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  • The Island in our Lives

    My father and I waited for the ambulance to come and take him back home. My mother was back already waiting at the house for the medical service to deliver a hospital bed and all the paraphernalia of home health care. He sat on the side of the bed in his hospital gown and red chamois shirt. Sometimes I sat beside him, sometimes in the chair across from him. I have been sitting a lot the last few days and I am restless beyond belief inside. Rain flecked the window driven by the nor’east wind. From time to time a nurse popped in to check his blood sugar or have him sign a form, or bring in his broth and jell-o lunch. I fly back to South Africa tomorrow morning, this was our last day together.

    I said that he had given me something I treasure. He looked up but didn’t say anything.

    Earlier I had said he was getting to be a better listener and he had gone all quizzical and wanted to know what I meant, I started to explain but the nurse came in about some procedural thing and when she left he didn’t pick back up on it. I was going to say he used to be so sure he was right that he didn’t need to stop and listen, now I saw him read faces and think and then speak, I’d seen him hold a comment back because it just wasn’t the right moment and what purpose would it serve. That’s new I was going to tell him.

    So maybe he thought I was going to go back to the listening topic, but he just waited while I collected my thoughts.

    You know, when you took us to the island, I started slowly because this was something I wanted to get right.

    He nodded.

    Well you could have been like the other professionals and academics and had like a wall between you and the fishermen and the boat builders and all. But you didn’t. You made their stories and what they did be important. You made it a world to step towards, you made it something worth exploring. You made it OK for me to go toward it.

    I wasn’t sure if I was really making the sense I wanted.

    He looked at me a long while. I never knew that, he said.

    You gave me a whole other world, I told him.

    The rain spattered against the window and the wind whistled around the old brick hospital. A digital alarm tone echoed in the halls, someone’s transfusion bag was empty, I knew the tones.

    You were hooked by the island, he said. It happened to me too. I never would have gone if it wasn’t for your mother. She saw the ad in the Harvard Crimson. That first summer when you were 13 months and we were there, I knew. I gave up my academic career for it. All those summers I should have been researching. publishing to get ahead in the university world. Who knows what and who would have cared I can’t say. Instead I was out there, catching ground-fish, smoking mackerel, out on the island.

    I never knew that, I said.

    That’s what hurt so much this summer, he said. I didn’t get out to the island. I was cut off.

    We talked about the island writers, there have been a fair few over the years, and the stories they told and the stories they hid away.

    It is hard to have the courage and boldness to write honestly , he said. And not shie away from the truth.

    I told him I’d found a couple of people who told me when I stayed on the surface, tell me straight to my face. Kick my ass when I needed it to be kicked.

    That’s rare, he said. And wonderful.

    I nodded.

    I thought I came close in my polio story, he said. I wasn’t artificial there.

    You did, I told him. You weren’t squeamish, you weren’t afraid to go deeper and reveal yourself.

    He looked down at his hospital gown.

    We laughed.
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