Soledad: Spanish for solitude.
Sydney, Australia: 2am
I woke up with a jerk, sweating and breathing heavily.
“Is it the dream again?” My girlfriend asked.
“Yes,” I whispered between gasps.
She took my head into her bosom and wrapped her arms around me. “Go back to sleep honey, its just a dream.”
We both knew that it was more than that.
The following evening after work, I came home and found her in the living room deep in thought.
“Everything alright Alexis?” I asked as I hanged my coat by the door.
She looked up startled by my question but didn’t reply. I knew the look on her face and didn’t need to be told that a storm was brewing in her mind. I walked over to the couch and sighed into it next to her.
“Gabriel?” she called softly. “How long have we known each other?”
“Around a year?” I replied with uncertainty.
“Eleven months, two weeks,” she corrected. She had been counting.
“Yes, that’s what I meant,” I jested with a laugh and she managed a thin smile in return. “Why, what’s up?”
“I’ve been thinking,” she continued. “I don’t think we should be together any more.” She dropped the bomb and I stared.
“You want to break up?” I asked, simultaneously trying to picture a life without her. The images weren’t pretty.
“Not break up,” she clarified. “Let’s take a break. I mean we are in the same position we were eleven months ago. We haven’t moved forward in anything and that’s not the kind of a relationship that I dreamt of.”
And now, I started feeling the pressure. “But Alexis, why can’t we just solve this thing together like a couple? You know, talk about it?”
She shook her head. “It’s not just that,” she said. “It’s your dreams too. They are getting worse. You need help.”
“Don’t make me sound like am sick!” I raised my voice at her. “It’s just a bad dream, that’s all. I don’t need help!”
“I don’t want to argue Gabriel. I have made up my mind. If you don’t leave, then I will.” She stood up, walked into the bedroom and closed the door behind her. It was then that I realized the gravity of the situation.
I sat on the couch and allowed her words to soak through. What did she want from me? Marriage? Was I ready for that?”
A few days later, Alexis conveniently left to visit with her parents in Sydney, the most populous city in Australia, and I called a moving company to take my furniture into storage during my transition period. Meanwhile, I rented a small apartment twenty miles away from Alexis’ house and close to my work, and spend the next few days missing her and idling on Bondi Beach on weekends. My new apartment in Sydney was nice but it did not have the warmth and homely ambience that came with not just any woman, but a good one. I wanted her back. I wanted my life back and so I refused to surrender to listening to the crickets chirp in the rooms and sat down to draw a game plan.
A week later and at the approval of my boss, I boarded Virgin flight 247 to Victoria, Australia at around 2pm.
I had started drinking again after my break up and so I ordered a glass of martini on the plane: and that combined with the cabin pressure made me drowsy and I fell asleep. Needless to say, my dream came knocking.
I was eight years old running home from school, excited at the prospect of seeing my dad and telling him all about my awesome day. I met him at the door just as he was leaving the house.
“Dad!” I yelled. “Do you want to throw some ball?”
“I wish I could son. I picked up an extra shift at work. They are expecting me,” he replied with indifference and then saw the dejected look on my face. “Okay junior,” he added. “I guess a few throws won’t hurt.”
My eyes lit up and I hugged him. “You are the best dad in the whole world. I love you so much!”
“I love you too son.”
Someone was shaking me. “Excuse me sir!”
I opened my eyes and saw a beautiful lady staring down at me. She wore a tight red dress that outlined her figure and a purple scarf around her neck. It was the flight attendant. “Excuse me sir,” she repeated. “Are you alright? You are making noises in your sleep.”
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled as I sat up and wiped my face with the sleeve of my shirt. “Can I have another martini?”
“You have reached your limit sir. We can’t give you another.”
I shifted in my seat to get more comfortable and wanted to slap the smile from her face. I hated the irony of being rejected with a smile.
We touched down in Victoria shortly and a cab dropped me off at my hotel. And no, I did not book myself into the luxurious Fairmont Hotel near the harbor, rather, I picked out a cheap motel down the street since I had no idea of how long my stay was going to last.
The hotel room wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated and I took time to walk the joint and acclimate myself to every corner and furniture in the room. After a quick shower, I sat on the bed and made a few phone calls.
They told me that I could visit at 4pm and since the place was around the corner, I decided to take a nap with the two hours I had to spare.
REM sleep. Definition simplified. It means deep sleep: when the brain activity is high and resembles that of being awake. Most vivid dreams occur in this stage of sleep.
I didn’t expect to fall into REM sleep, but I did, and my dreams followed me.
I was sixteen years old working my first job as a cashier at the local gas station when my boss walked up and told me that I had a visitor. Told me that it was okay to take a break and go see him. Neatly dressed in a gas station black shirt and cap, I walked out of the store and checked right and then left. There was a man leaning against a wall to the right looking at me in a strange way. I cautiously approached him and asked him if he wanted to see me. And then, before he could speak, I realized who it was and my heart skipped a beat. It was my father! The last time I had seen him was eight years ago.
“Halo kido?” he greeted as he walked forward with an extended hand. I was too stunned to reply and so I just stared. The lines were fully showing under his eyes and his hair was beginning to gray. And then suddenly, the anger came and I yelled at him.
“I’m 16 years old. I’m not a kid any more! What do you want?”
“I’m sorry son. I’m sorry I left you. Is there somewhere we can talk?”
My face turned red. “Talk! Now you want to talk? How dare you show up like this? How dare you…” My lips quivered with emotion and I balled up a fist to get a grip. He looked shaken by my reaction… almost scared.
The phone was ringing. Still sprawled on the bed, I grabbed it and pressed it against my ear. “Yes?”
“Mr. Gabriel?” It was the receptionist downstairs. “This is your wake up call like you requested.
I glanced at the time then quickly jumped out of bed. I splashed water on my face and grabbed a cream jumper. The nursing home where my dad lived was a few blocks down the street and the thought of seeing the old man after so many years was enough to unnerve me. I strolled down the streets of Victoria and inhaled deeply as a gush of cool air whizzed by my face.
The sign read, ‘Livingstone Nursing Home’ as I walked into the front door and gave out my father’s name at the reception desk.
“Left door down the hall. Room 235.” A young girl pointed. I glanced at her name tag: Nurse Mary, it read.
“Thank you Mary,” I said and she glanced up startled and gave me a second look. It was exactly what I wanted. I wanted her to remember me.
“Let me know if you need anything…”
“Gabriel,” I said. “Call me Gabriel.”
“Let me know if you need anything Mr. Gabriel.” She quickly averted her eyes and pretended to focus back on her desk. I walked down the quiet hall, very much conscious of the thudding beat in my chest. I stood outside room 235 and took a deep breathe before walking inside.
He was on the bed, propped up watching TV, a remote in his hand: white hair, tired face. We stared at each other for a long time, my breathing labored, his eyes unblinking. I waited for his reaction but was disappointed when it did not come.
“Is it time to go home yet?” he asked me sounding like a little boy.
I walked over so that he could get a closer look at me. “Dad?” I called, “it’s me, your son Gabriel.”
“Are you here to take me home?” he continued as though he hadn’t heard me. “Can I clock out now?”
I didn’t understand. “Dad? Look at me. It’s your son. I came all they way to see you. Remember me? How we used to play ball together when I was a kid?”
I saw something twitch on his face. And then the reaction came, but it was not the one that I expected. He raised his hand and slapped me hard on the cheek. It stung and I jumped back in shock.
“I’m not going anywhere!” he yelled. “You can’t take me away from here!”
Mary, the receptionist/nurse and another man came running in. While the man held my dad, Mary talked him down in a soothing tone. “It’s okay sir, nobody is going to take you away. Shhhhh… it’s okay. Just relax and watch some TV.”
The pressure proved to be too much and courage failed me. I took a subconscious step back and found myself in the hall hyperventilating. Nurse Mary found me a few minutes later.
“He’s resting,” she said. “I take it, you haven’t seen him in a long time?”
I nodded with a sullen face.
“Come with me,” she said as she took my elbow and steered me down the hall into a warm living room with nice brown couches. I sat on one and shook my head in disbelief.
“He has Alzheimer,” she said as she sat across from me. “It’s a type of dementia with symptoms such as confusion, irritability, aggression, mood swings, trouble with language, and long-term memory loss.
I looked up. “How long?”
“Six years now. The disease is degenerative and has no cure. His wife, your step mum I assume, tried to keep him at home but he became too unpredictable and dangerous…withdrew from family and society. He would at times wake up in the middle of the night, walk across the street and knock on the neighbor’s door. They finally brought him in after folks started complaining.” Mary’s voice sounded consoling and I took a closer look at her. At the age of probably twenty-five and five years younger than I, she was the voice of wisdom: a nurse who took her job seriously. A jewel in the Nile, as far as I was concerned. I liked her already. My father was in good hands.
“Will he remember me?” I asked and she shrugged. “I don’t know Mr. Gabriel…”
“Just Gabriel please,” I corrected and was rewarded with a smile.
“I don’t know Gabriel. The best you can do is revisit the familiar things the two of you used to share and hopefully a bulb will light up in his head.” I knew that she was dressing it up.
“Can I visit every day?” I asked. “I flew over from Sidney and am living in the hotel down the street.”
She thought about it for a second. “You can come anytime you want Gabriel. I will make special arrangements for you.”
Melancholy was the only word that could describe how I felt that night in the hotel. I googled Alzheimer on the computer and tried to educate myself on the disease that was threatening to take my father away from me. The age group mostly affected was above 65 years of age, with different folks responding differently depending on the strength of their bodies.
Simply put, Alzheimer was a desolate stretch of life: the last walk to freedom… the sun a rapidly receding horizon.
In 2006, there were 26.6 million sufferers worldwide, the number expected to rise to 1 in 85 people globally by 2050. I closed my laptop and walked over to the window. I felt sad… I felt really sad.
With a rugged face from a day’s old beard, I went back to see my dad the following day and found him in the same position watching TV. This time, the element of surprise gone, I took my time to look around the room and realized how small it was: a bed, a TV stand, a chair and an end table. After a long fun life, this was where the journey ended… in a tiny room in a nursing home. The thought was depressing.
“How are you today dad?” I greeted as I walked over to the end table.
“Are you here to take me away?” he asked, gave me one look and then turned back to the TV.
“No dad,” I said. “It’s me, your son Gabriel. I’m here to visit you.”
“Can I clock out now?” he asked as he tried to get out of bed.
“No dad,” I replied as I helped him back on. “You don’t work any more. You are now retired.” Maybe if I spoke a little louder, I would snap him out of it.
“I’m now retired,” he repeated exactly what I had said then refocused all his attention back ahead, my presence ignored.
I watched him for a minute and tried to imagine where his impregnable mind was. It was so surreal to believe that the man I had loved and played with once was now the vacant being in front of me… the laughter and strength gone. I looked at the end table and saw a Bible. I quickly looked away. I was too well read to believe in God and so I ignored it and walked over to the window. Sunlight bathed the beautiful garden outside: the grass was a perfect green, the flowerbeds a colorful display of dancing colors. Somewhere on a wooden bench, an old couple sat holding hands and watching the birds.
“Remember how we used to play catch dad?” I asked as I pulled a chair over. I didn’t know whether he was listening but I could see his head stiffen in concentration. “I would fall down and my eyes would well up with emotions, but right before I cried, you would ask me… junior, do men cry? And I would say no, suck in the tears and puff out my chest.”
I reached out and touched his hand. He let me and I felt like I was making progress. That evening, I tried to call my girlfriend Alexis but her phone was turned off. I couldn’t even leave a message.
And so the days went and I fervently prayed for a miracle. I called my boss and extended my leave of absence. After being on the same job for ten years, I had pretty much established good credibility and my boss empathized with me when I explained the situation.
My daily trips to visit with my dad were usually preceded by a trip to the stores to buy fruits and little gifts. I regaled him with childhood stories and showed him black and white pictures of the various past stages of my life including college graduation. The TV hummed softly in the background. On steamy weekends, we drove to Melbourne the second largest city in Australia and ventured into museums, art galleries and ultimately, the Melbourne Cricket Ground which hosted the 1956 Summer Olympics and the 2006 Common wealth Games. But after a month of visiting with my dad, the frustration kicked in when I realized that he wasn’t going to remember me, and optimism turned into despair.
“What should I do?” I asked nurse Mary with a troubled expression. She was sitting in the break room enjoying a coke.
“You are already doing it Gabriel. This is the calmest I have seen him since he was brought here. Your presence has become a safe zone for him. He feels and hears you, and he knows that he can trust you.”
I liked the sound of that. Nurse Mary was pretty and my eyes drifted subconsciously down her long legs before I checked myself. “You really like your job Mary, don’t you?”
She shrugged with a smile. “Our priorities in life are twisted Gabriel. Our ego blocks our true identity… that which we used to be when we were kids… and we put our careers before love and only realize it when…” She trailed off suddenly as she saw my long face. “I’m sorry Gabriel. I wasn’t referring to you.” But she had without even knowing, and it hurt. A door closed down the hall and I stood up.
I walked over to the coke machine and listened to the quarters dropping and that’s when I had an epiphany. “I got it!” I yelled. Nurse Mary looked up in surprise.
“You got what?”
“I know how to reach him!” I said with excitement.
The piano was delivered to my dad’s room two days later and I got down to the business of entertainment. Not only did I play for my dad but also for the other not so young people as they ate in the dining hall. I played Kenny G instrumental for dinner and sing-along songs afterwards. The nursing home folks sang and clapped happily.
Nurse Mary walked over and kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you Gabriel,” she said.
“For bringing music back into their lives. You are a blessing.” I turned red with embarrassment.
One night in my dad’s room and a few weeks later, I was playing oh dear, what can the matter be song when I had a scuffling noise that made me stop and turn. My dad was standing in the middle of the room, his footing strong, his eyes smiling at me. “Junior,” he said. “Is that you junior?”
I stood up slowly in disbelief. “Yes dad. It’s me.” I studied his face and saw the light. I couldn’t believe that it was him standing there.
He took a shaky step forward and I saw his eyes go moist. “You found me junior. You came for me!”
I couldn’t believe this miracle and impulsively I threw my hands around him tears streaming down my face from bottled up emotions. “Dad! I’m here now. I’m never going to leave you again. I love you so much!”
He was crying too. “I love you too junior. I’m sorry I wasn’t a good father.”
“You were a good father!” I said as I looked into his eyes. “I remember now how you used to be there for me. How you used to be a workhorse, taking extra shifts to take care of mum and I. You had to leave after you broke up with mum. I’m a grown up now and I understand how a bad relationship can harm a child.” I tried to stop the tears. “You left to protect me dad from witnessing all the fights. I know that now, more than ever.”
He smiled through his tears, took my hand and placed it on the Bible. “Junior,” he said. “Whatever you do in life, put love first. It’s the only thing we can leave behind. The world is a dead planet without love.”
I took the Bible into my hands and stared at it for a moment. It had been a while. The timing was perfect, the moment golden. “Dad?” I called as I looked up. “Was I..” And then I saw it. The haziness was back in his eyes…like a darkness… sucking the light out of him. He was gone again.
“Are you here to take me away?” he asked. “Can I clock out now?”
I stared at him speechless unable to comprehend what had just happened. But then I looked into his empty face and realized that he was waiting for an answer. A dead calmness descended into the pit of my belly. I knew in that moment that I had changed and that my dad had helped me to. I took his arm and led him back to the bed. His transformation caught me by surprise and I struggled to find a grip. “Yes dad,” I finally whispered. “You can clock out now.”
That night, I slept like a baby and dreamt of nothing.
I went back the following day to see my dad with a new childhood song playing in my head. “Hi Dad!” I greeted as I strutted into the room. An empty bed stared back at me and it was at the same moment that nurse Mary chose to walk in. “He’s gone Gabriel.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “Gone where?” I asked.
“He died last night Gabriel, after you left.” She handed me an envelope. “He left you everything.” I stared at the envelope, backed into a wall and slid to the floor. “I talked to him last night! How is it possible that he’s gone?” I said, my head dizzy with shock.
“I know,” Nurse Mary replied. “It’s hard to believe.”
“No. You don’t understand Mary. I actually talked to him and he told me that he was sorry for being a bad father.”
“You what?” Nurse Mary looked shock, walked over and sat on the floor next to me. “Now I understand,” she added as she held her chin with a hand. “The life expectancy after diagnosis for Alzheimer is mostly seven years. Your dad did eight Gabriel. He could have left a long time ago but… he had been waiting for something. It’s a miracle! He had been waiting for you Gabriel!” She was excited, but as much as her explanation made sense it did little to console me.
“You don’t look very good Gabriel,” she said. “He’s at peace now.”
I pulled my knees to my chest and stared ahead, my face ravaged by grief. “He came to find me when I was sixteen years old,” I begun. “I walked out of the gas station and found him leaning against the wall looking very anxious. Said he was sorry for leaving me and wanted to make it up to me.”
Mary gulped a wave of emotion and put an arm around me. “You don’t have to tell me Gabriel.”
I didn’t hear her. I continued. “I was so angry with him for leaving me and I told him that I never wanted to see him again.” The vacant eyes were quickly replaced with tears. “I turned him away Mary. I was a very angry kid!”
Mary and I cried in each other’s arms: I for my father and her for me.
“What happened with your girlfriend?” she asked a while later and my head jerked in remembrance.
“Alexis? She threw me out, two months ago. It was so abrupt that I still can’t believe that it happened. Said that she was tired of living in the status quo. Oh, and also, said that my dreams about my father were getting worse.” I suddenly looked up into Mary’s eyes and gasped. “Do you think she knew… that my father was about to pass? Is this why my dreams were getting worse?”
Nurse Mary shrugged. “Maybe.” She pointed at the Bible. “Maybe the answer is in that book.” And before I could say anything, she added. “I think its something else though.”
I quickly looked away from the Bible and returned my attention to her face. “What you mean by that?” I asked with dread.
“Think about it Gabriel. You’ve been having these dreams for a long time right?”
“Right.” I was struggling.
“And your girlfriend never once pushed you away?” Pause. “She didn’t tell you to go look for your father Gabriel, but she pushed you away so that you could. Don’t you see? Your girlfriend is pregnant and she does not want you to be a bad father!”
The revelation was mind blowing. Nurse Mary was an Angel sent down to guide me.
I hugged her not knowing what to say. “Thank you.” I whispered into her ears. “Thank you.”
And then, I cupped her face in my palms and smiled through tears. “I’m going to be a father Nurse Mary. I’m going to be a father!” She smiled and then said wisely. “Very little is sacred in this world Gabriel, but marriage is.” I knew what she was trying to say. “Go and get her,” she added.
Sidney, Australia: Twilight
She stepped out of her mum’s house when she saw me walking down the hill, and as I got closer, we searched each other’s face. She smiled when my eyes dropped to her belly.
“So you figured it out, ha?” she asked softly.
“I had some help,” I replied with a smile. And that was the most restrain I could manage. I rushed over and picked her up in a bear hug. “I missed you so much Alexis. I thought I lost you. You should have told me?”
“No,” she replied between gasps. “I wanted life to play its own hand without me being a factor.” And then her head fell on my chest and she shook with emotions. “I was so scared Gabriel. I thought you would never return and I would have to raise the baby by myself.” “Shhhhhh… honey. I’m here now. I will be the best father in the whole world!” My voice was full of conviction. The proposal ring in my pocket threatened to burn a hole.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...