It’s the conversation you never have about the location of files and status of finances. The passwords to accounts. The method to the madness that is otherwise an indecipherable filing system, where everything is stored, but nothing can be found. It’s the conversation you don’t know how to start, and to begin having is an acknowledgement of mortality and ageing. On the 29th of October, my father suffered significant brain trauma as a result of a fall at home. Since that day, I’ve enacted conversations we never had. About him slowing down and cutting back on some of the more physically demanding activities, he thought he could do. A few days before his fall, my mother dared to suggest he stopped buying several kilos of bananas every week to feed a veritable army of squirrels and birds in our garden since the weight of transporting the bags of fruit was too much for him. My father didn’t budge, and my mother went silent. Witness to this interaction, I now realise I took confidence and comfort – without consciously thinking about it – in my father’s dismissiveness that he needed to do things differently from when he was younger. Care and concern from my mother was perceived as a hint that he was older than he thought he was.

This was not taken kindly.

In hospital though, as age, trauma and post-surgery complications rendered my father no different to a baby – unable to fend for himself, speak or move without assistance – I wondered how I would have even begun a conversation with him about everything my sister, family and I had to discover the hard way after his fall. I don’t have the vocabulary, to begin with, and suspect few of us do. How do you talk to your parents about their death, and what to do in the event of a serious injury that renders them entirely helpless and hostage to the care of family? How does one begin that conversation? Is it over a meal? Before a teledrama? After a particularly resonant episode? In the car, on the way somewhere? On the way back home? Before one goes abroad? Soon after one returns? Is the morning better, depending on routine, or evening? How does one start the conversation? My father and I don’t have a relationship anchored to the sharing of emotional issues. He led his life. I led mine. We connected effortlessly, but ours was never a relationship that openly discussed matters of the heart, or issues like the status of my father’s finances and the location of his investments. Being conscientious to the point of fault, I knew that he knew that I knew he was not in any debt, had planned for his death and for the care of my mother. This unspoken knowledge created its own fiction. That my father wasn’t really 82. That he didn’t need to slow down. That I was interacting with a man unchanged from the father who took me to school and grew up with. He was visibly slowing down in thought, response and movement. But the fiction of this unchanging man, who never really aged and would always be around, simply because it was impossible to think of a home without him, overwhelmed what was logically a growing incompatibility between what he did and could actually do without seriously risking life or limb.

My father’s fall was also a rude introduction to Sri Lanka’s medical landscape and language. It is an entirely alien world and expression, geared, in as much as I can gather, to divest patients of their money as efficiently as possible. The shades of emotions, grief, anxiety, fear, concern, anger, hopelessness and on the rare occasion, joy and hope at the cashier’s floor of the hospital was a profoundly revealing study of how hospitals operate – no pun intended. The standard bill costs of block sums which signify nothing. A detailed bill, counter-intuitively, is much less helpful. The medicines, medical terms and procedures are gobbledygook. When everything from sweeping to a bedsheet change is charged for, and without the knowledge required to monitor the administering of drugs, the hospital’s word is the final one, and the payment becomes a gesture of faith – you are never sure of what you are paying for, or why, but unhesitatingly do so on the basis that it helps the patient recover. At least at a devale in Kataragama, you get some delicious rice to savour at the end of a pooja where bundles of money disappear in a similar fashion through a recess. At the hospital, you just disinfect your hands and move on.

On the plus side, when my father had to be rushed to the hospital due to complications arising from severe infections, I was gobsmacked by the efficiency of the 1990 ‘Suwa Seriya’ service. From call to arrival, it took four minutes. The ambulance was about as well equipped as any I’ve seen. The attendants were kind and helpful. Our driver wasn’t aware that 1990 could take patients to private hospitals on demand, but this inconvenience aside, it beggars belief that this service is now islandwide and free.

Seated or standing by my father’s side, I often thought about what I should be saying to him. Should I shout at him for making it so difficult to unravel his accounts and investments? Do I reach out to a friend to help with a process to access funds locked in an account that would otherwise be close to impossible to achieve, risking my father’s ire of seeking favours from those close to, with or in power? If I did, do I admit this to him? In his half-smile on a face that tried hard to register emotion, I saw my son as an infant – reacting almost automatically to known faces. I realised how my father would have seen me as an infant and how roles were now reversed. I wondered how my mother would take to a nurse who now lives us, and looks after my father to a degree my mother doesn’t have the strength to. How must it be for my mother, to see a stranger see my father naked, vulnerable and helpless? The nurse, as it turns out, is a wonderful individual, and already treated as and very much part of our family. She is a staunch supporter of the incumbent President, which makes for the most interesting conversations on politics, separated by a father whose darting eyes suggests he is either very interested in what we say, or just wants us to shut up. Perhaps unkindly, we keep talking – because talking helps create a new fiction that my father is part of the conversation, and will someday soon, chip in with his own thoughts and words.

Last week, I thought my father would die. His breathing was erratic and laboured. He had a fever that sometimes went away only to come back with a vengeance. His eyes were rolled up. He had lost a lot of weight and was little more than skin and bone. I told a close friend he looked like comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s hilarious puppet, Achmed the dead terrorist. I had mentally prepared myself for his passing. I held his hand, and this is where fact and fiction blur. I could swear he moved a finger to grab mine. Perhaps he didn’t. Maybe I just wanted him to live, and in that momentary but convincing triumph of hope over reality, the mind conjures signs of life.

Soon after, my father miraculously fought off multiple infections, and eventually returned home. Though I wish it was crafted or presented differently, his condition at home is a reminder that what matters more or most is not about who is at Temple Trees, but time with family. And in their twilight years, time with parents – suffering how irreconcilably different they are to us, but loving them all the same, as they have loved us, all our lives.


Published in The Sunday Island, 15 December 2019.

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