Monday, June 21, 2010

A Father's Day

Father died. It was a dark Monday evening in his room; it was a brilliant Monday morning in my car as it sped through the foothills of San Bernardino Mountains. The distant peaks were shadows over the horizon on the right and on the left west wind from Los Angeles brought the brown fog that curled low over the sprawling valley glittering under a dry desert sun.

Death came creeping up the stairs to father’s bedroom with three windows overlooking the tall coconut palms swaying in the moist wind. Low cloud hung heavy with warm rain in the stifling heat of late monsoon. He had felt it coming for the past five days; he had told Shikhadi last Friday when he was returning from his evening stroll by the river, “It’s been so many years; now it is time.” “Why talk like that?” She had rebuked him gently. “You’re so fit, you have many more years before you. You’ll have to see your grand daughter’s wedding.”

Time that began to wait for him seventy-nine years ago came slowly into his bedroom over that Sunday and finally on that Monday evening. The fever came on Sunday but went away later that day. On Sunday evening and throughout Monday he had slowly tried to move about the room, flexing his feet and arms, standing up by the bed then sitting down; he looked for the shadow of death on his wrinkled face in the mirror. He had felt it crawl up his bed in the early afternoon; he’d asked mother to call his younger son back from work.

Kanchu had rushed home immediately, anxious at this unusual request. Late in the afternoon, the sky became menacingly dark, the palm trees swung in rhythms in the blowing wind, the egrets scattered against the rush of cloud, thunder struck over and over and one crashed with a terrific report nearby. The power failed. Rain came first in large drops over the hibiscus leaves, then in a torrent that roared on the rooftop for over an hour. He felt death crawl up his legs and he asked Kanchu to massage them a little. He fell asleep. Brother called up the doctor, who asked for a blood test—to be drawn tomorrow. Kanchu paced on the porch downstairs while father slept. Mother sat beside him on the bed. At eight, he woke and asked mother for a little water.

“Can you sit up to drink?”

He felt death near his chest and slowly shook his head. Mother gave him a few sips of water.

“How do you feel now?” she asked.

“Better. Much better.” He closed his eyes.

He saw his village home now clearly, his mother sitting beside his father on the moss-blackened window ledge across his room in his ancestral home, swinging their legs slowly under the moonlit night. That was nearly seventy years ago and their image had faded, but now he saw them clearly. He then saw me as the town physician, coming home each afternoon for the siesta, eating lunch with him and in the evening sitting with him in the living room, chatting with visiting neighbors who came to pay respect and with occasional patients; he saw his grandchildren returning home in the evening from school, dragging their umbrellas on the ground, kicking a piece of rock all the way, with shoes worn out at the toe, then they would eat as he would sit talking to them before they rush to the field for a game of soccer or climb the rooftop to gossip with their neighboring friends.

My car was swinging into route ten towards LA, pushing through the morning traffic, it lurched forward to pass a line of trucks on the middle lane, then changed three lanes to turn sharply into the Claremont exit on the right, stopped briefly at the red down the ramp bottom, then made slowly into the Institute parking lot. I called home in San Diego over the cell-phone several times, but nobody answered because my son would be sleeping late for the last few days before his school reopens next week following the summer break. The dog heard my voice over the answering machine and rose anxiously; he went to my son’s room and watched him snore for a while then sat down.

It was dark outside in father’s room, and mosquitoes were beginning to fly in. Sitting beside him on the bed, mother was watching him sleep. She stood up to close the window.

He could now see the tall tamarind tree in his village home, by the large pond beside the gravestones of his parents. It was evening, and a storm was coming. The cloud hung low, waiting for a rain. He was playing on the steps, slippery with moss with small water-snails creeping under the shadows, leading into the pond’s dark water, where small fish darted to and fro, a lone dragonfly dived and made a round across the water beside the floating lily leaves, then returned to its perch on a small bamboo stick projecting out the water. He leaned forward and tried to catch the dragonfly but it flew away at his shadow, made another round then it returned to its perch. He stepped into the water over the slippery steps to get closer to the dragonfly, but slipped and fell into the cool water…he flailed wildly with his legs and arms to float but he was sinking, he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, he tried one last time to grasp at the bamboo stick but it was too far away, and he could now see his parents clearly across the water on the other side smiling to him and he let go.

I poured my morning coffee; the students were waiting in the next room for the nine-o’clock meeting when the call from India finally came.

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