David Fernandes
Producer, Director, Writer

Archive for March, 2009

Love beyond sentimentality

Mon ,23/03/2009

The back is bright white, like some fine, unfired porcelain, and it makes a dense, glassy sound as I run my fingers along its ultra smooth surface. The front is a dull, off-pink colour chosen from the muted palette of 70′s kids paints. Like some fossil from another time, a child’s handprint is embalmed in the plaster, sunk into the middle of the six inch pie plate that molded it. On the back, ‘David’ is printed in pencil by some unknown adult, but the date is my father’s scrawl: 16-06/79. I was six years old.

My father brought it up from his basement last week, his cheeks already sullen, his clothes baggy, his speech slurred from the morphine. “I want you to have this,” he said matter-of-factly. 
It’s a reminder that we lived together once, before the marriage broke up, before he left – before things got complicated.
We lived close to my elementary school, St. Anthony’s. I could walk there in about a minute and would come home for lunch daily, tearing across neighbours’ lawns and leaping off the small hill next door; peanut butter and banana sandwich with a side of the Flintstones on channel nine.
When school was done, I would play for a bit, anxiously awaiting the return of my father from work. In those days he managed the LCBO store at the top of our street. Whenever I heard the car pull up, I would run to one of my two hiding spots, between the back of the front door, or inside the closet, and then scare the piss out of him as he entered the house. I got him every time.
When he left home he didn’t take much with him, grabbing his tools, wine-making gear and a couple of antiques he’d refinished: a pull-down desk, and a tea cart, both relics from the school teacher my parents bought their first house from. He wants me to have them now.
They’re beautful old pieces, but the desk – the desk is evil. Whenever I got a fever as a kid, I would hallucinate. The oval patterns on my curtains became eyes. I’d see a mouth opening and closing in the air, or feel like I was in the booth of a vast court, being judged by some presence sitting at the top of an incredibly high tower. I felt small and vulnerable, perfect prey for the hungry desk in the next room. The desk with the animal feet, waiting patiently for a moment when my parents were asleep and it could waddle over to my room. Its mouth, the folding desktop, snapping up and down, swallowing me whole until my mother would burst in and pull me out. 
The tea cart I found less menacing. I would insist on pushing it around when we had visitors, making as many trips back to the kitchen as my mother would tolerate.
This past weekend my father also gave me his ring, the one he’s had since before time. His mother gave it to him as a gift, the day he left Madeira Island. It’s a chunky thing with gold art deco styling and a giant red, rectangular ruby in the middle. My six-year old hand might have fit two fingers in it, but today it is snug. She gave it to him as a reminder of her love. And he gives it to me as a reminder of where he came from, and as a hint that he won’t be here for much longer.
The hand it once fit is old now, spotted with age and discolored by jaundice, swollen with fluids from a number of medical complications. His organs are struggling as his body eats itself for food. 
I cried on the car ride back this time, not knowing if it’s the last time I’ll see him. Not sure if there’s anything I need to say or want him to know. I’ve always been a bit quiet around him, but I don’t think there’s a lot left to say. I’m happy just to be there as much as possible, watching him while he naps, getting him a glass of water, accepting the trickle of gifts as he takes inventory of his things and finds new lives for them. 
A desk; a cart; a ring; a plate: worthless things without the memories that give them purpose, give them meaning. 
My hand dwarfs the imprint I left, but my father returns it to me now not because it was mine, or even because it was made by me.  Despite its age, the plate with my six-year old hand print looks new, like it was kept in a vault. There is no dust, no dirt and hardly a chip. For thirty years he treasured it, kept it safe. And more than any sentimentality its return conjures up, its condition shows me something else, so simple and so powerful. 
He loves me. 

Healing the heart is an afterthought.

Tue ,10/03/2009

I’m having de ja vu.

When I was 11, the same year my dad left my mother and me, my brother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was twenty-three at the time. Although he made a good go of it, the cancer caught up with him, spreading to his liver. The final few months were terrible. His muscles wasted away along with his patience and joy of life. His belly swelled up like those of the kids you see on TV – he literally starved to death. My brother Danny, who for my whole life was a large, loved-filled, creative and nurturing man, transformed into a living skeleton in front of my eyes. We shared a wall between our bedrooms and I remember coming to hate the sound of his knocking. No longer loving and gracious, I watched chemotherapy suck the life and joy out of him, and morphine render him irritable and spacey. In my final words to him, I made a confession: I *did* eat the extra piece of cake that he suspected me of. But he was already gone. Comatose. Brain dead. 

It took me quite a while to work through that experience. I was thirteen at the time and I turned the next five years of my life into a hazy binge of drugs and alcohol. By the time I was eighteen I had partied so hard that friends and family alike were worried about my health and future. 

Then I found the drama program in my high school, and like some kind of unintentional group therapy, I found an outlet for all my pain. I started writing and performing in earnest, and spent a good deal of my time playing guitar and writing on my little Mac SE, which my dad helped me buy.

I’m at my dad’s house now, 22 years after my brother died, and I’m watching someone else that I love waste away. I wrote in this blog earlier about how he had cancer in his prostate and how our trip to Portugal together was timed so that we could do that together before he got any worse, god forbid. 

While we were in Portugal, he showed me a large, death-looking black mole on his arm. He was waiting for test results, but I knew what it was instantly. I let him believe it could be a cyst or some other benign skin thing. 

The day we got back to Canada, dad heard back from the hospital – the mole was in fact an aggressive melanoma skin cancer tumour, and its immediate removal was needed. 

Almost two years later, a dozen surgeries, radiation and chemo, the cancer has spread to my father’s liver. Doctors give him a few months to live. Already he’s lost a lot of weight, is weak, irritable and spacey. This, in contrast to the workhorse he normally is – happy really only when he’s outside moving rocks and hammering things. Dad has always been in his element working eight hours straight in the beating sun with no sunblock. He has said repeatedly throughout that the hardest thing for him to deal with was not being ‘sick’, but being stationary. 

There’s a lot of things going through my head these days. I wonder about all those sunblock-less hours in the hot sun and whether that had anything to do with it. I wonder about his diet, which is rich in fruits, but also in packaged foods and artificial sweetener. I wonder about all the stress he took on as a senior manager at the LCBO in the 80′s. I wonder about all the wine he drank and the supposed miracle effects of the red pigment. I wonder about how someone so healthy could become so ill, so quickly.

And I especially wonder about this triple-edged sword of surgery-radiation-chemo – the standard weapons of cancer-fighting the world over: How was my father supposed to get better by having his lymph nodes (which aid the immune system) torn out, his body blasted with cancer-causing radiation and then pumped full of highly toxic chemicals? I know this system works for a lot of people, but I wonder what role your outlook plays in your ability to survive it. 

For my father, the surgery-radiation-chemo cycle may have extended his life by a few months, but it has also sapped him of the will to live. The 100 or so visits to doctors, the endless tests, the painful recoveries, side-effects, blod-clotting, and the terrible, soul-sucking effects of intense radiation and chemo treatments have left him broken and miserable. And after all that, guess what? He’s still going to die.

I did try to offer some alternatives. I offered to go with him to a sweat lodge, or put him in touch with a dear friend who is a holistic nutritionist that specializes in cancer care. I offered to fly out with him to Canada’s only holistic oncology centre in Vancouver. In the end though, my dad’s faith in the medical system was unshakeable.  

I obviously don’t have any answers here. Who knows if a different diet, lifestyle, sunblock or anything at all could have avoided the fate my father now faces. But I have to think that an approach to healing that focused on the spiritual and mental dimensions of disease – in addition to the physical – that helped him to cope, and gave him hope, even if it couldn’t save his life, might have at least made his final days more bearable. 

So, I’m here doing what I can, which for the most part is just being present. I’ve seen this all before. And unlike with my brother, my dad’s knocking isn’t making me angry, I don’t need drugs and alcohol to cope, and it’s not going to take me years of pain or drama classes to work through it. My father and I mended our relationship years ago. I don’t have a last confession to make this time. Just a little lament that what we call ‘health care’ so frequently misses where the real healing needs to happen: in the heart.