Phone conversations have become almost impossible, and in person, they are at best happy but disjointed. Last week there was a crisis: a narcotic pain medication to try to help him sleep better threw him for a complete loop, resulting in several days of agitated disorientation. He shouted in frustrated Arabic a lot of the time, which we could only decipher with difficulty. And then, gradually, the medication wore off and was cleansed from his system, and he returned to the state he’s been in for a while now: part here, part in the past; fatigued and weak but still able to eat, get up for a few hours of sitting, still appreciative of brief visits even if the memory of them vanishes quickly. It goes like this:
The caregiver helps him into the living room, sometimes using his walker, more and more often the wheelchair. His eyes are nearly closed, and he groans with each step. Finally he lands in his chair, a controlled collapse with helping arms around him, and rests, eyes tightly shut now, while she brings his food, cut into small bites, and sets it on a tray in front of him. At length he opens his eyes and slowly, slowly, reaches for the fork, spears a bite of meat, maneuvers it toward his mouth, opens the mouth, places the morsel on his tongue, begins to chew with his few remaining teeth. This man whose great pleasure was eating, who I’ve seen wolfing down unbelievable portions of food and talking about the abundance and joy of eating for days after a wedding banquet or party – “the shrimp were enormous, and they had a great platter of them! The beef was so succulent, so tasty!” – is exhausted after four or five bites. On a good night, when there is something he especially likes – stuffed grape leaves, for instance - he’ll sit up and go on eating, with long intervals between, for an hour. But more and more it is like this. He’s not drinking enough either, and so the caregiver puts a small bowls of cut-up watermelon in front of him, and he picks at it for a long while.
After the meal he rests and then opens his eyes and looks at us. “I can’t make out who has died, or who died first,” he says, suddenly, sounded remarkably like himself. “I’m not sure if my uncles are still alive. Do you know?”
“Your uncles in Damascus? Is that who you mean?”
“I think they are probably dead.” (They died forty years ago.)
“I think they may be too. But did my mother die too?”
“I think she died before Uncle A, because I remember what he said when he heard the news. I can see him coming into the house. But of the rest I am not sure at the moment.”
“Do you remember going to the cemetery in Damascus with your sons?” I put my hand on J.’s shoulder to remind him this was one of them.
He thinks for a minute. “Yes. I remember reading the inscriptions.”
“And those were your parents’ graves…”
He looks unsure. “They may have been,” he says, finally. “How is your father?”
“He’s fine. He’s playing a lot of golf.”
His eyebrows shoot up. “Really! So he can still take aim.”
“Alhamdullilah!” ("All praise belongs to Allah.") At this the J. and I burst out laughing, and he joins us, his shoulders shaking and his face in a big grin. It's the last thing we expect him to say in that context. The caregiver, sitting at her book in the corner, looks up with a surprised smile on her face.
“I brought you the Arabic papers from Montreal, Dad,” says J., when the laughter has passed.
“Oh.” I go over to the table and unfold the papers. “Do you think you can see the headline?” I ask. He shakes his head no. “Here,” I hold it up and show him the big red Arabic letters at the top.
He peers at the writing and sounds some of it out. “You're close -- this one is ‘Phoenicia’: it’s a Lebanese paper,” I tell him. “Look, here’s an ad for travel to Lebanon.” We look at the picture of an airplane in clouds together; I can’t tell if he can see it or not. The caregiver peeks at us, fascinated; she is new and doesn’t know much about him yet. “And look, here’s your old friend Bill Clinton, and Hillary and Obama.” He smiles wanly. “And here’s a priest – actually I think it’s a patriarch.”
At that he brightens up. “Which patriarch?” he asks.
“I don’t know. He’s all dressed up, though.”
“They all do that.”
“Maybe he's Greek,” I say. “I’m not sure and I can’t read any of this!”
He laughs. “Which one is the top now?”
“Yes, which one do they all defer to?”
“I don’t know but it seems like the Greek patriarch gets the most attention.” We look at an Egyptian paper after that, but he's losing interest, or perhaps it just depresses him to not be able to read any of it. It's hard to tell. I fold the papers and put them away.
“Is this spinach?” he asks, looking at an untouched pile of green on his plate.
“Yes. Do you want to try some?” He shakes his head no, and when the caregiver asks if he's finished he says yes, and she takes the tray away. But he doesn’t seem tired enough yet to want us to leave.
“Guess what I’m reading?” I ask, taking a chance.
“Good for you. Which one?”
“The Republic. I read it forty years ago but it’s better this time around.”
He nods but I’m not sure if he’s remembering, or connecting.
“I didn’t remember how lively the dialogues were. He can be very funny too. He was a very smart man, your friend Socrates.”
“Not always,” he says, shaking his head. “The smartest one of my uncles was your father, the one I always met coming back down the hill.”
It's hard to make these quick adjustments, but we're getting better at it. Who did he think I was now? A cousin, obviously…“In Damascus?” I ask.
“The one with the orchard in Bludan?”
“They both had orchards.” His eyes roll up toward the ceiling; it's easier to follow the memory than make an explanation. “Oh, the figs we used to eat from those trees!”