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.