DEATH OF THE FATHER

“IT’S NOT SO BAD… BUT ALL THE FUSS!

(Statement of Manuel Domecq Núñez de

Villavicencio on his death bed, to his son)

In August of the year of 1977, Pedro Domecq González Núñez de Villavicencio and Gordon, 2ndPerico circa 1942 Viscount of Almocadén had a heart attack. He was in San Francisco with his wife, Elizabeth Cook, and his granddaughter, Maria Fernanda Rodríguez Domecq who, at the time was 10. They had taken her to Disneyland in Los Angeles and then gone on to San Francisco. They had been out to dinner and, upon arriving back at the hotel room, Perico (as he was called) complained of indigestion. He took an Alka Seltzer, as was his custom in these circumstances, but the problem only got worse. Suddenly he gripped his chest, leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. Betty knew there was a problem. Probably, if they had been anywhere else but the U.S., he would have died, but an ambulance took only five minutes to arrive and in less than twenty he was in the hospital. Betty called her daughter.

When the phone rang, I was sitting in the bar (in our house) having a nightcap with my husband. I answered and heard the news: my father had had a serious heart attack, was in the hospital and the next day my mother was going to put my ten year old daughter on a plane to fly home alone. She gave me the arrival time so I could pick her up and promised to keep me informed of my father’s progress. All I remember was a hollow feeling inside. I loved my father; I think I have loved him more 1938-1 Cat Cay 1938 3 (2)
than any other person in my life. If nothing else –and there was plenty else- he showed me that it was possible to be happy in this life with very simple things and that was what kept me going every time I was ready to give up.

My father survived that incident, although it was a bad attack and he had to spend at least three weeks in the hospital and then another month at Burlingame Country Club in a small cottage they rented before the doctors would allow him to fly and return to the altitude of Mexico City.

He had survived, but he was never the same again. “I wish I had gone then” he used to say. I think he meant that the waiting for the next time was not much fun. He lost most of his interest in the things that had occupied him before: the1939-3 Gordon Claridge's Manor  England (5) bird watching, the translations, loading his shotgun shells, painting bird pictures. Life seemed to have turned into a waiting game, trying to guess, perhaps, when the next “sablazo” would hit. (Sablazo is a Spanish word for being struck by a saber with force and it is what my father used to call the blows life dealt one; he called his heart attack “un sablazo”.)

After three and a half years of waiting, Betty figured it was safe to travel and they went to New York to see their son, Michael and his family. Again, the phone call came at night.

“Your father’s in the hospital again. His lungs filled up with water and he was drowning. We rushed him there in a taxi because your brother had gone out to dinner. He almost died,” she said in what sounded like a tired voice.

“Did you consider letting him go?”

“Yes, but he said he was afraid, he wanted to live so I had to take him. The doctors say he will pull out okay, but he is going to have to take care or his lungs will fill up again.”

1949-1 Travels to Latin America07052014That was when my mother learned to cook without salt thanks to a wonderful cookbook that I ended up adopting just because the recipes were so tasty. After a while, my father didn’t miss the salt either, and he would continue having his glass of wine in the evenings and midday on weekends so the loss of salt was not a tragedy. He got well, he even took up some of his hobbies again and all seemed to be going along smoothly.

Then my mother decided that she had to go to San Francisco again, I guess because they had some money invested there, and she took my father along. In Spanish we say “la tercera es la vencida”, which means the third time is the one that wins, and, at least for my father, this turned out to be true.

It was the 25th of February 1982, and once again the call came at night. My mother’s tone sounded emotionless.

“He’s not going to make it,” she said, her voice heavy with fatigue; “I saw an x-ray of his  heart. Poor thing, it’s all limp and barely beating; it looked like a dying fish.”1960-8 Bodegas  (3)

“I’m on the next plane,” I told her and hung up.

My husband and I got tickets for a flight the following day and, once on board the plane, I remember thinking all the time of what I wanted to tell my father when I got there, all the things I thought he might be interested in, how the Conservation Association he belonged to was doing so well, and the projects that had been approved at the last council meeting for the following year. Then suddenly I knew, I knew from deep in my heart: There was nothing left to say. My father and I had said it all. In that instant I accepted that I did not need for him to stay alive, to wait for me, to continue living. I understood that I was ready for him to leave and realized how blessed I was that there was really nothing left to say to him. From somewhere in the air, I closed my eyes and said goodbye with all my heart. When we arrived at the hospital, I practically ran to the room. My mother was standing by his bedside gazing at him as if she were trying to recognize him.

1943-1 Florida trip21042014 (7)“He went 5 minutes ago,” she said looking up slowly from the blessed fog that deep change shrouds us in for a moment to protect us from the shock.

I noticed the strange waxen aspect of his face and, walking over to the bed, put my cheek next to his; he was still warm. “I’ll take care of her, so don’t worry” I whispered and gently kissed his cheek. Then my mother began to talk.

“It’s so strange. About three days ago his voice began sounding different; it wasn’t his and it came from somewhere else. I couldn’t recognize his voice, but he didn’t say much anyway. Only once, he said ‘I want to D-I-E’ in this strange voice, spelling out the word as if it were difficult for him to say it. And then today, I was just sitting here gazing out the window and he called to me.1955 - 3 Trip to Cuba (2)

“’Lay down the bed, I want to rest.’ You know, he had to be in a sitting position to be able to breathe due to the liquid in his lungs. I asked him if he was sure. We both knew that if I lay him down, it was the end. He said ‘yes’. So I cranked the bed down. And then I just held his hand. It wasn’t too bad, but it took about 10 minutes. After he was gone, I called the 1939-7 Perico visits Tony Ruggeron in Portugal15042014 (4)doctor. He asked if I wanted him to revive your father so he would still be here when you arrived. I said ‘no’.”

I walked around to the other side of the bed and embraced my mother. She seemed tiny and all bones in my arms. The admiration I felt for her in that moment was overwhelming; as far as I was concerned she was the bravest woman I had ever known. We sat together holding hands until they 1977 Perico19042014came to wheel my father’s body away. The following day we went for the ashes and flew back to Mexico carrying them in a plastic shopping bag. My father would have had a good laugh over that. No fuss.

AFTER THE BALL IS OVER….

After the ball was over, Bonnie took out her glass eye,
Put her false teeth in the water, hung up her wig to dry;
Placed her false arm on the table, laid her false leg on the chair;
After the party was over, Bonnie was only half there!

(Parody, that my father used to sing, of the original song)

It is Tuesday morning and Salies is still in the process of cleaning up the mess. “Mess” is what “fun” is called after the party is over.  The last empty plastic glasses, the last multicolored streamers, the last vestiges of confetti are being swept away by water;20140916_095848 the streets are being hosed down by water from the fire hydrants and it looks as if it had just rained. So much so, that Josée, one of the ladies I have coffee with every morning who will be 92 this November, took one step outside and rushed back upstairs to get her umbrella; it wasn’t until she got 10 yards from her house that she realized something was wrong because her neighbor was cracking up with laughter. It made for fun as we 20140916_100049sipped our morning brew.

The Fête du Sel had passed and would not be resurrected until next September.

The Fête wasn’t the only thing that had passed. A lonely bell in the church tolled solemnly announcing the demise of a local faithful. I listened to the measured dongs and remembered the verse of John Donne: Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.  Hemingway popped to mind as a borrower of the verse for his book, For Whom The Bell Tolls. Donne, Hemingway, the unknown person from Salies… one is inevitably led to contemplate the body’s mortality.

I remember when I was about 50 noticing that I had arrived at what I was given to call the “Rice Crispies” age, when everything started going ‘Snap, Crackle and Pop’; some years later I left the cereal’s music behind (probably because things inside stopped moving) and arrived at a time defined by the somber thought that if you wake up in the morning and nothing hurts, you probably died in your sleep. So far, I’ve had no problem: if it isn’t my hip, or my back, or my neck, or my ankle, or a knee, or the ear that’s been crushed against the pillow too long, then it is usually the hangnail I pulled the evening before because I was too lazy to go for the manicure scissors.

I tend not to pay much attention to these things as the beating I have given this poor body would merit much worse, so I am generally grateful. This morning is no exception. I can feel my left ankle which means it will probably start hurting before I have arrived at the Café. A muscle in the front part of my upper right leg has been cramping up at night since I can’t remember when, probably due to a pinching in my lower spinal column, and is sore this morning. The good news is that I am alive and, so far, nothing is out of the ordinary.

Nevertheless, I am led to think of mortality, my own to be more specific. More than fear, this awakens curiosity in me. When and how will it happen? Where will I be?  Will it be sudden or will I have time to say my goodbyes and distribute or destroy my possessions? Will I live to be 92 like Josée? Will I have all my marbles, or gradually lose them like my mother?20130523_103337-1

As with all else in life, these questions will only find their answer when it is too late to do anything about them. I have heard some people voice a desire to go quickly, without any forewarning. The wife of a friend of my mother died this way: she went in her sleep, an anorism, and never woke up. I am not sure that is what I would like. Immediately I think of my things, my papers, my books, diaries in which I have written things I would prefer no one read…private things that I would really like time to get rid of before exiting.

Last year my half brother who lives in Jerez de la Frontera in Spain had a stroke; he survived and apparently recovered all his faculties. This year he has just published his memoires, dictated to a good friend who authored them. Will I be that lucky? Will I live to see what I am going to do with all this information on the family that I have dragged up and put in my computer? And, what in the world will I do with it if I do live that long?

And there you go, in the interem of thinking all these thoughts I have arrived at the Café. My friend Josée is there, without her umbrella that she has returned home before coming, and my friend Eliane one, and Eliana two, and Isabelle, Bibi and Gegé 20121209_102422and Jean. I sit, releasing Salomé to make the rounds of the tables hoping for a croissant and receiving at least a caress. Bernadette brings a cup of steaming coffee and a glass of water that she places in front of me.

Jean is telling a joke. Usually I don’t understand jokes, but this one I get; it ties into my theme for the morning: mortality. It seems that three youths save the President of France, François Hollande, from being killed, so he tells them that each can have anything he wants. The first asks for an expensive car and Hollande immediately orders one for him; the second asks for a Kawasaki motorcycle and it is produced, but to Hollande’s surprise the last youth requests a State Funeral with all the trimimings. Hollande, puzzled, asks him why.  “Because when I tell my father that I saved Hollande’s life, he is going to kill me”. I laugh heartily, not only because I am conscious of how unpopular Hollande is politically, but also just from the joy of being able to understand a joke. I look around the table at my friends; they are all laughing and they are all very much alive. There is no doubt that NOW is much, much better than anywhere I can ever travel in my mind, and NOW is all there is anyway.