If my dad could fire me, he would, but I’m all he has for the night shift. Everything I do is wrong. “You wouldn’t last one day on a job,” he’s fond of saying, as he shows me how to cook and wash dishes. I tried to dissuade him from eating the salmon my middle sister fixed for his dinner four days ago but he polished it off with sliced cucumbers and dandelion greens, dismissing my concerns with war stories about rations of spoiled rice and maggots.
“You are too soft, Suzanne,” he reminds me at least once every visit.
When I arrive this evening at around 6:30, the house is peaceful. I like to spy on my mom and dad through the window before announcing my arrival. My mom is making her way to the kitchen with her walker. When I tap softly on the window for her to open the door, she immediately turns around; that’s how I know her hearing is still good. My dad is dozing in his easy chair. My mom unlocks the door—very happy to see me. She admires the warm cape I’m wearing on this dark, drizzly evening, and notices that for once I’ve combed my hair.
My dad wakes up as soon as I step inside. “I’m a dreamer, Suzanne. I’m dreaming about rambutan and durian [Indonesian fruits]. You remember the durian, Suzanne? At least you got to taste the real fruit . . . ”
He stretches back in his easy chair. “We got it made, Suzanne . . . Can you imagine your mother and me in a rest home? A retirement community? I get these fancy offers in the mail: ‘Meet interesting people,’ ‘golf courses,’ ‘swimming pools,’ ‘all the amenities’ . . .” he quotes with laughing disdain.
Then he recounts yet another tale about visiting his friends in a nursing home.
“You remember Flodeen? She told me, ‘I didn’t know what was happening. They lifted me up out of bed and put me in the washroom . . .’
“Can you imagine?”
“Your mom and I, we do what we like. We sleep til 8 or 9. Every morning your mom stands in front of the window and looks at the mountains. She asks, ‘How did I get here?’ She loves it here. We make a nice breakfast. We sit in the sun. We are in our own cocoon. We got it made.”
On almost every visit, he suddenly says, “I wish I could turn back the clock and take better care of you. But I was preoccupied. I worked all the time. I was in a better position with your youngest sister. I had vacation pay . . .”
My almost 90-year-old dad is processing his whole life. On all these recent visits he’s been telling me more about his childhood in Indonesia. I hadn’t realized till tonight that his family was part of the ruling class. He pulls out a book about Dutch- Indonesians. It has photographs of all the scenes he remembers from his youth. An Indonesian kitchen. “We had a full-time cook, Suzanne. She arrived early in the morning and left late in the evening. That’s just how it was. We had a maidservant who went with us the first time we went to Holland in 1933 or ’34. The boat trip took a month . . . two months back and forth.”
The photographs clearly show that the Dutch were the ruling class in Indonesia and the Indonesians, the indigenous people, were second class. “My father had a good position,” my Dad comments. “We were privileged. But the Japanese beat all the pride out of me . . . ”
On every visit, my dad recounts new war stories. His being one of two or three hundred prisoners moved from the docks to high up in the mountains to work in the coal mines, just a few weeks before the atomic bomb flattened Nagasaki, was a defining moment of his life. He remembers every detail of the horrors from ages 17 to 20. “I was young, Suzanne. I will never forget the sound of that prison gate closing behind us. But I knew that the gate that closes will one day be open again . . .”
It’s now close to 9 p.m., and my mom insists she’s not hungry. I know that the only thing that appeals to her fading 92-year-old appetite is a grilled cheese sandwich with the Dutch cheese she’s eaten almost every day of her life and a cup of warm organic milk. I put my vegan philosophy aside and make her the most delicious greasy buttery sandwich in a frying pan. “Oh, that tastes good,” she says.
Suddenly, with a look of genuine alarm, she sticks out her arm. “What’s that? What a sight is this!” She examines the blue veins bulging out of her thin arms as if seeing them for the first time.
It’s as if she suddenly realizes how very old her body is. I’ve had a taste of that same feeling. All day long, if we don’t look in the mirror, we feel ageless—twenty, thirty—so long as we keep aches, pains, and fatigue at bay.
My mom again stares at her veins. Then she looks up and says, laughing, “I better wear long sleeves.”
I laugh too. “Would you like dessert?” I ask.
“No, I’d rather desert!”
My mom never misses a beat!