Looking for my father

I STOOD in the middle of the Islamic section of the Campo da Boa Esperança cemetery in Brasilia last Friday and looked for my father’s grave. My cousin Yasser was visiting from Saudi Arabia and he wanted to pray for “Uncle Mohamed” as he put it.

Tomorrow, December 2, will be the one year anniversary of his passing. I still remember the day we buried my dad: It was raining like mad and there were small rivers of mud as we placed his cotton-wrapped body into a hole in the ground and workers sealed it off with a concrete slab on top.

But now a year later I couldn’t remember exactly where we had placed him. I walked around the other grave markers, beautiful pieces of dark granite slabs and engraved markers with the names of the deceased, their birth and death dates, and some with quotations from the Holy Qur’an. There were several unmarked graves, but I still could not figure out which one was my father’s. In my grief on the day he died and that we buried him, my mind had been a blank on noticing such things.

“That’s normal,” said Valdete, a Brazilian friend, when I tell her later on the phone that I couldn’t remember where we had placed my dad. “You were so upset with grief. It’s normal not to remember such details.”

The Islamic section of the Brasilia cemetery is fenced off from the rest of the cemetery and a large marble pillar with a golden crescent on the top stands at the entrance to the section next to a huge cement sign that says “Cemitério Islamico”. When I had stopped at the cemetery’s administration office at the entrance to ask them if they knew where my father was buried, an employee had handed me a map to the whole place and showed me how to reach the section where Muslims were buried. He was sorry he told me, but only the Islamic Center of Brasilia would be able to tell me where my dad was resting. Ironically, the map showed the “Israelites”, or Jews, as being buried just a short distance away from the Muslims, the bodies of Catholics separating the two.

Just like the Jews, Muslims are not supposed to put flowers on the graves of their loved ones. At the entrance to the cemetery I saw a woman selling a huge wreath of flowers, so I stopped, just out of curiosity, to ask her how much.

“One hundred and fifty reais,” she said, quoting an absurd price. “And I can write anything you want on it.” I politely declined.

The lack of a marker for my dad’s grave does not mean that my mother and I have forgotten him. Far from it. There are pictures of him all over our house, and little reminders that he was with us until just recently. Boxes of his books are in the spare bedroom of my little house, as are brand new pairs of cotton underwear still packaged that my dad used to like to buy in large quantities.

I had been reminding my mother over the past year that we should visit my dad at the cemetery and make sure his grave is okay.

“Don’t say ‘visit’,” my mom finally snapped at me one day in more of a weary tone than an angry one. “He’s gone to another place now and that’s not him in the cemetery.”

I’ve always been the more sentimental one of the family, so worrying if his grave were okay and planning a marker for him came naturally to me.

Not finding my father’s place in the cemetery spared me any tears this time, though I did feel a little tightness in my throat when I stood next to Yasser as he prayed, standing up, for my dad, reciting the Al-Fatiha verse from the Qur’an. I drew comfort from the fact that a blood relative came all the way from Saudi Arabia and was praying for my departed father and his soul.

When my father had died we had washed his body at the Islamic Center and then prayed over his body at the mosque. But there were no relatives there except for myself and my mom. I would have felt much more comfort if all of his relatives had been there to pray and grieve with me.

I now have to find out exactly where he is buried and have a nice granite cover and marker made up for him. That’s the least I can do for his memory.

Toucans, my father and death

The day my father died, on Tuesday, December 2, 2008, two toucans sitting on a branch of our poinsettia plant knocked on our kitchen window with their multi-colored beaks while we were having breakfast.

“They always do that,” my mother had said.

My friend Marvin and I were delighted at the sight, since this was the first time we had seen them.

I’d like to think that their appearance was a sign that my father was dying, because later that morning at around 8:20 I received a phone call from the hospital where my father was in intensive care, and the woman said that my dad had died after worsening considerably during the night. “He passed away at 7:20 a.m., I’m sorry,” said the woman on the line. “Could you please bring a piece of identity of his that includes the names of his parents so that we can liberate the body?”

When we got to the hospital, his body had already been moved downstairs into the morgue. The day before when we had visited him, we had brought a special foam mattress with an egg carton shape that was supposed to help lessen the development of bedsores. Unfortunately, I don’t think my father was ever able to use it.

He had been in coma for about a week into his latest hospitalization. He had been ill for several months with failing kidneys and some heart issues. His doctors had said that he needed to start dialysis as soon as possible. For that, they needed to put in a catheter into his shoulder near his neck. There was a chance that it would get infected, since it would be a permanent opening into his blood vessels into which his blood would travel out of his body and back in after being cleaned in the dialysis machine. Ultimately it would be an infection caused by the catheter that would kill him.

At 81, he was old but still strong in several respects. He could walk unassisted and his long-term memory was excellent, though he would get confused in unfamiliar surroundings and would keep asking me the same question every 10 minutes or so. At first my mother and I thought he may have Alzheimer’s disease, but then decided that what he seemed to have was the onset of mild dementia.

I had been in Brasilia in August for three weeks, and then I came back in late October for two weeks of emergency leave after my father worsened and was hospitalized again. During that visit, I spent the days with him at the Armed Forces Hospital, and my mother the nights.

A few times I would spend 24-hours with my dad in the hospital when my mom couldn’t stand spending another night on the narrow plastic couch next to my father’s hospital bed. Invariably I would get hot and turn on the air-conditioning, which would then make my father cold.

“Turn off the air-conditioning,” my father would complain, blankets wrapped around his upper body. “I’m freezing.”

I would insist on keeping it on just for a few more minutes, and then I would finally relent and turn it off.

A few times I would argue with him about not wanting to take a bath or put oil on his extremely dry skin that he would itch like mad until it bled, a side-effect of his kidneys hardly functioning any more.

Once I got so mad with his stubbornness that I asked him: “Just give me one good reason why you don’t want to put some oil on your dry skin?”

He stared at me with angry eyes, unable to articulate any excuse. But I relented as I knew that there wasn’t anything I could say to change his mind.

I don’t regret the minor squabbles I had with him. Just a few days before I returned to Abu Dhabi in November he was allowed to leave the hospital and he came home. There he felt much more comfortable and happy. It was the last time that I was going to speak to him, because when I returned again in late November he was already in a coma and couldn’t talk.

The last time I saw him in the hospital, they had shaved off his beautiful white beard, which made him look younger, and a nurse had applied oil all over his body to moisturize his skin. “Bye Daddy, take care, we’ll be back tomorrow,” I said as I kissed his forehead, the taste of the oil on my lips.

Unfortunately, he died the next day and I saw his body once again when I helped wash him at the mosque before his burial. How ironic, I thought. In life he had refused to take too many baths in his old age, but now dead we were doing to him just that.

*Mohamed Abdul Zaher Abou-Alsamh, born July 1, 1927, died December 2, 2008.

A scratchy father, noisy nurses and hospital

I’ve been back in Brasilia since last week after my father had a heart attack following a cataract operation. His heart is better now, but his whole body is racked with ferocious itching that leaves his skin gray with dry skin cells and often blood when my father cannot stop itching.

This never-ending itching is a byproduct of his failing kidneys. When I was here last August, his kidney doctor, Dra. Tania, told us that only 12 per cent of his kidneys were functioning. “Now, they must be functioning even less,” said the young doctor who has been following my father’s health since he checked into a military hospital.

No food, drinks or flowers are allowed in because of dietary and bacterial concerns. My mother and I have been smuggling in cartons of delicious fruit juice for us all to drink. The guard asked me once if I had any food in my big plastic bag. “No I don’t,” I said, lying through my teeth. The next day they stopped my mom and told her she could only bring in the juice that one time, no more after that.

The hospital food is quite dreary: Rice, beans and some form of beef that neither my father or I should be eating on a daily basis because we both have gout. The juice they provide him with is invariably incredibly sour, necessitating the addition of three little packets of sugar before my father will even touch it.

Being in the hospital room is a little disorientating for my 81-year-old father. “Where’s your mother? Is she at home?” he asks me several times a day when I am with him. “Yes she is,” is my invariable answer. We have decided that I spend the days with him, my mom the nights.

But my dad’s scratching has several times driven both of us mad on different occasions. Yesterday my mother said she couldn’t stand another night in the hospital because my father’s scratching was keeping her awake. She said I had to spend the night instead. I agreed.

That night I went to sleep early after arguing with my father. He has refused to take a bath for weeks now, something that leaves the Brazilian attendants, who bring in fresh towels every day, perplexed. Our argument was over whether he needed a bath or not.

Suddenly at 9:15pm I was startled out of my sleep by the sound of a trolley being carted into the room and the fluorescent ceiling lights being flicked on.

“What the hell!?” I said in Portuguese to the male nurse who had come in to take my father’s blood pressure, as they did every six hours. “At least switch off the overhead lights!” I said, as I turned around on the tiny couch next to my dad’s bed and closed my eyes again.

A few days before that my dad had such a bad attack of the itches on his back while we were walking down the hospital corridor that I ran and pleaded with a nurse for some sort of medication to help alleviate my father’s misery. She told me she would consult a doctor and get back to me. The doctor prescribed an antihistamine that helped a little. Later a doctor put zinc oxide cream on my father’s legs and bandaged them up to allow them to heal from the bloody scratches that my father had inflicted on himself in his frenzy of trying to get relief.

His kidneys are not removing enough of the urea that his body is producing and which flows around his body in his blood. This high concentration of urea is what is causing the itching attacks. Today the hospital’s head renal doctor told us that my dad would need dialysis soon. “We can delay it at little but to do so he would have to be on a strict no-protein diet and you’d have to give him these very expensive pills to help provide the nutrients he would be missing from his diet,” said Dra. Renata. Both my mother and I agreed that dialysis was probably the way to go now.

It is strange to see one’s parent reduced by age and illness to such a state of helplessness. My father is keenly aware of it, complaining to me the other day that we were ordering him around. “Well, you are old and ill now, so we have to take care of you now, so you have to listen to what we say,” I said. He didn’t reply.

The strangeness of being “home” in Brasilia, where I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, hit me when on the way home the other night I stopped at a McDonald’s and had the hardest time ordering what I wanted. The cashier, a young and smiley woman, spoke with such a strange accent and in such hushed tones that I could barely understand what she was saying. I had to say “huh?” several times and ask her to repeat herself. I was so frustrated that I nearly walked out. Was my Portuguese so bad that I couldn’t understand a fast-food cashier any more? Or had McDonald’s just hired a woman with a strange accent and a phobia of speaking up? The latter, I think.

Parts of my childhood Brazil are still here, but others are long gone. I was surprised to see that the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stone magazine had placed my favorite singer Elis Regina at number 14 in a list of the 100 top Brazilian musical artists. I guess the country has moved on since her untimely death in 1982 and so has time for my parents, especially my father.

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