored, if stashed away under layers and layers of denial. She swore that her baby was born healthy, that her womb had risen to the occasion of new life but then his spinal column went astray and there was nothing anyone could do about it. By the time my father had reached his early twenties, his mother’s hidden guilt had degenerated into self-righteousness which aptly honed her skills in drawing a future for him: “You’ll never get married, you know. We’ll grow old together, you and I”. Every so often she would assure him of the merits of celibacy, of how tenderly she would take care of him, cooking and cleaning up after him, until the time she would grow too old and they would need to hire help to tend to the needs of both of them. But he was such a clever and kind-hearted and decent young man that any woman would love to be near him, not in that way of course, but in his mist, such a ridiculous thought really, after all he never thought of women that way, did he?
I can’t know what my father replied to those inhibited references on the desires of the flesh. If he chose to appease his mother’s nervousness or if he revealed his yearning for a woman, any woman – or indeed if they both agreed he could occasionally be intimate with a professional, some godless, plump Turkish woman in a den of iniquity. What I know, what my father would later confess was that awkward though it might had been, his mother’s assertiveness insured his future. She pledged to stand by him through thick and thin as long as he remained obedient and single. What more could he ask for? And so he lived on for the next two decades, with a well cooked meal on the table when he came back from work and clean, meticulously ironed clothes to wear each morning. In the meantime, his siblings got married, moved out to their own households, had children, gained new friends, traveled to Europe, at times thought they should invite him to their houses more often, then changed their minds as they feared that their children’s remarks on his hunchback would hurt his feelings. They even told him so, to show how much they cared for him. And so he was content, my father, his masculinity half broken but sedated.
Until my mother came along.
She had this cousin, Demetris. Well educated and unimpressed by deformities, Demetris had worked with my father in the past and had been fascinated by his ability to abstain from collegial conflicts and his immunity to the lowly passions of the many. They didn’t become friends in the sense that they spent time together after work, but I suspect their relation was the closest my father had ever been to a friendship up to that time. So, several years later, when both men were pushing forty, Demetris approached him with an invitation to meet his beautiful but rather whimsical cousin. Meanwhile, my mother had already turned down three suitors, a soldier serving with the UN mission, a cattle-breeder and a butcher. The soldier was Argentine and she was convinced he had wooed her in order to obtain resident status on the island. The cattle-breeder did the same job as her father and the prospect of continuity was completely intolerable for her. And the butcher, well, she could think of nothing more unraveling than lying next to a man who reeked of blood and slaughter.
The first encounter took place at my mother’s parental home. My father went unescorted, half-sure that the prospective bride would turn him down, but unable to conceal his contentment over having been considered for the position of groom. He wore his beige bell-bottoms with a khaki shirtlike jacket, plain, high-collared and loose. His hands were lean and brawny, with long fingers and clean, neatly manicured nails, his hair shiny black, with the parting on the left side, rather long, cut a soupcon above the shoulders.
“A good looking man”, my mother thought as she laid eyes on him, “tall and lean”. They said hello and he was invited to sit at their living room in the presence of her parents and Demetris. Then the young maiden went to the kitchen to pick up the tray with the traditional cherries in syrup, and on her way back she was faced with my father’s side view. Violently she clenched her fists around the tray handles as a wave of indignation surged from her heart to her eyes. “So this is how highly they think of me, bringing me a hunchback for a husband!”
My father sensed her gaze nailed on his right scapula and looked her way smiling the smile of humiliation with every line, curve and wrinkle of his resigned face. Then something wonderful happened as that twenty-nine year old virgin who loved to knit and daydream, was for the first time in her life looked in the eyes by a man who knew so much more than her, who could speak tongues she had never heard of, who could teach her things. His humiliation she took for a promise of love and she smiled back.
After the wedding, my parents moved to a rented house in the city, close enough to my paternal grandmother’s. He worked and she took care of the house. They’d wake up together, have breakfast and say goodbye with a kiss. At noon he’d have his lunch break, come back to her, have lunch and leave again, with a kiss. In the afternoons they’d take long walks in the neighborhood for everyone to see that their misshapen neighbor, a quadragenarian by now, had found himself a wife against all odds. And what a beautiful young woman she was, my mother! Curvy, white-skinned, with short hair and a taste for homemade brightly colored dresses tailored just above the knee. During their walks, my father would stop and talk to people he knew, introducing his young bride with feigned indifference, as if to assuage his immense pride at his achievement. She had seen right through him and she adored it. She was, without the least doubt, the object of a successful man’s affection. Life was good.
* * * *
I left with my mother around noon, when the doctor said dad would need to stay at the hospital for further tests because his heart rate was abnormal and his blood pressure had dropped. “I have to get him his pajamas, we brought nothing!” mum snapped at him. “You people said you just wanted to do a follow up check”.
I drove her home, helped her find everything my dad would need overnight and then took a shower. Clean, I put on my lime green corduroy pants with on orange cardigan and matching sports shoes. Then, “Mum?” I called faintly outside the closed door of her bedroom. “Yes” she replied, “come in, darling”. The room was completely dark and my mother was trying to decide what to wear, fumbling through her drawers. I made for the light switch but froze at her commanding tone: “I need to lie down for a minute. Go to your dad. I’ll come along later with your sister”. And so I left, leaving her there in obscure stillness, this middle aged resilient woman who was averted to light and always saved more than a couple of chores to do at night.
By the time I was nine or ten I had memorized every hue of her housecleaning routine – the squishing sound of her soaking flip flops as she walked about the bathroom after pouring water around the toilet rim; the slapping sound of her mop hitting the floor; the squeaking sound of glass being wiped; and finally the whooshing sound of running water from the shower. No one else minded the noise. My sister slept blissfully in the bed next to mine whilst the dim light that spilled from my parents’ room onto the corridor would at some point fade into obscurity. Only I was waiting for the sounds to die out, and the longer it took the louder my doubtful mind bellowed that the squishing and the slapping and the whooshing were not at all of my mother’s doing but in fact the acoustic manifestation of a family of mice running about the house. I pictured four little gray creatures promptly given to cleansing our home of every impurity, their snouts pointed upward as they exhaled the labour of their task. I wasn’t appalled by the idea. If it were true, it would simply mean that my mother was not exerting herself to disinfect our bathroom but that she too embraced night as a vehicle of rest, while four lively mice swept and mopped and dusted for her. For quite some time I was held spellbound by the notion of my mother’s humble helpers until one night I gathered enough courage to get up from bed and look for her. I groped my way across the corridor, enticed by the anticipation of sparkling white porcelain and purifying vibrations, only to realize that my mother was not in the bathroom. For five seconds I stood there frozen, chlorine penetrating my pores, trapped in the prickly throes of this horrible thought – that when night fell my mother turned into a mouse, a nocturnal female mouse with a smart apron wrapped around her tiny waist, her tail a blade that cut through my doubts, and now this mouse had finished scrubbing the bathroom and went to the kitchen to set the table for her real child, a well-behaved little Jerry that would soon come back from school and relish what his mother, my mother, had cooked for him. So I too made for the kitchen with slow, unsteady steps, as if caught in the web of her guile. And even before I mercifully caught sight of her tiptoeing in human form towards their bedroom and gently closing the door behind her, I knew I would never, ever give up on her. Had need arisen, I would have turned into a mouse myself and forever deny the light of day. That’s how much I loved her.
* * * *
I found my father lying in bed with his eyes closed, his face looking strangely pinkish, gasping for breath. “Dad? Dad, can you hear me?” I whispered, unaware of the tremor in my voice. No one replied. I ran outside along the corridor, found a nurse and said, “My father is not well”, again unaware of how redundant this phrase sounded within the walls of a hospital. The nurse went inside the room, glanced at my father and rushed back outside to call the doctor.
I stood by his bed, uncertain as to what I should do, with dozens of different thoughts racing through my brain. “Where are they?” “Why am I here alone?” “Where’s the doctor?” “Is he in pain?”, “Does he know I’m here?” “Is my cardigan too bright for this?” “Where the fuck are they?”, “He’s going to die”. “He is going to die now”.
The doctor who responded to the call was not his regular physician. This was a young man, tall, bald and very serene. Somehow his serenity encouraged me. I waited outside as he examined my father, frantically trying to call my mother and tell her to hurry up, but my mobile had no signal. When the doctor got out of the room, I tried to lock eyes with him but he wouldn’t look straight at me. “We need to transfer him to the I.C.U.” he said dryly, his serenity degenerating into malice.
“Where the fuck are they?”
My mobile had no signal and the more I tried, the more exasperated I became. I went back to my father’s room making sure I left the door open.
I touched his hand, placed it over my left palm, caressed it, kissed it and returned it to its previous position. No reaction. He was still gasping, perhaps not so agonizingly now, I thought. “What if he dies? He can’t die. He’s barely sixty. What if he dies at this very moment when we’re alone in the room, what if…” Dry coughing cut my thinking short. It came from the other side of the room. I looked over and saw an old man in his nineties lying in a bed by the window, his gaze affixed to the ceiling, his right lower arm raised to form a square angle with the upper arm, as if signaling for someone to approach. Had he been there all along? Had my father’s laborious breathing produced this relic of a man just to spite me? The hand and the face was all I could see, as he was covered in a rigid white sheet. He’d look like a cadaver really, if it hadn’t been for the coughing. He coughed a few more times and then stopped, closed his eyes and returned to his dream with a renewed sense of his surroundings. It was as if he had felt the presence of a woman, sensed her body perspiring a few meters away from him and took it all in with a smile.
My mother and sister entered the room with a smile too, happy to see me there, unsuspected of my dad’s rapid deterioration. “They’re taking him to the I.C.U.”, I said as calmly as I could, robbing them of their smiles. “There’s something not right”. My mother nodded, then leaned over his pillow and whispered his name gently, venturing a renewed smile. I remembered that each time she called out his name through smiling lips it sounded different, its three syllables merged into an erotic sigh.
Then the nurse came and said that we would have to stay there for a few hours as there was no bed available in the Intensive Care Unit and we had to wait for a vacancy. “I don’t mean that someone has to die”, she said awkwardly, “We’ll probably move the first patient who’s going to feel better. We’ll let you know”.
A few moments later a man stepped inside the room. The three of us exchanged looks to make sure this was someone we could all actually see, and then instinctively we moved closer to my dad, touching lightly on his bed clothes as if to brag of the intimacy between us. The middle aged stranger nodded “Hello” and went straight to the bed by the window, where the erected hand was still waiting to be touched. “Father?” he asked in a very low voice but the sick air of the room brought the sounds closer to our ears. “Father?” he asked again, adding “your son’s speaking”. My sister and I looked at each other and choked a laugh. “Speaking?” He waited by his bedside for a few more minutes and exited as subtly as he had entered, without so much as drawing near the erected hand.
They transferred my father to the I.C.U. shortly before midnight. My mother had already given them his pajamas and clean underwear to wash him before they had him settled in his new bed. In her arms she held the track suit he had put on that morning, neatly wrapped around his shoes to form what looked like a swathed baby, his watch oscillating precariously on top. It was so quiet in the I.C.U. waiting area, and dark. The walls were painted pale yellow and glowed discreetly in the penumbra. The silence was uncanny. I’d only been there at daytime and the noise was so intense, thick and loud that I thought it never left the place. But the pale yellow masterfully absorbed the day’s racket and locked it safe inside the cracks between its bricks.
At some point my sister heard something that resembled a squeak and thought she saw a mouse darting from behind the water tank to the corridor through the half opened door. “There are no mice at the hospital, dear” my mother said and looked in my direction firmly as if waiting for me to corroborate her statement. I did not. I just raised my shoulders to indicate ignorance. What did I know about mice and why the fuck did it take them so long to get here tonight? With or without my encouragement, my sister was too clever not to retort: “Well, I know what I saw. And if he’s squeaking, he’s probably after a mate, old Frank”. “Who’s Frank?” I asked. “Sinatra” mum offered. “He was a crooner too. Your dad loves him”.
Even as the air about us was moistened with the dew of death my mother and younger sister were still hopeful. They had no idea he had already left us.
I knew the minute I saw him a few hours back that he could no longer fight them, the successive episodes of suffocation that had plagued him for the past two weeks. Each time he gasped for breath he aroused the elephant’s heart that was encaged inside his thorax. That’s how the doctor phrased it on the first day we rushed my dad to the ER. “Picture an elephantine heart struggling to pump blood inside a human sternum” he said, and though I yearned to scream “You picture it, you condescending prick!” I listened on as he explained how my father’s convex rib cage had restricted his heart and lungs into so confined a space that the heart had to work overtime in order to catch up with the rest of his body. And now the heart was giving up and my father was dying.
The young bald doctor and an ugly intern were still exercising CPR on him. He didn’t like any of them. The young man especially, he had this serene expression on his face that cornered on malice. “I’m dying here”, he tried to utter. “Can’t you at least feign some respect?” They accidentally broke his rib and the pain was so excruciating he felt like roaring, “Let me be, you ignorant charlatans!” But of course he couldn’t speak, dying as he was. So he withdrew at the peak of agony. He thought, “I’m giving up” and the pain went away. He had nine seconds to relive his life. Nine whole seconds of life left inside him. And he was going to make the best of them.
No sooner had he finished this thought than his soul, a cluster of odorless dust particles, flew high above the bed where the two doctors were tormenting his bloated body. She wasted no time there. She flew over to the next room, where my mother and sister were sitting speechless, replete with anticipation. I distinctly remember my sister sitting next to our mother holding hands, their heads joined at the foreheads like two conjoining twins sharing the same hope. That was the first image my father’s soul perceived in her nine-second journey. Then she travelled back to the day I was born, in a young July when the daisies in our yard smelled like justice. Then she took a leap forward, on my much-appraised sister’s graduation night when our surname reverberated six times across a hall filled to the brim with my father’s peers. Then the soul surged back to that afternoon my father smiled to my mother for the first time, and my mother sat opposite him locking her legs and knees together and crossing her ankles. The soul stayed there for two seconds before flying all the way back to the morning he had overheard his thirteen-year old brother proclaim “I am not having the cripple coming to my school!” as their mortified mother hastily brought her index finger in front of her puckered mouth. His mother. Two seconds left. Now he was twenty one, hardened against curious glances and keen on a life shared, eating breakfast as his mother stood behind him wiping the counter, one breath away from locking the next nineteen years of her son’s life inside the overcurvature of his upper back: “You and me. We’ll grow old together”. One second left. And then my father’s soul repossessed his twenty one-year old body in that tableau of a young man’s defeat and had him rise to his feet, gently touch his mother on the cheek and softly whisper to her: “I forgive you”.