Waiting to be seen by a doctor.
When the great plates of the earth's crust shift, it seems to happen in a second. Cups rattle, floors buckle, walls crack, waters move out and then in, alarms go off, the landscape is changed. But those plates are always in slow, perpetual motion, grinding against, under, over each other, catching, building tension, and then jolting loose.
It all began when my father drove to Ithaca to see an old friend. On the way back, in Troy, New York, on the hottest day of the year, his car stalled at an intersection. Friendly people helped him. A woman guided him to the shade of a tree, called AAA, directed traffic around his stalled Volvo, and stayed with him for two hours. A man brought them iced coffee. When the tow truck came, he got up from the ground where he'd been sitting, and his legs buckled under him. He fell against the tree trunk, gashed his head, bruised his ribs and scraped his arms. A week later he started having sharp pains in the upper right side of his abdomen. Two days after that he was in the hospital. A gallstone, possibly knocked out of place by the fall, had blocked a bile duct, and his gallbladder had gone septic. Hallucinating, confused, in pain, he was unable to follow what the doctors were telling him. Normally they would have taken his gallbladder out, but he has a heart condition, and they didn't dare risk general anesthesia while he was so sick. Alternatives were being discussed, and we weren't fully in the loop. I got on a plane.
For the next two weeks I spent many long days at Mt. Auburn Hospital, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking out from the sixth floor windows over a summer sea of trees, sometimes sunlit, sometimes lashed with rain, listening to the endless beeping and buzzing of hospital machinery, getting to know the nurses and their shifts, their countries of origin, their moods; waiting for the doctors to talk to us, reconciling conflicting stories and theories and interpretations of tests, enduring repetitive questions, making sure nothing was done without our consent, explaining to my father, updating family and friends on several continents, riding the constant changes in his condition. Once we brought him home, and then another stone blocked another duct and we had to take him back. They put a tube into his gallbladder to drain bile, another through his nose into his stomach to suck out an air bubble, and a probe with a camera and a little claw down his throat into his gut, to catch and remove the second gallstone and widen the duct. He was full of bruises from the blood thinner they gave him to prevent lung clots. Short, intense crises and long stretches of boredom and worry. Between bursts of medical activity my father told me histories of the left, and the politics of genetics, but couldn't keep track of what day it was, what they'd said he could eat. As I sat by his bed, feeling the texture of his bewilderment, I realized that though the sepsis was making him see things, this earth had been moving for months.
Papi coming home, early 1960s.
My mother and father were together for 62 years, from the summer of 1949 until she died in March of this year, and besides being his best friend, companion, intellectual and political comrade, and beloved, she was also the strong-minded administrator of their joint lives. I saw that he was overwhelmed by the new requirements of his self care (testing sugar, taking insulin, varieties and schedules of medications) and the new requirements of the single life (home maintenance my mother kept track of, buying clothing my mother would have ordered for him, noticing emotions my mother would have noticed and probed.) Slowly it dawned on me that at least for now, he shouldn't be living alone, and then, that I was the only one of his children who was able to move in with him. After thirty-five years in the San Francisco Bay Area, the ground has moved under my feet.
My mother's room, the "master" bedroom, is like a studio apartment, with areas for sleeping and desk work, and a wide loft with shelves for books. With the help of my chosen sister, Freda, and now my brother Ricardo, I am stripping it of the aura of sickness, the residue of her dying. When it is cleared and cleansed, it will become my home for the next year. My job is not to nurse my father or keep house for him. I'm unable to do those things for myself, let alone someone else. Other people will help him regain his strength by climbing up and down the stairs. Others will make his bed, wash his dishes, cook most of his meals. He has a wonderful new doctor with a holistic eye who makes house calls. My brother Alejandro handles his finances. I have a different task.
In 1981 my father had a massive heart attack that almost killed him. Afterwards my mother wrote a poem describing herself and my father as two trees grown so close over the years that she couldn't tell where he left off and she began, bound together, root, bark and limb.
Like any plant whose boughs have been struck by lightening or wrenched by wind, half its mass torn away, my father is simultaneously fine and in shock. My job is to help him make the passage from the living half of a stricken ecosystem, struggling for equilibrium, to a balanced, rooted, state of singleness. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote, caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. There is no road. You make it by walking. I don't have a road map for this journey. Not even a topo map. But I know how to accompany, how to ask questions, how to face unthinkable change. I'm still a citizen of the cities by the bay, still anchored to the edge of that great ocean and the eucalyptus scented air, fingers still intertwined with those of beloved friends at the Western edge of the North American plate, but for now I'm going to be living with deciduous leaves that will soon begin to fall, exploring the possibilities inherent in a landscape turned upside down.
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