I sat staring through the window waiting for the waiter to bring my coffee. Across the road a father hurried his daughter along, one shoe flopped from her hand. He helped her into the back seat, ruffled her curls and carefully locked her safety belt. Laughter bubbled from her lips. It reminded me of Dad and me, some thirty years ago.
I used to drive around with him in his dilapidated bakkie. He called it his Ferrari. We drove from one town to the next. Selling machines no one wanted. It was a time before parents were concerned about things like safety belts and organic food. It was a simpler time, where twenty cents bought a bag filled to burst with toffees. Blue Wilson toffees were my favourite. The sticky buttermilk goodness was almost as delightful as sucking condensed milk from the tin. I went to work with Dad frequently so Mother could have some alone-time. I didn’t complain. I enjoyed my time with Dad. Some mornings we left at first light. Sometimes I pretended to be asleep so Dad could carry me to the bakkie. I still remember the tickle of his stubble and the smell of his skin. Old Spice. Dad made us sugary coffee in a flask, and packed bananas and white bread for breakfast. Four sugars, I used to ask. Four sugars, he agreed. We took turns drinking the sickly sweet coffee from the plastic cup. The ritual was always the same. First, Dad would shock the bakkie to life by prodding it with a screwdriver. Then he would put on his cap, light a smoke and play his favourite tape in the player. We would pull off singing loudly to the tunes that filled the car.
Trailer for sale or rent
Rooms to let, fifty cents
No phone, no pool, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes
Ah, but, two hours of pushin’ broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bedroom
I’m a man of means by no means, King of the Road
I soundlessly sang the song while tearing open the fourth packet of sugar. I longed for a time when I felt safe and adored. A time when banana slices on bread totalled my most loved foods. A time when it was Dad and me. A time before everything fell apart.
After licking the last bit of sugar from my cup, I continued my journey home. Angela called last night with the news. Dad was ill. His doctors weren’t sure he would survive another day. Apparently advanced stomach cancer. End-stage disease. Not even a miracle could save him. Of course, he told no soul of his looming death. Undoubtedly he didn’t want to trouble anyone. More likely he craved the attention we would give him on his deathbed.
With Bloemfontein behind me, Angela’s SMS came through: Hurry. He doesn’t look good.
Annoyed I tossed the phone in my bag. An hour later I stopped at the hospital. I answered Angela’s message: I’m here.
Everything was more or less the way it was when I left. I plodded towards the entrance. Afraid to speak to Dad. Petrified to never speak to him again. Bile crept from my empty belly, stopped short of my throat. I swallowed it down. The entrance hall resembled an exclusive hotel. The only giveaway was the smell. It was a smell I have not been able to name. However anonymous the smell, it was scorched into my brain in the same way bleach lingered after scrubbing down the kitchen. It reeked of loss, of misfortune, of desperation. This was, of course, what death smelled like. I continued down the passage, up with the elevator, passed the floor housing the Paediatric High Care, where James died. Up two more floors. To the top. Palliative Care Unit. Where everyone was waiting for God.
When the doors opened, my entire family had gathered in groups, like small cliques desperate to retain their social standing. Mother’s side. Dad’s side. Some sipped coffee from polystyrene, others snivelled into crumpled Twinsavers. It was almost like a funeral, or just about any Christmas holiday with these people.
“Ronnie!” I turned when I heard my name. Mother’s piercing voice, like nails on a blackboard, made me quiver. I forced a smile, hugged her loosely. She smelled of Pears powder. Lavender.
“Ronnie, Daddy is so dreadfully ill!” she cried, wiping her nose on her sleeve. People like her are called the salt of the earth. I nodded, partly because I didn’t feel like speaking to her, partly because I had nothing to say. Thirteen years might as well have been a lifetime. The rest of the family came to meet and greet. I couldn’t remember half of them.
“The doctor is busy with Dad. When he is done we can go in pairs,” said Angela, my overachiever sister, control freak, never a hair out of place. I excused myself to smoke in the garden. Angela followed uninvited. She spoke of things I knew nothing about; of things I didn’t care to know. Of Aunt Barbara’s hysterectomy, Uncle Nols’s inflammation in his knee, Alta of Aunt Carol who seemed to stare too deeply in whatever brand of whisky was on special. I lit up a cigarette in the garden, inhaled until the tip glowed a deep orange.
“I’m glad you came,” said Angela, waving smoke from her face. I didn’t answer. Angela knew I came for her sake.
“I know it couldn’t have been easy for you. But I am proud of you,” I sucked on the filter again, felt the shaking leave my hands. A few meters from us a mother and child were feeding ducks. The little boy had a huge bandage wrapped around his head covering wires leading to a backpack. Android child.
“You know it wasn’t only Dad’s fault,” Angela continued with her monologue.
“Who else was at fault, Angela?” I asked tapping the ash from my cigarette, unable to hide the sarcasm in my voice.
“Ag, leave it. It’s impossible to talk to you when you’re like this,” Angela sat back on the bench waiting for me to draw the information out, like pulling a sweet from the dashboard.
“Answer me. James was, after all, my child. I think I should know if someone else had a hand in his death,” I answered, the unsteadiness back.
“Alcoholism is a disease, Ronnie. Look it up. Dad couldn’t help it,” Angela put her hand on my leg. An unsuspecting stranger could regard her gesture a sign of comfort. But I knew it was Angela’s way to insist I take her view.
“I was wondering if you’d feel the same way if it were one of your children. Perhaps Robert. Yes, definitely Robert. He struggles with that speech impairment. And you said yourself that you spent thousands on speech therapy and yet, he still sttt-u-ttt-ers,” I regretted my mockery the instant it was said. It was an immature retort. I could see the hurt in her eyes. I hated the person I’ve become.
“As cold as always. I really thought thirteen years would be enough to make you human again, but boy, I was so wrong,” Angela pulled imaginary fluff from her dress, fighting back her tears. Eventually, she stood up.
“Dad was responsible for James’ death,” I said because I needed her to hear me.
“Well. You still don’t have empathy. I get it. It’s my fault. I expected too much of you,” Angela said before walking off.
“Empathy!” I spat the word after her. Tossed the butt on the lawn.
“Empathy! Dad was smashed as usual after he swore he wouldn’t drink while watching James. Dad doesn’t care about anyone but himself. Dad was the one who refused to put a fence around the pool. Dad was the one who fell asleep while he promised to watch James. No. Rephrase that. Dad passed out, in a drunken stupor, while he promised to take care of James. I found my child’s body floating in the water. Dad only woke up from the noise of the ambulance’s sirens, long after the paramedic, against his better judgement, managed to bring James back to life. So tell me, who else had a hand in James’ drowning, Angela?” Angela wiped my spit from her face.
“I get it, Ronnie. You are hurt. You are sad. We all are. But the world doesn’t begin and end with you. You froze us out. We’ve accepted that. Guilt caused Dad’s cancer. It ate its way through his body. He paid his debt. If you cannot understand that, then you are the one with the problem,” Angela said before she stormed off.
“Booze caused his cancer,” I muttered.
I spent another half hour outside, smoking, waiting. Like I waited for hours when James was breathing with a ventilator. My robot child. It was a chaotic time. Dad, bewildered, trying to apologise. Mother crying. Angela, scarcely a teenager, who didn’t know whose side to choose. I crushed the fourth butt when the message came through. It’s your turn. My legs mechanically followed the route back to the unit. Again passed the family I did not know.
Dad’s bed was the one farthest from the door. The light in the ward blinded me. Machines quietly signalled. The stench of death and excrement hung low.
He looked much older than his sixty years. There was no sign of the dark hair he passed on to me. The veins on his arms were striking, like blue wiring forcing its way through the fragile skin. His skin was creased like a sheet no one bothered to iron. He hardly dented the bed. Nothing left of the colossal drunk I often feared. I inched closer. Even the strong hands that regularly struck my face were now bony, frail. His eyes were open. Still as grey as a winter’s day in Cape Town. His gaze felt familiar, like coming home. I contemplated grabbing his hand shouting I forgive you, Dad; I still love you, Dad. Instead the reluctant words danced on my tongue safely tucked behind my lips.
His breathing was erratic. His Adam’s apple stuck out like a piece of fruit, ready for picking. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Breathe. Instead, he held his breath, turned his head away from me. Focused on Angela. The chosen child. The machine warned of imminent danger. The nurse reached up, turned the sound down, humming a hymn I didn’t recall.
I realised what was happening. I stepped back, it was so unlike the time James died when everyone was feverishly working, but James was a child, not an old man dying from neglect. Angela grabbed Dad’s hand in hers, mourning the man she admired. She too realised that he wasn’t holding his breath on purpose. I watched the monitor and waited for the solid line I knew was coming. The nurse didn’t busy herself saving Dad’s life.
It wasn’t long before the flat line confirmed Dad’s death. The sound reminded me of the times I sat cross-legged in front of the TV watching the colourful circle and listening to the comforting beep, like a promise of good things to come. I turned and made my way towards the exit, my legs heavy, like James’ body when I pulled him from the water. With each step, my legs grew lighter and lighter until it felt like I was floating past the family I never wanted to see again. In the elevator, I murmured the words I didn’t say, and finally I was free.