(First written in 2007 and now published in ‘The Last Balcony’ collection)
As we arrived, the old man was dozing in bed; a fixed abode whence he would never be well enough to leave. I recognised his face as having travelled a distance from a younger face I recognised in its past. I didn’t actually remember that younger face, however. Memory travels in a different channel from that in which recognition does.
Photographs, meanwhile, had ever remained merely false reflections in an antique mirror. The younger face within many of those images that so typified his earlier past was too two-dimensional – or simply a stranger, not the old man I saw today. The imprints on memory, however, somehow depicted yet another person, a third one: not the old man I saw before me today, not the younger man I failed to recognise within the old photographs, but someone else.
“How are you, Dad?” I suddenly ask, as I switch off the room’s barely mumbling TV screen.
He wakes to shrug as best a prone person can shrug.
He is surely desperate not to be there at all. He possibly thinks that speaking – with great difficulty as he does – is just a false economy. He hopes to forget, to become nothing or, I imagine, to be absorbed bodily into the room’s TV, into its intermittently shuttling flatness that otherwise remains his only link to an earlier normal life. His illness is not an illness of the mind. Forgetting is as impossible as not remembering. It is his physical existence that degenerates, while his mind remains the buoy upon its increasingly stagnant tides.
Eventually, he turns his face towards me as far as he is able in the physical glue through which he seems to be wading in bodily widths and opens his single-toothed mouth to crack what seems to be a joke. I fail to understand it because the words are also glued one to the other. If he can joke, then it is still worth him being alive, I judge.
The turning face adds a dimension to memory as well as to a head that turns it.
I watched my elderly mother conscientiously feeding him mandarins with a spoon. The only food today, probably, that he would consume – other than that through his stomach peg. She was confused as to how she should now care for an old man to whom she had been married for over sixty years. Other people now cared for him where she once had cared for him.
He managed to point to a photograph on the bedside table. Evidently the focus of his joke.
We were visitors, that day, me and Mum. Or merely passers-by. And Dad was the only resident.
We switch the TV back on before we leave.