When the phone rang at 2 a.m. I knew it was either a cranky insomniac pressing of random numbers on his phone or some urgent news from home. Half asleep, I grabbed the phone. It was my sister Nita from London. ‘Is that you Neal? I just had a call from Uncle Walter in Sri Lanka. I have bad news,’ Nita burst out with her voice breaking.
I realised then this may be the dreaded telephone call I hoped I would never receive. ‘Is it mum?’ I asked with my hands trembling. I knew she was admitted to hospital earlier that week. Without answering Nita burst out sobbing. The next ten minutes, perhaps more, we spent without many words but each one taking the blame for leaving Sri Lanka allowing mum and dad to spend their sunset years helplessly alone.
Nita left for London with her husband many years back. She was able to do so without a sense of guilt as I was still there to look after the parents. But several years later when I was offered a position in New Zealand I was faced with a dilemma.
In every respect it was a great opportunity. And as my wife Tania took pains to explain, it was even more important for the sake of our children. I didn’t need any convincing. It was a great country and a dream job. But I did not have the heart to leave my parents behind.
Many months passed. Eventually it was my mother who persuaded us to go. ‘We are alright here Neal. We have very good neighbours and we have enough means for a comfortable living. You have your whole life ahead of you. You need to think of the future of these children. They need to get a good education,’ Then she noted somewhat cheerfully, ‘we can keep in touch regularly by Skype and could even visit you sometime.’
‘Who knows, if the place is good, perhaps mum and I could come over to live there,’ dad added. I was not sure whether he meant it. But I realised they did not want to stand in the way if we wanted to leave. With that I could no longer muster any more counter arguments against Tania’s.
It has been almost ten years since we moved to New Zealand. In that time mum and dad have visited us twice. But the house we bought with a separate unit meant for them did not lure my dad to live up to his word. But I did understand them.
Plucking them away from their familiar environment and their friends at that age could have shattered their lives. I thought it was cruel to push them to stay with us like birds in a cage. But often we do not see beyond the greener pastures when lured by the opportunity to live more comfortably in a foreign country. Now I feel I have paid the price for abandoning them.
Both our families were in Sri Lanka for our mother’s funeral. After about a week Nita went back to London. I talked to dad one evening, ‘Now that the circumstances have changed, would you like to come with us so that we can look after you, dad?’
‘No, how can I leave this place where mum and I lived for over 50 years? Don’t worry, I will be OK. I can’t abandon her,’ he was talking as if mum was still living. It was clear he had not changed his mind.
Tania too left shortly after, as our elder children could not afford to miss school for long. But I did not join them: that would have meant leaving dad alone in that empty house.
At the same time I knew I could not stay away indefinitely from my job and my family. Perhaps out of guilt, but more due to lack of a solution, I decided to stay back a bit longer along with our three-year-old son, Sahan.
It is now almost two months since mum’s funeral. In that time dad has hardly talked to anyone. He sits all day in his usual chair in the lounge looking out of the window rolling his thumbs in a rhythm painful to watch.
Sometimes tears roll down his cheeks. He wipes them with his palms. I look the other way not to embarrass him. I see how much his body has deteriorated during these two months. He looks tired and hunched. I invited uncles, aunts, neighbours and even the monk from the village temple, to talk to him. None of it made any difference.
‘We all feel just like you dad. But this is her karma. It is a natural process. Each one of us has to take that route one day. But in the meantime life has to go on. You need to pull yourself together’, I shouted at him once in desperation.
But immediately after I deeply regretted the outburst. After all it was his wife and companion that he lost. Although it was my mother too I lived thousands of miles away. Anyway all that was to no avail.
With a lot of persuasion I got dad to come along with us to a nearby playground, which had become a favourite place for Sahan. There, Sahan was able to ride on the swing, jump on the trampoline and slip down the slide. He loved every minute of it. But his choice was the flying fox.
At his persistence I lift the three-year-old tiny bundle onto it at the top end and give a slight nudge, which carries him all the way to the other end. I run down following him to catch him half way when he returns from the rebound. This goes on several times and how much Sahan enjoys it is seen in his relentless giggle.
I noticed dad quietly watching all the maneuvers of Sahan from the bench he was sitting on without any comment or involvement. And when we returned home it was straight to the same seat and the same routine.
Our walk to the playground has now become a daily routine. One day I was busy and Sahan went to the playground with dad ahead of me. When I arrived around half an hour later I found Sahan on top of the slide, urging granddad also to join him. I saw him initially reluctant but Sahan kept egging him on. ‘Come on Seeya you can do it,’ he urged granddad using the only Sinhalese word he knew. Watching from a distance I saw dad slowly walking up to the ladder, grab hold of the top rung and gradually lifting his frail body up to the first tread. I was horrified by what would happen if this 80-year-old fell, but decided not to intervene. Sahan kept on encouraging him all the time as if dad was a younger sibling. ‘Be careful Seeya. Hold on tight. If not, you will fall.’
After another five minutes or so dad lifted the other foot and climbed to the second rung of the ladder. From the grimace on his face it was clear arthritis was making the climb very painful. But he kept on, with long rests in between. All the time Sahan was guiding and praising him.
After about half an hour he cleared the last step and climbed on to the top of the slide. Now there was only one way for both of them to go – sliding down. I was even more worried about what could happen. Sahan was giving more instructions.
‘Now I will go first and you come immediately behind me, Seeya. If it gets too fast push your feet onto the sides and that will slow you down. Be very careful’.
I rushed to the bottom end of the slide agonising over what was going to happen. If dad breaks a bone we would be stuck here for a very long time. It took some time for Sahan to persuade dad but eventually the two were ready for the plunge. Sahan came down first. He did not attempt to slow down and virtually crashed into me standing at the end. Dad followed with some delay, almost tumbling but reached the bottom safely. For the first time since mum died he was laughing… laughing all the way.
Sahan and dad seem to have developed a close friendship on account of their daily routine to the playground.
‘Seeya, did you also go on the slide when you were little?’ I heard Sahan asking that evening at home. Dad laughed and laughed. This was the second time that day.
‘During our time there were no slides like this, darling’, he replied. ‘The closest to a slide we had, was to sit on a branch from a coconut tree and slide down hill slopes. It was very exciting and often we ended up with many bruises on the body’ and they both laughed together.
I was amazed at how a three-year old accomplished something that adults have been trying unsuccessfully for months – to bring a smile to dad’s face. During the days that followed dad and Sahan spent a lot of time together. They went for walks, worked in the garden and in the evenings, dad read stories to him. Dad now hardly sat in his usual chair watching the road, or rolling his thumbs.
All this time, Tania kept on telephoning from New Zealand, almost on a daily basis, asking when we were coming home. I knew she also missed Sahan a lot. My boss had been enquiring about me and I knew he was expecting me back at work. Sahan used the telephone opportunity to brag about his daily adventures to his mum and his envious siblings.
I kept on assuring her it would not be long before we returned. But how long? I did not know. I was truly between a rock and a hard place.
One evening it was dad who brought up the question of our return. ‘I love having you guys around but how can you stay here like this? You need to get back home.’
I was pleased that he was alive to see what was going on. ‘I know dad, we have to get back. But …,’ I did not know how to complete the sentence. I did not want to go over the same grounds to make him feel guilty.
‘Yes I know. I have been thinking about it myself. It is now hard for me to live here alone, Neal. Perhaps I could come with you and be with Sahan when you two go to work. I could take him to the playground too.’
‘It is cool dad, if Seeya can come with us.’ Sahan jumped from his seat.