David Fernandes
Producer, Director, Writer

Archive for the ‘family’ Category

Full Circle

Wed ,15/04/2009
Late on April 6th, 2009 – my birthday – my father passed away.
On the surface, this would seem like a shitty thing to have happen, but in the context of my life, it actually makes perfect sense.
I was born on April 6, 1973; my brother Danny, April 6 1961; my father-in law Gurmit, April 6, 1943; my brother-in law Raj, April 6, 1973. Between our two immediate families, Nrinder and I have four people that share the same birthday. So if you can accept the impossibility of that, then my father dying on my birthday has some kind of cosmic circularity to it. The man who helped bring me to life transitioned into his new life on the anniversary of my birth. What a gift.
The days leading up to my birthday were hard ones. By the time I got to Napanee, where he lived, on Thursday, Dad was pretty far gone. He hadn’t eaten in close to a week, he’d lost a substantial amount of weight, and he was barely able to get up, much less walk anywhere. I knew that he wanted to die at home, away from doctors and hospitals, so I cancelled all my plans for the next four days – including my birthday party – so I could help him do that. Dad’s wife, bless her soul, was having a hard time keeping up with him. Nrinder and I knew that by being present we could extend the time he had at home and possibly help him achieve his wish.
But he was a stubborn bugger – a trait that comes directly from being the youngest male in a family of farmers. He’s been independent since he was able to walk, working since he was strong enough to shovel earth, aerate wine or stomp on grapes – as if he was going to let anyone ‘help’ him. Since he retired at age 55, he’d been the picture of health: lean, strong, able, sharp, and tireless. But the cancer  - and particularly all the goddam treatments – did a number on him. When it was clear the chemo wasn’t working, my father made a very conscious decision to go. But in spite of his wishes, his body soldiered on. Life, it seems, is a difficult thing to loose, even when you want to.
So for four days I helped keep him comfortable, keep him company. I cried a lot those days, knowing that there wouldn’t be more of them and feeling bad that he had to go in such a miserable way. “You don’t ever want to go through this,” he whispered to me. And he’s right. With the cancer spread to his stomach, liver, lungs and kidneys, ‘living’ had become reduced to lying in bed, too weak too move, to parched to talk, too dehydrated to cry.
I didn’t have anything burning to tell him, I just took his hands and felt their heaviness and warmth, noticing for the first time how elegant his hands were. I’d always imagined them as a bit stubby, but up close his fingers were long and his skin soft. Hands that once picked me up by my ears, to my squeals of delight, were still strong and gentle, even after all the sickness.
By Sunday it was clear to us that we couldn’t keep him at home anymore. He’d already tried to get up a couple of times on his own, and fallen, and the stress of this had gotten to be too much. We explained to him that we thought he’d be better served in a hospital, with round-the-clock nurse care and better facilities, and once we were sure he understood, he agreed to go. 
As we waited for the paramedics, I took a few moments alone to tell him that I loved him, that I appreciated him, that I forgave him and that I would treasure his memory, and that I was sorry he had to go this way.
After four days of being inside, surrounded by death and sadness, I stood with Nrinder on the front steps of his house and witnessed the first signs of spring. As the paramedics carried my father out of the house, the sun shone warm and brilliant, the finches and blackbirds filled the air with beautiful songs as two doves cuddled in their tree. 
For all the fear of hospitals and doctors, the people at the Lennox and Addington hospital in Napanee treated him like extended family. They forced no more pills on him, hooked him up to no more machines, and moved him as precious little as they had to. They knew they were giving him a comfortable place to go, and treated him with all the respect and care that he could have ever got at home. In fact, the home care nurses were wonderful too – caring, sensitive and quick to respond. It gave me a whole new appreciation for our health care system and how wonderful and precious – and privileged – it is to have so many resources so close at hand and totally independent of an insurance plan. For all the ninety-something visits to doctors and specialists that my father had and all the hundreds of visits to home by nurses, all the equipment that was installed in the house and leant out to make things easier, none of it cost an extra dime. 
The folks at the hospital let us use an emergency room, privately, as they waited to bring him into a room in the ward upstairs. It’s there that I said my goodbye. It was Sunday, and my birthday was the following day. I decided to go home because I wanted to be with my mother on my birthday and I didn’t think there was anything more that I could to do to make him comfortable. I had planned to come back on Tuesday if necessary, but I knew this time that I wouldn’t see him again. 
Before leaving, I asked for a few moments alone. I took his hand and told him again that I loved him and I thanked him for being the man that he was. I told him that I would see him again. And his final words to me, whispered through his sore, parched mouth, were, “you will.”
And I did. 
Driving home that night, Nrinder and I saw the most beautiful sunset, orange and purple rays streaking across bands of clouds and flocks of Canadian geese, returning from the south. And I felt a great peace come over me. Though letting go is a sad business, spring is always around the corner.
The following evening – my birthday – I went to visit my mother. After chatting with her for a little bit, I went upstairs to use the washroom. While taking a pee, I distinctly heard a child’s voice say my name. I looked behind me and of course found no child, but I took note of the experience because I’m not one for hearing things. Moments later, while sitting on the couch with my mother, I got the call that my father had passed in the company of his wife and her sister-in-law. It happened a five minutes ago.
After seventy-four years of life, and three long years fighting cancer, my father decided to let go of his dying body on April 6th – Danny, Gurmit, Raj and my birthdays. And now, appropriately, his birthday too.

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. 

Well, that’s all folks

Wed ,06/06/2007

Yep, last day. I’m sitting by the Marina again, having a beer and waiting on a Tuna salad (it’s an actual salad here).

Dad went home yesterday, I went to the airport with Chico, a cousin who has a cab here. Nice guy – he’s quite young, like 25 or something and speaks English quite well. His girlfriend Regina, Chico and I got to hang out a tiny bit while I was here, though we didn’t end up going out dancing. I seem to have forgotten to give them my cell number. Doh.

So, the trip is almost over. I spent most of today running around with a video camera, capturing little slices of life here, my aunt’s house, the long, steep walk down to the street, the thruway, scenes from downtown, the fish and fruit markets, the marina and about 20 minutes of ocean and waves – mostly for the audio. I ended up getting all the shots i wanted to get – 7 hours of video to wade through now. My family here all think I’m crazy and take way too many pictures and video. Everyone with the exception of Ana and Hernando, who I spent my last night here with.

Hernando, who I’ve spoken of before in this blog, is also a musician, in addition to a sculptor, painter, graphic designer and interior designer (man I am humbled). He showed me this crazy drum pad he has called the Handsonic – it’s sort of a drum machine meets electronic drum kit, but the sounds it produces are simply stunning. It has an infared sensor in one area to recognize the waving of a hand over it – this, depending on what kit is active, will produce something like brushing your hands across a row of bells or chimes or wood blocks, etc.. Watching and listening to him play it was amazing. I want one. haha. I’ve wanted a drum kit for a long, long time, so this would be the extremely compact version with like 600 drum sounds, sampled from a truly global variety of drums. Blown away.

Dad and I had a great trip. His wife Jeanette was a bit sick and, I think, was eagre to get home. I feel like I know him a little better than i did and I’ve also recognized some bad habits I still have with him, namely frustration and impatience. It stems from my disappointment with him over my life, and particularly as a child, but yeah, I’m committed to changing my behaviour. I got to see his familial homes and meet his side of the Madeira families. Can’t put a price tag on this trip. It was really once-in-a-lifetime.

I am looking very forward to meeting up with Nrinder at the airport Tomorrow and getting a good nights sleep in my own dry, warm, snuggly bed.

See you all soonish!



Shiternet, more cousins, the mountain walk, dad and calmness.

Sun ,03/06/2007

It’s been a great few days, minus the annoying and ongoing problem of finding reliable, free hotspots here – they are supposedly everywhere, but there are only two places i can find where it actually works reliably.

I had a great visit with my cousins here, they have two young boys who are just hilarious, creative and frighteningly well mannered. I always think of young boys as insane little monsters (based mostly on the teasing and harassment I endured as a young boy), so I’m always happy to meet fun and creative ones – it makes me feel better about the world to know all boys won’t grow up to be jerks.

My cousins Hernando and Ana, having lived most of their lives in Venezuela, have a really different outlook on Madeira than most – and one that I increasingly tend to share. Mostly that culturally, it’s very conservative and gossipy, reserved and insular. As an outsider – even ones that DO speak Portuguese well – they find people are very friendly and welcoming on the surface, but don’t really seem to care much about you in the long run. I kinda get that. I’ve felt that the last few times that people are really happy to throw down a wicked meal, but there’s little follow-up and frankly, little interest in what I’m about or what I’m interested in past the normal formalities. I do try to dig a bit but I find people sort of not interested in talking more deeply about themselves or what’s really going on in their lives. It’s more than a language thing. One can go deeper with intention, even if the language isn’t fully there to support it. So, hanging out with these cousins is a huge breath of fresh air for me here. I feel like I can almost be myself around them. Almost. Give it some more time I guess.

The walk in the mountains yesterday was incredible. Perfect day for a mountain walk as there were no clouds at all. You could see for ever. Stupidly though, I didn’t wear sunscreen and then of course found out when i got back to town that the whole island is on red alert for abnormally high UV rays. If I come back glowing in the dark, you’ll know why.

The walk was fairly long 13km of extreme ups and downs – but it was totally doable. I must be in much better shape than i was last year cuz I remember being way more fatigued. It’s very energy intensive, but not really that hard. And my god, the views. Cameras just can’t do it justice. It’s like being on Mars in some places – red, volcanic earth with huge boulders and lines of minerals and rock kris-crossing the landscape, and then other parts are lush with small flowers and cacti and yet other parts that are like some old horror movie with gnarly heather trees, clinging to the hillsides. The whole walk took about 4.5 hours or so. I would do it again and again. Last year when I went with Nrinder, it was cloudy, which has it’s own kind of beauty too.

Aside from taking a couple of days to do more of my own thing, I have been spending quite a bit of time with my father as well. It’s been a process for me to just totally relax around him and accept him fully for who he is. I think I must have some lingering resentment somewhere and it comes out in being a bit impatient with him. And it’s funny, because the thing that might annoy me the most about him is his impatience. So, figure that one out.

Even though I really can’t afford to be taking this trip right now, and the whole thing came together so last minute, I am so glad that I am here, being present, trying to understand my father, my family, this place called Madeira and myself. I think that for the last couple of years I have really been mean to myself – internalized a lot of hatred and self-doubt, having had an almost absolutely horrible time at work and the whole process of cutting off the chains of such an enormously well-paying job. It’s really good for me to take this time to just relax a bit and come to terms with a few things that have been nagging me. I do my best reflecting and growing on my own and I’m happy I’ve taken this time to do that. I feel like the last few months have been about that for me – I haven’t been aggressively pursuing contracts or work – I’ve been lounging a bit and (burning through my savings) and trying to build a peaceful space in my soul that will last. In the last year or so, my heart rate has actually dropped almost 20 beats per minute at resting. Crazy. Quitting smoking was obviously a huge factor, but it’s more than that.

I’m a much calmer person now. And I really, really like me that way.

The cousin from hell and then food poisoning, and more cousins.

Wed ,30/05/2007

It’s easy to run into people here, it being such a small island. And even without directly running into people, they still seem to hear that you’re around and then sometimes even go looking for you. Such is the case with my dad’s childhood friend Joao, who probably means well, but has this unbearable tendency to talk ALL the time and cut you off if you try and say anything. Against my protestations, we went on a car tour with cousin Joao, under the premise of taking the car to a friend’s body shop to get the miniscule scratch fixed, and then going off somewhere else with him.

Joao, short, balding, chubby and three by-passes later, really is a work. With a thick South African accent, offensive views about … well, everything, he’s about the last person i would ever want to be stuck in a car with, much less thrashing around in the back seat as he whips his tiny car around winding mountain roads, loosing his attention at every corner as he tells his disjoint stories. My dad apologized on his behalf – he hadn’t seem him in 50 plus years.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, I came down with food poisoning and had to drive the fixed car back to Funchal, literally on the verge of vomiting.

Anyway, I’ll leave all the fun details out, I’m feeling much better now having been bed ridden for the better part of the last day. I did get a bit of walking around with my dad in, visiting an old neighbour (whose house is the last one standing among a seaside of concrete resorts), and walking along the ocean boardwalk in Lido, where he grew up.

I’m thinking that I need a day off very soon. Maybe a day to go hiking in the mountains or something – I do love my father and my family, but i’m really feeling like I need a little time to myself to sort of have some peace and quiet and just take the world in silently, do some writing and reflecting.

I’m probably going to see some younger cousins here soon – they’re really cool, nrinder and I had a really nice time with them last year. Hernando is a sculptor/visual artist – originally from Colombia, and Ana, his wife, is my second or third cousin (I never understand…) – my mom’s cousin and my dad’s friend’s daughter – originally from Venezuela. They were having a bit of a hard time adjusting to the relaxed pace of life here after leaving Caracas. ANYWAY. I really like them and i think we’re hanging out on Saturday. Sunday is a BBQ over at another cousin’s place. Basically, if you’re not sure how someone is related to you, or you just like them, or you don’t like them and are afraid to call them a friend, they’re your cousin.

Madeira is a garden… with a lot of condos.

Sun ,27/05/2007

There’s a saying here that Madeira is a garden – it’s even a lyric in the unofficial national anthem – and as much as it is a place of intense greenery, flora and beauty, it’s also a place that is very quickly loosing it’s soul. I’m feeling that on a really personal level these past two days.

Yesterday, my first full day here, I got to visit the site where my dad grew up (now a massive seaside hotel), the place where my dad’s grandfather lived (still a banana farm, but about to become apartments), and also the site where my dad was born (now a half torched and rotting banana farm, soon to be massive apartment development).

Basically, all the places my parents and their siblings grew up are now or are in the process of being resortified. This is beyond gentrification, this is wholesale demolition and reconfiguration of the whole landscape, to a point beyond recognition. It’s actually quite shocking. And it’s all made more poignant since I am staying with my mom’s sister – my Tia Rita (a true gem) – who’s home is a window into another era – worn down and original in almost every way, with no way to access it but a very steep, winding footpath.

Like in Cuba, tourism has become a really major industry here, and as a result, anything at all seems to go. Massive concrete hotels owned by English, German and Dutch chains are eating up the coast of the cities here, and on an island that is only 55km long, with a population of 350K – it’s having a big impact.

So, I’m feeling a bit torn. I’m so happy to be here and to get to see these places and meet these relatives before everything turns into condo-resort-land. But I’m also feeling a real nostalgia for a past that isn’t even mine and maybe isn’t even my place to be holding on to. The things I personally find beauty in are the old places, the crumbling shacks, cracked walls, clay roofs, old people and stories about a much more rural, simpler time. That’s the Madeira of my parents’ generation. But the old people are dying out and the children are selling the farms.

It’s all very strange. I get the sense that average Madeirans resent all this development, and yet, it’s average Madeirans, with inheritances, who are selling off their heritage to develop them as condos and hotels. And there’s plenty of money in it. They’re selling a crumbling old banana farm and turning that into a fortune. Can I blame them? Are young, well-educated, english-speaking Madeirans really gonna toil on a banana farm in an age of online shopping and 24h satellite TV? Would I?

It’s bittersweet. I love being here and spending time with my father and getting to physically experience where he grew up – take tonnes of picture and video to boot. But it’s kind of like taking pictures of ghosts – these places and people are going to disappear very soon and then all any of us will have to remember them are words and pictures.

I’ve taken hundreds of photos and hours of video so far. I’m feeling extra motivated to document things, preserve them in some form – ANY form – because i know i won’t get another chance. My dad’s immediate family don’t own anything here anymore, so what’s left is in the hands of cousins and great aunts. It’s really all quite futile though. I’ll never capture everything, and I know that i can’t. Maybe I’m feeling inadequate with just pictures and video. I want to be able to come to these places 20 years from now and show my kids or something. It’s a selfish thought, for sure.

Anyway. Weather is great, island is as beautiful as ever, and I’ve learned the hard way that one should absolutely NOT, EVER, park a standard transmission car facing uphill at a 40° angle and expect to go anywhere but backwards. Um, oops. No one got hurt. And the tree is ok too. The bumper on the other hand…

Roots, memory and stories

Fri ,25/05/2007

So, I’m off to Madeira today. It’s a sunny and warm day in London. Busy place, kind of like new york, except vaguely more polite – friendlier anyway. I can’t say I’d want to spend any extended time here. If I came back I’d check out a few galleries and bookstores, but otherwise it’s just another big, crowded, expensive city with probably too many very well dressed people in too much of a rush.

I didn’t manage to go out last night, choosing instead to catch up on sleep and write a bit. I did take a stroll through Soho right around the beginning of bar hopping time (which is the second work is over, apparently) – it was already rowdy.

I started thinking about roots and what it really means to be *from* somewhere. I was born in Canada, but I feel a connection to Madeira through my parents and family who were all born there and lived a solid chunk of their life there. I’m thinking about how I know Madeira mostly as a picture, painted by many overlapping, conflicting, and incomplete stories that my mother has told. I don’t know it as much through my father, so this is gonna be really interesting for me how much the picture changes.

I was also thinking about how when people in our lives die, we really aren’t left with much – some pictures, some documents that claim they existed, and maybe if we’re lucky, an old 8mm film or a video or two. And the memories we have change over time. They become less detailed. A little more like feelings and ideas than anything precise or vivd. I feel that way about my brother, who died when i was 13. Luckily i have some audio recordings of him singing and playing music, so I have something to recall his voice by – i think things like that help keep memories more vivid. But mostly he’s a fading ghost for me. I was a kid when he left. And largely, I remember him through the eyes of a kid. He really took on being a father figure when my father left us. He came back from BC and made sure he was present in my life when my father wasn’t. My strongest memories are of playing frisbee in the park or watching him play guitar. He introduced me to music, to art and to nature. And 21 years later, it’s hard to remember all that – events kind of blur into each other, the story changes, I probably make some things up. I remember the things I want to and interpret them in ways that i like.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about memory and story-telling and how the further away we get from something, the more the story changes – I think about that in terms of my mother and her non-stop stories – no narrative – just bits and pieces interconnected like some hyper-active web page with too many links. And I think about that too in terms of documentary and interviewing people about their past – about how people tell the stories they like to tell and avoid ones that conflict with the picture they want to paint. I think about how fallible memory is and how ultimately we tell stories because we have to – it’s the only way we know how to interpret our lives.

Anyway, I’m pretty intense today, but still finding moments to look around and just take things in. It is a very beautiful day.