July 13th would have been my father’s eighty-fifth birthday. My sister and I decided that we were not going to commemorate our parents’ departures, opting to celebrate their amazing lives on their birthdays.
My father was a stubborn, opinionated, and extremely loud old goat who drove me and the girls crazy almost every day. As a retired surgeon, he definitely suffered from the “benign tyrant” syndrome, at least. Closing on eighty, he considered himself middle-aged, to which I did not have a reason to object – I guess it makes me a mere teenager, so I’ll take it.
Mother diligently took several English courses in her fifties, when I married an American. She wanted to understand all mother-in-law jokes told behind her back. She could read and write in English, watch TV, and converse even on the most complicated political issues. Father, on the other hand, refused to move forward and learn one more word past the lessons he learned with a private English tutor he had in high school (the woman was placed in Deda-Ljubo’s house after WWII, and felt an obligation to help out the family that lost living space allotted to her, so she taught Father English).
He visited us every year since 1996, toting a dilapidated booklet titled English for Travelers without opening it once, asking the questions in a language stored deep in his spinal column, without waiting for a response he knew he could not understand. Every time he boarded a plane, many concerned and well-meaning people on both sides of the ocean sacrificed sleep and stayed up for hours, biting their nails and trying to calm their wildly beating hearts, imagining the worst possible scenarios, only to face the grinning, albeit tired Father, safely deposited at the right place. It will never cease to amaze me that he managed to plod his way from one continent to another when I know that he had never once filled out the customs form successfully, and doubt that he even knew any of my many US addresses by heart.
He was like a child, amused by the most inane things. We used to call him K-Pax, because his sunglasses hid the eyes turned upwards, his mouth opened in wonderment. He was convinced that “laguna” was a synonym for “valley”, and we gave up trying to dissuade him.
For decades, he was everywhere. Tall, dark, handsome, his white surgeon uniform flapping as he marched down the hallways of the hospital. There was no party, wedding, or feast in town that he was not a guest of honor. He traveled the world, enjoyed the best in food, alcohol, cigars, and women. The doors always miraculously opened for him, and we never had to wait in line (if he did not offer to deal with the bureaucracy for us). He loved people, and people loved him in return.
But when he retired, his usefulness dwindled. A lot of “friends” turned away from him. The invitations to the important parties slowed down to a trickle. Women started to see his gray hair once he shed the white coat. He stopped smoking. And his life became dull. With so much time on his hands, he constantly tried to satisfy the little boy still living within, whose childhood was abruptly interrupted by Stukas and Messerschmitts flying above his village back in 1941.
He was a genius diagnostician who could decipher a medical problem with several variables within minutes, but he could not change a light bulb, nor plug in a brand new telephone (do not ask me how he handled his cell phone). About thirty years ago he bought a small piece of land on the mountainside overlooking our town and made it his Ranch. He approached farming with the energy, vigor, and ignorance of a child, collecting bits and pieces of information and formulating a grandiose plan for his precious “Hills”. An organic farmer who firmly believed in not using pesticides, he grew potatoes the size of walnuts, allowed a bunch of emaciated wild squirrels to feast on a pile of hazelnuts, and brought home gnarly-looking, but organically pristine produce that needed hours of cleaning and care before it could be used.
When there were barely three or four varieties of local tomatoes at the Farmers’ market, he grew a dozen. Before anyone had even heard of rainbow chard, he planted three rows. He collected seeds from American varieties of squash, zucchini, pumpkin, and cucumber, and brought proudly home bushels of tiny, weird-looking, and oddly-shaped vegetables every single day. Our kitchen in the summer months turned into a preserving factory, jars, bottles, and plastic containers hastily filling the pantry and cellar shelves, or finding a temporary home in one of the huge box freezers kept in the garage.
He used to visit us in fall and winter. When he was here, he was mostly bored. He went for walks in the neighborhood, examining various shrubs and nodding hello to Mexican abuelas watching the children play. Around eleven he would change into his swimming trunks, don his K-Pax sunglasses, grab a towel, and head for the pool, where he’d lie in the chaise-lounge and take an occasional soak in the jaccuzzi. At one o’clock he’d enjoy one of his regular vodka-tonics and he’d take the first nap of the day. To fill his afternoons, I gave him simple kitchen tasks and plenty of time to finish them without rush: he could slice and dice the onions, mince the garlic (if you are not particular and do not mind pretty sizeable chunks), peel and cube the potatoes and carrots, and prepare any meat for dinner. He held the knife like a scalpel and arranged the food in neat rows when he finished. He cleaned the pots and bowls he used with cold water and no soap, still refusing to plop them in the dishwasher. And then he’d retreat to the couch for a round of reading and another nap.
By the time I’d arrive home from work, he would be eager for conversation. I’d be scarcely in the door a nanosecond before he’d begun reciting the detailed account of his day. He would manage to weave in a small hook that enabled him to take me on another trip into his past, the days of medical school, summers in Dalmatia where he ran a students’ camp for years, or the time spent on the island of Vis where he served as a medic in the mandatory Yugoslav army. Most of these recollections I have heard before, but each telling became more embellished and fanciful. Once he started talking, his world alighted again, and very few things could snatch him away from the seductive calls of his adventurous youth.
The blue skies of California reminded him of the skies over the Adriatic. He looked lovingly at the mountains and imagined the slopes of Mount Biokovo. He relived every day the dawn fishing trips with the locals, the feasts of strong red wine and fresh seafood in the stone taverns, the briny smell of the harbors, and the warm mistral carrying on its wings the droplets of the sea. Born in a small village far away from the ocean, only at the sea coast did he feel completely alive. He was afraid of the future. He did not care for the present. The past kept him afloat and fueled his energy.
During his visits, I longed for the routine of my life before and freedom from his passionate monologues. I sneaked to the bedroom toting my laptop, trying not to wake him up and provoke another one of his long-winded talks. I caught myself counting the days until his departure, only to feel completely devastated by the guilt.
I still vividly remember every detail of the last time I took him to LAX. The check-in process at the Lufthansa counter was unexpectedly quick. We had already reserved a wheelchair transport to the gate – he was in a great shape for his age, still agile and spry, but I did not want to worry that he would get lost navigating the airport maze. The time to say goodbye approached much faster then I anticipated. We hugged and kissed, he squeezed me tightly, and sat in the wheelchair. Looking from above, his hair was never whiter. His shoulders slouched, wrapped in a light coat several sizes too big; he looked small and vulnerable. I held his hand as the Indonesian airport worker pushed him towards security. As he was just about to disappear around the corner, he turned, smiled, and waved, his tired eyes glistening. I waved back, tears running down my face, my heart held in a vise of grief.
I did not say much when I returned home. I put away the nail file he left on the coffee table, and washed his wine glass. I quickly hanged clothes on several hangers left empty behind him, and put back the sweaters on the shelf I let him use. I smiled when I saw his neatly folded sheets and towels in the hamper, and I started missing him. If he were at the dinner table, he would have taken me again to meet the handsome, young man he once was, sitting on a pier somewhere on the coast of Dalmatia, looking at the horizon behind his K-Pax sunglasses.