Friday, November 30, 2007

Watching birds

I’ve been to see my dad again. He is 98. My mother died at 58. How odd it is, this distance that can separate people. Is it in our genes, when we’re born, the clock that cuts one person off short and gives someone else decades more?
This is not a question that troubles my father. He was married to my mother for 34 years but can’t now remember her name. Or that of his second wife, with whom he had another 15 years or so before being widowed once again. Or that of his third wife to whom he’s still wed after another 15 years, not that he knows it. He doesn’t know me either.
He married his third bride in his early 80s. ‘Why?’ we asked, pleased he’d happily found late love, but mystified by why he was making yet another walk to the altar. ‘At our age we like to do things properly,’ he said.
Now, he’s in a nursing home, which of course is a cause of guilt on my part. Good daughters aren’t supposed to let that happen.
But when his dementia sent him wandering, there was nothing for it but for him to be kept somewhere safe. He was in a Catholic-run retirement village then. One night they found him naked in the chapel in the wee small hours. Who knows what the Virgin Mary thought. Another time he fetched up in the billiard room, wrapped up in the blanket off the tabletop, unable to find his way back to his bed. Another time he wandered into a gas station a kilometre from home, asking for his Uncle Basil, who died sometime in the middle of the 20th century.
Dad’s too wobbly now for wandering. Mostly, he sleeps. When he’s awake he sits at his habitual place at a table in Cairns, North Queensland, slowly turning the pages of books he doesn’t comprehend. He has to wear a bib over his shirt, for his dribble.
This week I pointed to pictures in the bird book in front of him. ‘Look,’ I said, in the high, clear voice you use for small children. ‘Here’s a woodpecker. Look at its lovely red head.’
Dad took no notice and turned the page to look at ducks, muttering something I couldn’t understand.
And I suddenly realised this moment was an echo of my earliest memory. I’m very small in this fragment of recollection, standing up in a cot holding onto its bars, looking out the window on a misty morning, excited by the morning chatter of birds. I’m pointing out the window. My father is smiling down at me, sharing the moment. Me, him and the birds.
And here I am again, so many years later, life gone full circle. No mist now. We’re in the tropics. Flame trees blaze outside. New Zealand’s meek thrushes have given way to brash Aussie parrots. But otherwise it’s the same, except that my father is the infant now.
Me and my dad. I feel the years, and my aching heart, flip-flop as we sit together, looking at birds.

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