Ola called to tell me that John, my father, is in the hospital. This news was not entirely surprising since his diagnosis of congestive heart failure. This time round, my brother Vidar called Ola because he was worried about John--- he couldn't leave work. Vidar asked Ola to check up on him.
She went. She found him weak, dehydrated, barely able to breathe. She called 911. He's been there for a couple of days now, slowly regaining his strength. The doctors told him that he has emphysema along with the other diagnosis. "But I don't smoke!" He kept insisting. The doctors were confused. Why would a man who claimed not to smoke have such an advanced case of emphysema? They were about to do a battery of tests when Vidar, ever the advocate, pulled a doctor aside and explained that in fact my father smoked dope. A lot of it. Every day. Dope in a pipe, to be precise. Never cigarettes of any kind. Talking on the phone to Vidar the other day, he estimated that John smoked the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes every day for forty years.
Here's the real surprise in this situation: Ola continues to visit him in the hospital. This man who beat her, terrorized her, threatened her children, stood 6ft 1 and 250 pounds to her 130 pounds, verbally abused her for years and from whom she ran away, calls to give me updates.
"I cut his hair today"
"I cut his hair."
"Because he asked me to."
I didn't quite know what to say. In my mind I have this picture of him sitting in a hospital gown, in a room he shares with with three other people. He sits on on one of those bland institutional chairs, not moving while Ola combs through what's left of his blond hair, measuring how much to cut with his comb and her fingers. My father never goes anywhere without a comb. She tells me that he's skinny, that his muscled bulk of which he was once proud, that hardly contained his rage is completely gone. He wheezes and doesn't talk much.
She tells me that she put an extra hospital gown on him to keep the hair from going down his back.
"Why are you doing this?"I can't help but ask this again. She gives me a different answer: "I'm doing it for Vidar." Vidar she says, is very worried about him, and she felt that her son needed her support.
"Where are Natasha and Toshi?"
"They visit too." She says. "They're really good kids." Natasha and Tosh, are my much younger half brother and sister. Tasha the eldest was born when I was 18.
Ola and I sit in silence on the phone.
She says, "I take care of him, like I would any sick person" It feels," she searches for a word, "distant?"
She recounts with a certain amount of glee, "I walked with him down the hall, and his ass was sticking out of his hospital gown. He was embarrassed when I told him so I made him put on another hospital gown backwards to keep him covered."
Again, a picture: John shuffling down a florescent lit hall, Ola clutching the gowns and walking patiently next to him. She has, at various times in my life walked me down a hospital ward in exactly the same way. There must be some satisfaction for my mother, to be the one a lifetime later, that has the physical power. Only two years younger than he, at 74, she's limber and fit, and despite the occasional ache assuaged by her yoga practise, is at ease in her own skin. My father is no longer a threat. Now he's compliant, grateful, even.
In her most recent update I noted a shift in her tone. "I kept suggesting he take a shower you know because he stank. And finally he did. Vidar brought him some clothes and I said I would wash the ones he came in with,
"That's nice of you."
"He doesn't wear underwear." She said with disgust. "He never did." She mutters something. I can hear her remembering. "And he said something awful to the orderly. Who was Polish. Something about Polish people and Jews and I said to him in Dutch, 'You better shut up.' He's bitter to everyone," she says.
We're quiet on the phone again.
"I don't think I want to go back again, she says. Not as often anyway."
"No", I say, "not as often."
Ola will call again when he leaves the hospital to give me another update. And I get off the phone, thinking about my expired passport and how I should give the Canadian Consulate a call in the morning. It's my turn to visit.
I see Ola standing behind John, his head bowed, the sound of scissors at his neck. They talk in Dutch. His shoulders slump slightly as the hair collects by her feet.