I guess I should start this one by the end. Just like Machado de Assis, author of the Brazilian classic novel “The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas”, I’ll start by the end. But, not being the literary genius he was, I will be the voice on this piece. Machado gave the voice of the classic “memoir” to the deceased narrator, who feels no shame at all to look back on his mean and selfish character, and thus, trustworthy to the reader. Who can judge him now? He doesn’t care.
I wish I could listen to my dad’s life from this vantage point. He would be sitting at a bar’s table, sipping his cheap wine, nibbling cheese and salami, as he looked back on his journey here on Earth. Maybe then, I would be able to understand him better. Or at least, I would be able to see if he understood himself, at all.
“Tatiana, bring me a little slice of guava marmelade and white cheese, please…” Romeo and Juliet, his favorite dessert…
And then, on a cold summer morning, Romeo came along. Not the cheese of his sweet and salty dessert, but his first grandson, my first child and the apple of his eyes. That little piece of human being brought up something in the old man that I never felt I, as a daughter, did. He was in love. Dad laughed as a kid at each of Romeo’s movements, each of his small achievements and when his grandson first smiled at him, I saw the most pure and bright smile I had seen in 33 years. He felt complete.
Romeo was three months old when I woke up to my husband saying “your dad is sick, we have to call an ambulance”. He was visiting for the weekend, and could not get up in the morning. The paramedics had a very hard time lifting that 6,2 feet man up the stairs, lying on a stretcher. I saw his hand trying to grab the handrail, showing me how afraid he was of falling, and I can still feel my heart beating scared and realizing how fragile my strong dad was. He was 81.
He was in and out of the local Hospital for the following 2 months, and I was juggling taking care of my sick dad and a newly born son. Both men of my life need me so bad, both men of my life needing me like little boys.
The day he was diagnosed with Leukemia we were sitting at the doctor’s office, I was holding Romeo and Dad was all smiles. He was wearing a wool vest over his cream pajama shirt, blue sports pants and worn out shoes. My father had always had worn out shoes, ever since I can remember. He liked to say that he would happily wear old shoes so my sister and I could go to good schools. And so he did. “The only inheritance I’ll ever leave you is your education”. His shoes were a statement to that.
As I was trying to grasp the image of my old, debilitated father, the same one who used to send us to our bedrooms in fear of his enraged discussions with my mom, I heard his last wish:
“You know, doctor, I don’t want to live more than one year or so. All I want, now, is to see my grandson say “vovô”” (grandpa, in Portuguese)
My answer was just like any answer should be: “Ow, Dad, stop it, you are a bull, you’ll live to see his first girlfriend”.
He shooshed me with his hand, silently telling the doctor to pay no attention to me, I knew nothing…
That same day my mom took over, even though they had been separated for many years, and they still had a sea of hurt between them.
“He will ruin your marriage if he stays with you, and he might live for 10 more years! You have to focus on your family, I’ll take care of him.”
He looked like a boy being dragged against his will and pride when I drove him to my mom’s apartment, but I’m sure he, too, knew that was the best option. My mom took care of him as a daughter would, yet I never felt he was grateful for that… Being a deceased narrator he might have told us how much it hurt to accept his ex wife’s help. Being I the narrator, one can only assume…
Romeo started walking, I was pregnant again, he held his granddaughter many times, and I could see him fading. To hold Iolanda I had to be next to him, and he could only keep her so much.
In September 2009, we took the kids and the grandmas to a resort hotel in Bahia, the place where Brazil is Brazil at its most. Beaches, sun, music, good food, friendly people and coconut water. And a phone call.
“Dad is in Intensive Care. He couldn’t breath and the doctors think he has water in his lungs, but so far he is doing all right.”
My sister placed his clothes (same wool vest, same rotten shoes) in a cabinet, showing him where they were.
“Take them with you, Caia, I will not be leaving here…”
He was put on oxygen mask, as I bargained for a reschedule of our air ticket. As we waited, my mom and my mother in law were trying to make Romeo say vovó, (grandma) but all he could say was vovô… That’s when I called my sister’s friend who was on duty that afternoon. She placed the phone on his year and I said:
“Dad, wait up, we’re flying home tomorrow! And I have news: Romeo said vovô!”
Ana ’s voice returned to the speaker, nervous and loud: “What did you say to him?? He’s extremely agitated.”
That was the last sentence my father consciously heard, for he went into a coma as soon as we hung up.
The following thirteen days were hard to take, especially as we saw him at that bed, languishing to his final morning, on September 23rd. I was wearing a striped brown tunic over brown leggings, doing my make up for a regular day. Eye shadow on my right eye, left one undone. My brother in law calls. It’s 8:30 in the morning, this can only mean one thing. I bend down in pain, cell phone in one hand, eye shadow brush in the other. He’s gone…
We don’t do big funerals in Brazil. We don’t wear black funeral clothes, we don’t serve food and we don’t wait for relatives who are far away. I wish we had incorporated more of the African culture we so take as ours when it comes to celebrating the passage in a joyful way, but no… In that sense, we are Portuguese to the core. Melancholic and taciturn. My father was Portuguese himself, but quite the opposite. I was so confused growing up with him because he could switch to extremes in a second, but his light side was a very funny one.
And that’s how he pranked us for the last time. We ended up choosing a song for his cremation in such a hurry, we never discussed if it was appropriated for a funeral or not.
“You can play this one, we don’t care…”
So there he was, rising in his coffin, to the sound of The Four Seasons, a joyful piece of classical music that was known in Brazil for being the theme of a soap commercial.
I had to laugh.
“Well, he was a soap lover after all…”