It is April 1964, a sunny spring day in Budapest. I am alone with Dad: he, 62 years of age and me, 17 and a half.
He is lying on the sofa in his own, now defunct, doctor’s surgery, but I am not there to listen to his virtuoso violin playing along, which I so merrily whistled till as recently as six months ago. He used to get his violin out and play while he was waiting for his patients in his private practice room in our home on Rákóczi Road; right in the heart of Budapest. Whenever I was around, on hearing his violin, I would sneak into his surgery and sit down on this sofa to whistle in sync with him.
Now it is not a patient or me who is seated on the surgery sofa. Rather, my dad, who has been lying on it for the last three months, waiting to die. On this day in April, the last morning that he is still alive, I am holding on to the fantasy that he will not die.
I have nursed him daily, for the last three months taking turn with Mum. It is my turn today. I try to force feed him, but he twists his head right and left to stop me from pushing a spoonful of lunch down his throat.
My dad did not know whether he was Arthur or Martha as he, my demi-god, must have had a stroke. He is like a zombie now, but I fail to acknowledge all this: This could not happen to my dearest father. Surely if I nurse you well, you will bounce back. Everything will be normal. And then you and I will keep ascending to heaven on earth through music again as we had been doing it so much before you got ill.
Never mind that his abdomen is extending, bigger by the day, though not like a pregnant woman carrying life inside. My dad’s ‘pregnancy’ is with a ginormous, deadly cancerous tumour, which had colonised his lungs, and now is blowing up his liver. Never mind Dad, I am not intimidated by any of this.
I was there when the specialist, Dr Szūcs informed my dad as casually as if he was talking about the weather, that he was finished. He diagnosed my father with advanced inoperable lung cancer. I could have punched him in the face for his total lack empathy as he declared my beloved father was as good as dead.
I never forgot the look in my dad’s eyes upon hearing the news. It was as if he had died there and then. He stared into the distance as if completely alone; as if he were no longer in this land of living. I wish you could have shared your sorrow with me then and I, mine with you. But neither of us could. Perhaps because we were both shocked out of our wits.
My dad sat days on end still in his white doctor’s coat in his surgery. Lights off, totally surrounded by darkness. One day he called his daughter into the surgery. She told me later that our father spelled out to her in detail how we could scrape through financially from his lifesavings for us, until she graduated from medicine. I wish you took me into your confidence too. But this did not happen.
The ‘fact’ is you cannot die because you are immortal. Without my dad, I could not possibly imagine our family. My sister Erzsi, 19, is in her first year of university, my mother ios in her 40s and unemployed, and me — this 17 year old, one year before my higher school certificate year. Dad, we are nothing without you. My dad is our pillar; not just our only bread winner, but the undisputed benevolent ruler of our family kingdom. Okay: You are having a break from this now, but you will come back. Won’t you?
I stop trying to shove food down my father’s throat and decide it is time to buy him his daily cake. He is more willing to nibble on it than on other food. I hop down to the first class cake shop in our block and I gett his favourite cake. Back in 10 minutes.
I am back. But where have you gone Dad? You are so white! You are not breathing!
Come on, this can’t be happening. I mean, I had left him only 10 minutes ago and here I am with his favourite cake. Who will eat it now?
I shake my dad. His jaws drop and his head tilts. I remember that the jaws need to be tied to the rest of the head soon after death because once the jaws stiffen the mouth can’t be shut closed. I tie up his jaws with a huge handkerchief. I then run my fingers tenderly and gingerly, down his eyelids to close his eyes. You are still warm.
This is surely not happening! But just in case it is, I cut off a lock of his beautiful silver grey hair. A souvenir to remind me later that I loved my dad more than anyone else in this world.