After 10 pm the house quiets down. My father lays in his bed, sometimes twitching, sometimes sleeping, sometimes both. The anti-bed sore air mattress huffs and puffs beneath him. Its symphony is punctuated by the sound of my mother’s phone. She is playing Candy Crush, or Wordscapes, or Online Poker on one of her three devices. This enables her to have constant access to one game or another, one charged device always at hand. I would like to see her play them all at the same time, some kind of distraction DJ, but instead she swaps between the three, murmuring about the stupidity of each. Sometimes I hear stray dogs barking. If I stay up long enough, I hear the Ithan. In the morning I hear the bells of the Roman Orthodox church.
By 10 am the house is loud. My uncle, my father’s younger brother (73 years young), comes every morning bearing a fresh bag of pitas. He works at the bakery across the street. His voice is always belligerent. GOOD MORNING HOW ARE YOU KIRD INAWLAK LA AKHOU. My father never responds to him. My uncle takes it personally, but it has been so many mornings of this personal injury that he shrugs it off and leaves the room. I try to imagine how it feels when someone you love cannot or will not see you, but I don’t need to imagine. I know.
Amo asks if I’m sleeping. JAIA ENDNA IT NAMI? I stay in my room feigning sleep like I am 16 instead of 36. Or, as my father used to joke, 16 with 20 years experience. My uncle smokes on the veranda with my mother before leaving. If it is a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday two young men come to our home before noon. The first bathes my father, shaves his face, and dresses him. When he leaves, the second man comes and stretches my father’s body. He turns his head, pulls on his legs, pushes against his shoulders. He walks my father, who teeters on the balls of his feet like a ghazal, between the two living rooms in my parent’s home. Back and forth. Despite all the stretching, during this walk my father’s shoulders ride high on his neck. He cannot relax. His foreign body is made stranger by Hussam’s constant rearranging. His dominion over his limbs ever receding. Often, during PT my mother plays old Arabic music on one of her devices. Sometimes Hussam sings along, a line or two. During these exchanges my father is silent, focused on the contortions his body achieves at someone else’s will. If there is no music playing, we hear the hum of the living. The refrigerator cools, the hot water boils, the birds chirp, the cars honk. A stray shout from the street, an unusually timed phone call.
When Hussam leaves my father lays in his bed, recovering. By this time the house is concerned with lunch, and kitchen starts talking. Dishes clang in the sink. The gas stove ticks as it ignites. Maybe I fry eggs. Maybe the pressure cooker steams. My father coughs, as if to clear his throat but words never come. Maybe his tremors are starting. We ask: Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Do you need to use the bathroom? Do you want to lay down? Do you want to sit up? We plead: You’re OK. It’s OK. Everything is fine. You are fine. It’s OK. We flex his hands from their vise grip on the sheets, on his misbaha, on one another: Relax, Irtah, Relax. There is nothing to worry about.
There is always music in the afternoon. My father lived in Egypt in the late 60s. He was there for college. Recently I discovered a cache of photos of him there. Posing with the pyramids, mean mugging the camera with his friends. Smiling, laughing, studious. My father loves Egyptian Cinema classics. He would skip class to watch them. He remembers the songs of his 20s. Oum Kulthum, Fairuz, Asmahan, Dalida, Farid, Abdel Halim. We play them over and over. Sometimes his voice is a broken record. He repeats a sound AH AH AH because he loves singing, or because we love for him to sing. It’s hard to tell anymore. Sometimes one particular song will register on his tongue, and he can form his AHs into words. He sings Anta Omri. He sings Aatini il Nay. He sings Sawah. When these do not work, we turn off YouTube and sing folk songs instead. My aunt, like my uncle, does this at volume. He starts at her voice in his ear, his fingers start flickering. She loves him so much. She wants to reach him and this is the only way she knows how.
On Tuesday afternoon I sing Sidi Mansour by Saber al Raba’ee. It’s a newer song, but we danced to it at my cousin’s wedding. And even though it’s not really about fathers, all the babas sprinkled throughout make it seem like it could be. I sing it to him and dance while he sits in his recliner. He reaches up to me, like he wants to dance. We stand together and sway for a while. He’s smiling. I’m smiling. He is having a pretty good day. He is eating and singing and sitting. He is able to walk with only one person supporting him. He no longer has control over his bladder, but some part of him tries, and sometimes he holds his urine for the whole day and releases it all at once while laying in his bed. Tuesday he is relaxed enough to pee multiple times in the day. He’s having a pretty good day. Later that night, after everyone is sleeping I sob into my pillow and gulp for air. I download Wordscapes on to my phone and play it on silent until the call to prayer comes around 4 am.
I have learned that the good days are followed by inversely bad ones. His attention and physical capacity is finite, and takes a few days to renew. Wednesday and Thursday are a nightmare. He is shaking and sweating and agitated all day. He is so tired he is falling asleep in his recliner. He can’t keep his eyes open to do anything. He doesn’t want to to eat and every bite is a herculean effort. He forgets to chew. He forgets to swallow. He coughs and chokes and his eyes water. I can never tell if my father is crying anymore. He doesn’t recognize anyone. He is not singing. He is not even moaning. He is just shaking and sweating, his fingers clamped and his eyes unfocused. My sister comes over while everyone is at my uncle’s and calms him down with jokes and songs. He eats a real meal. He smiles. When everyone returns from my uncle’s house it gets loud again and some of his smile and laughter teeter on the edge of mania. When they leave he crashes. He has a bowel movement. He is so sweaty we change his entire outfit.
On Friday, shower and stretch. Physically, he’s having a good day. Mentally, he is somewhere else. Very little hooks into his consciousness, just some of our tried and true jokes–one about how he answered the phone at our convenience store in Burton, MI. Another about where he’s hidden the family money, which of course doesn’t exist. Still, it’s a good dream. He keeps all his secrets, and Friday passes without once hearing his voice.