I fumble when buttoning my father’s shirt. He is about to go for another appointment at the local hospital. A man who has been his right hand on the farm is now his left hand, holding him up as he slouches forward unable to stand upright. I tie his belt. It seems wrong but I feel honoured to do it. As a girl-child whose upbringing is steeped in cultural tradition, it is an unspoken rule that I should not witness my father getting dressed. He, from whom I learnt how to tie my shoes, is now depending on me to put woollen slippers on his swollen feet. I watch him drag his heavy left foot across the floor as he struggles to walk from one room to another. His left hand and arm, the ones he had primarily used throughout his life as a teacher hanging heavily from his shoulder, as though threatening to fall off. He teases, “Awu, a man has become a baby.” It breaks my heart to hear it, for it is true, but I laugh because Tata has always been an unassuming jokester and it is refreshing to hear him poke fun at himself, especially under such circumstances.
Never have I imagined that the one who taught me how to cook, would be the very same for whom I now decide what he eats. I knead dough as I sit astride on a wooden bench in the kitchen on the farm, just like he used to before the stroke. This is the reason why I bake bread in a black cast-iron leg-less pot in our gas stove oven weekly. I know he loves umbhako with crunchy crust. He only tolerates bread from the shop. He always appreciates it and he adds that I bake delicious bread. He has told me this even before, but today it sounds rather more heartfelt.
My mother bathes him and washes his soiled blankets. Nurses and doctors at the hospital, where he is periodically hospitalised, as well as family relatives who come and go to visit him at home, marvel how for years there is not even one bed sore on his battered body, as my mother diligently keeps him wet-free. She refuses that we, the children, wash our father’s clothes during this time as she maintains that this man is, ultimately, her husband; it’s her personal duty to see to this task. However I secretly hope that my father knows that I too feel it is my duty to be here by his side at this time of pronounced uncertainty.
Mama doesn’t like to admit this but in spite of her efforts to camouflage with air fresheners and detergents, the smell of sickness and bed accidents lingers, almost becoming the signature aroma. She lives in hope that this is temporary, that my father will regain his strength. She assures him constantly, “You will get better, Tata, even the doctors say that exercise helps one recover from the stroke. There are many people who have beaten it, even that man who drives a Toyota Camry frequently to the supermarket.”
This hope is what keeps her waking up in the early hours of every morning to draw the curtains back and open windows to let fresh sunrays and renewed air into the musty bedroom, change the bed linen, bathe him from ivaskom plastic tub, change his clothes, spoon-feed him, comb his hair that’s receding from one corner in front and brush his teeth that look too good for his age. She does this all at unbelievable speed and zeal for a woman already in her seventies. Her hope is her fuel. It is my fuel – our fuel. After all, the best doctors in town couldn’t tell us what had caused the stroke in the first place. The scans revealed nothing out of the ordinary. It must be just a passing phase – a test. Until we learn that there is another enemy that has been hiding inside my father’s body. Cancer.
I forget that I am not my Father’s child until I am reminded after his death that I am not of his loins. It is no secret that I am not of the MaJola – my father’s clan – by blood, but for 29 years, he is the only father I have known. But it is as though his absence has left me coverless and I constantly seek shelter in his memories.