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.

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