“We are on our way out, Suzanne,” my dad reminds me. “Your mom and I are on our way out. We are two old people clinging to a little raft adrift in the sea… Someday you will be old. Then you will recall this moment and know what it’s like to be us.”
My dad’s skeletal form looks so small lying in bed, his bony brown arms poking out of the covers. Sometimes when I drop by to check on him, his breath is so silent I stand still and watch, to be sure he is still here. There is a porta potty on each side of the bed he shares with my ninety-year old mom, one for him, one for her. The nightstand on his side of the bed has a few powerful meds, some for pain, some to help him pee. The meds have kept his raft afloat for two years since the doc first announced he had prostate cancer.
My dad turns over on his side, facing away from me. I lie down on top of the white sheets and massage his bony back. “Ah, Suzanne, that feels so good. You have healing hands Suzanne… I’m not afraid to die Suzanne… heaven will be so beautiful… like paradise before the fall. ”
Knowing my love for animals, my dad always assures me, “There will be animals in heaven, Suzanne. The lion will lie down with the lamb. There will be every kind of animal, gorillas and orangutans. You will see your dogs in heaven, Suzanne. Heaven is not just a spirit world where we do nothing. It is a real world without sin. We will not eat flesh. When Man fell, all the animals fell. In heaven all the animals will eat grass… “
These days I don’t fight with my dad about anything. I don’t bring up my favorite argument that if we won’t be eating animals in heaven, why do we eat them now?
While I press my fingers along his bony spine and back rib cage, he reminds me again how I always got the short end of the stick growing up. “I was so busy working, Suzanne. I know I failed you. I ask for your forgiveness.”
As I relax into massaging my dad, he talks and talks. His voice is still strong. He is still the Patriarch of the family with strong opinions about everything. I quell the flickers of outrage I feel over the years of disparity between how he treats me and how he treats my youngest sister, the blatant favorite of his three daughters. There will be no real resolution this lifetime. Maybe next lifetime he will be my child. It’s all a Great Mystery.
“My heavenly father is waiting for me Suzanne… The Lord has been real good to us, Suzanne. This world is going to pot. We are living in end times Suzanne. Don’t you worry… the Lord is watching it all.“
I’m not even tempted to ask why God doesn’t stop the insanity. I just let my old dad talk.
My dad is a survivor. He survived three and a half years of forced labor and brutal beatings with wet ropes and baseball bats in a Japanese prison camp. I marvel how he laughs when he describes how for amusement the bored guards forced his fellow prisoners to pummel each other till their faces were bloody and swollen. He ate bugs and grubs for protein while the allied prisoners, not used to meager rations, died all around him. “The Americans died first Suzanne… they were not used to living on a low calorie rice diet.”
My dad was reduced to a walking scarecrow but, he says, the hand of God was on him. One morning he was transferred into the mountains behind Nagasaki to work in a coal mine. A few days later as he was looking off into the distance toward Nagasaki, he saw a huge mushroom cloud rising over the city. The city was annihilated by the atomic bomb. While millions of humans melted and soil turned to glass, my dad survived.
My dad often tells the story of the day that was like the resurrection. How suddenly all his cruel tormentors vanished and he saw airplanes flying low through the mountain pass where the coal mines were located. He saw by the markings that the airplanes were American as big drums of food, medicine and other supplies floated from heaven into the prison camp under a canopy of white parachutes. I can imagine the tears of joy flowing down his face as he thanked God for the American saviors that delivered him from hell on earth. At that moment the seed was planted that someday he would find a way to come to America.
After the Japanese war machine came to a halt, my dad survived the humiliation of being treated like a dark skinned outcast by the British, confined in an enclosure like a prisoner all over again. Thankfully, he was transferred to an American ship where he was treated like a human being and free to move around.
After recovering his strength at a recuperation camp, and being of mixed Dutch-Indonesian parentage, he had a choice of going back to Indonesia or repatriation in Holland. The hand of God moved him across the ocean to Holland, where he met and married my blue-eyed mother. Nine months after their official union, I was born.
Seven years later, with a sponsor in New York, we were on a boat headed for America. Upon arrival there was a telegram announcing that the original plans for the Diets family had changed. My dad was told we were being sent to Ojai, California. He had never heard of the place but he’d had a prophetic dream about living among orange trees.
We landed on Thacher Road in a house in the middle of an orange orchard. My dad believes the dream in Holland was a message from God that Ojai was our destiny. After five years of going to night school and days working in orchards, building rock walls, and odd jobs working for east end neighbors like Beatrice Wood, my dad became the accountant for Thacher School. Over the years his vow to pay back the Americans who saved him from the hell of that prison camp high in the hills above Nagasaki, was realized.
We reminisce about all this as I massage him. He tells me that “Your mom and I reminisce every night about when you kids were little… Life goes by so fast Suzanne… it’s just a moment in eternity. “
Now I understand what my dad means when he says life passes in the twinkling of an eye. When I’m at my parent’s house my whole life feels like a dream. I lie on my old bed and I’m twelve years old again, totally unconscious, plotting how to sneak out of the house.
My dad has apologized a thousand times for being so hard on me. “You were the first-born Suzanne. We did our best but I failed you.”
Tonight I don’t feel angry when he says this. I forgive him for throwing my Bob Dylan and Joan Baez records in the trash. I forgive my mom for reading my journals and snooping through my stuff and yelling at me when I came home from the Haight Ashbury.
Tonight as I massage my dad he wonders out loud about all the men I’ve been with over the years and why my marriages failed. “Was there something wrong with you or was it them… or was there something wrong with both you?” He asks. It’s unusual for him to talk to me like that, so I seize the moment and get a lot of stuff off my chest.
For a moment my mind drifts to when I was eighteen and pregnant. I remember how I had dreams about dolls in my underwear. That was a prophetic dream too but my dad did not think it was the hand of God. That was the hand of the devil.
“Dad,” I say, laughing, “I was much too young to get married at age eighteen. That’s why that marriage failed. I was just too young dad….Besides, all those men I was with were all pot smokers…”
“But,” I add, now serious, “You’re right. You did fail me. All the psychology books say a daughter’s relationship with her dad is critical influencing who she marries….You just were never there for me dad. Plus, I was so confused.”
“You are so right, Suzanne….I hope you will forgive your old dad….”
We laugh and change the subject. Now he tells me stories of his childhood in Indonesia. “I love animals too Suzanne. I had pet birds. I taught them to talk and sing and hunt other birds. One day, I don’t know how it happened, one of my birds flew into the bubbling oil… I tried to save it but things were so primitive back then….cooking over an open fire. “
In the span of two hours our whole lifetime flashes before us. Back in the present we talk about his trouble peeing. I tell him again how he should try bending his knees and resting with the soles of his feet together. I lift up the sheets and try to maneuver his bony brown legs into the Lying Down Bound Angle yoga position but that’s just too weird for him.
“Some day you will be old too Suzanne, ” he says again. ” Then you will know what it’s like…” I give up on ever teaching my old dad a single yoga pose. He’s already outlived some of my teachers and many of my students. I forgive him and my mom for never taking my classes. I forgive their utter disinterest in my interests. I remind him that he must tell me when he is in pain. That he does not need to suffer. That there are wonderful pain medications now.
Then we talk about my mom and how we are not going to put her in a nursing home after he goes. He asks me, “Do you believe in anesthesia?” I know he means euthanasia.
I tell him again about my experiences with dying people. “If you’re ready to die, you can gradually stop eating… that’s natural euthanasia, ” I say.
He tells me again how he wants me to be there when the time comes. Suddenly he sits upright. “I feel so good Suzanne. I’m hungry! I’m going to get up now. Thank you for massaging me….Tell your mother I’m coming into the kitchen.”
A few minutes later he’s sitting at the table, barking at my middle sister not to use that small frying pan to fix the tofu. He tells her exactly how to reheat the rice and tofu in the micro wave.
“Dad,” we joke, “If this was an institution they would not let you eat this late.” “Late?” he retorts…it’s not late. Come on…in Indonesia we eat late at night, when the day cools off.”
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