Thursday, January 26, 2012

She's Not There

Finola and Howard

The music of the Santana song "she's not there" echoes from the dining room. It brings back memories of my teenage years in my home, this house, in Dublin. I really liked that song as a teenager. My mother is playing it on the battered CD player. That is the same CD player that I took back to the Power City store a few weeks ago to junk so I could get a newer one for my aging parents. That was a big mistake. After I triumphantly brought home the new CD player my father kept asking what had happened to the old one.
Later after I left the country, he became so agitated and upset that my mother had to drive to the store, explain the situation and in the pouring rain, retrieve the old player out of the garbage at the rear of the store. My father finally calmed down.  
He has dementia. He likes his routine. Even though -as the dementia progresses- he has forgotten how to work the machine, and broken the tape player. He likes the familiarity of the thing. He needs it. He likes the familiarity of my mother too, even though frequently during the day, I suspect he does not know who she is. His favorite question is... "So who's here now?" I understand. It's my cue to say "well, there's me, your son John; there's mum; and that's it". Even this simple reply is problematic. The day before I arrived back in Dublin I had phoned the house and he had answered:

-"Hola" (he always says it in Spanish)
- "Hi dad, it's John calling from New York" 
-"Hiiiii..where are you?"
- "I'm in New York, is mum there?" 
- "Mum's dead" (my heart skips a beat)
- "Emmmmm.....(thinking)...who's there?"

Then she picked up the phone. I guess he was thinking of his mum. My mother(his wife)is Finola. Maybe I should have said her name instead?
I walk back into the dining room and sit beside him on the couch. He is staring into space...he turns to me looking confused. "Are there two Finolas?" he asks. I scramble to give the right reply. This is what happens; you quickly try to work out how you can safely word a response that can be understood. A response that won't hurt or confuse him. "Well" I say, "you might think there are two Finolas". I point to a picture of mum as a young woman, beautiful and raven-haired. "That's Finola when she was young". "Yes, yes that's her I know that". "Well she has gotten older since that picture was taken so she does not look the same, so in a way maybe there are two Finolas". 

Is this reply good, is this reply bad? I don't know. "So who's the big lady?" "That's mum, Finola, she's older now". " Oh.." He looks absolutely unconvinced. But I am so happy I can spend this time with him. I say to him, "dad, whatever you do, don't call her big! She'll get upset" We both laugh a lot at that. Then he smiles. I know his mind is fading away.
And I know for him sometimes, my mum, his wife -she's not there.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Now What?

I'm back. I'm back touching the concrete of New York City streets. Before I left Centrafrique I told Janel my nurse colleague to touch the African ground with her hands..." it is something you will remember after you come back " I told her. I did the same myself. Such a simple thing you think, but actually powerful. Try it some time wherever you may be.
The beauty and pain and sadness and joy I experienced in Africa obviously has its parallels here in my city home. I worry that I will not find such dramatic, exotic and obvious examples of our frailty, ferocity and love here( OK, I know this is New York, all I have to do is walk up to the Port Authority bus station and voila!). But the stories I read in Africa often seemed to write themselves in front of me, I only had to recount the details to others. Now I stand on the edge of new actions and new directions closer to my friends and family. I may have to search just a little more to find the stories that stir me. Stories that chronicle the absurdness of the human condition yet touch the essential within us that makes us feel -despite all evidence to the contrary -that we are beautiful and eternal.

Friday, July 29, 2011

four days old

You always hear the children crying first and we usually start rounds in the
pediatric ward. Frankly we triage with a bias towards the children, because
it is often they who will succumb to malaria or other infections in this
place, in these times. 'Succumb' of course is a picturesque way of saying
"die". As we discuss events at the end of the day at the base I will sometimes
launch into my latest humor offensive, directed against these 'spoilt
children' who tend to demand all the attention. They get carried around on
people's backs all day long. They get fed a lot on demand. They occasionally
appear cute and playful(probably a ploy to trap us into liking them). They
inspire stupid smiling faces and gurgles from adults who should know
better(that's me). They often sneakily pretend to be helpless!
Beneath my dubious sense of humor lie other, quieter realities.
These are the beautiful old people who also arrive at our hospital
regularly. They are often stooped and crooked, sometimes dying, their
complaints as such perhaps not given the weight they might deserve. They
don't merit quite the same attention, they don't often squeal or cry. These
men and women arrive quietly and look at you with a calmness or a
resignation or a detachedness that seems to ask; "do I also matter, to you?"
Do they?
These are the survivors of a harsh life, walking or being carried in for
help. They have clouded eyes, pain, urinary retention, cancerous growths and
thin wrinkled skin. I sometimes ponder are they victims or victors?
Emergency medical organizations like ours are not ideally set up to handle
these old souls, in this place in these times.
The things these survivors could probably share with me. Those 'spoilt'
babies have no idea. I, have no idea.

An old man comes in with a distended abdomen; it looks like a small cantaloupe down there. It is his bladder, swollen and painful from urinary retention. We ask how long has this problem been going on? "about four days" he says. Maybe, but probably not I think. Swollen joints, end-stage
tuberculosis, HIV wasting, tumors, gangrene and festering wounds; when
asked, the patient will often tell you he or she has suffered from it for
"about four days".
And really, why think back any further?
I smile softly as these thoughts flow through my mind.
Everybody somebody's baby.
Four days old.
More later
John B Fiddler ANP

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Patients wait outside the hospital ward- Zemio, Central African Republic 2011

The rainy season we think, has started finally. It is not like you imagine.
The earth is thirsty and greedy when it rains, initially there are torrents
of water rushing along the roads and gushing down the hills. But soon after
the deluge the earth becomes quiet and damp. Most of the water has been
swallowed below. Then the sun comes out.
A father has travelled 400 km to our hospital with his young daughter. She
has a huge tumor on the right side of her face, distorting the jaw and the
cheek. Eating and swallowing is difficult.
We think we know what it is, a type of lymphoma that is known to occur in
children in this part of the world. It has a suspected relationship with
repeated infections of falciparum malaria, the type of malaria we see in 96%
of the patients who are diagnosed here in the Central African Republic.
There is nothing much we can do right now for her, except send an email to
the capital medical team to see if there may be a chance of a chance to
treat her. You note how I word that sentence, I think the odds are not good.
The medical care in the capital, Bangui, is not much better than it is here.
I don't know what will happen to her. Frankly her future without state of
the art chemotherapy is dim. Another possibly dim future in a vindictive
land that is always thirsty for change.
But all is not so hopeless that you drown in perpetual frustration here.
Every day I tour the ward and see children pulled back from the brink. Most
of the sick children who arrive here with malaria, will stabilize and then
after a couple of days of treatment they will smile again, and you know that
a small battle is won. And almost every day children smile. As we tour the
small hospital we touch and hold hands. We try to impart what we can to
friends and relatives of the ill. We laugh, occasionally with a barely
submerged sadness. We try to accept the fact that we cannot change
everything and we continue in our own crazy, rural, isolated African
medical-centre in the rainy season way... to seek the courage and the wisdom
to change the things we can.

More later
John B Fiddler ANP

Friday, February 4, 2011

Thoughts on leaving again

I lie here looking out at the tree
Saturated in a rising morning sun
A light blue sky
I'm in New York City listening to public radio
I feel connected, flowing with human news and world events
Comforted by nature's waning but ever transcendent presence
Contemplating leaving all this again - opting out -
(as if this is ever truly possible)
But opting out and away from this strong, live connection
To a weaker place
Where radio signals still get through
But life has localized its pace
And big issues shrink in the heat
To rougher, harsher and perhaps more cruel daily events
Where injustice is a given...
That's where I'm driven

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why are you going to Africa?

Why? If someone asks me that question I usually don't have any desire to even answer. This question usually means that my answer will probably make no sense to that particular person.
Opt-out answers...
Why not?
Because I can.
To get away from people like you!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

December 29 2009

A toast again before
The end draws near
As bubbles rise in amber
Cold and clear
Familiar hot and dirty hands
Stoke the fires of fear
A dawn burns
Rising in the throat
Of this new year
We hoarsely cheer!
T'will all be just
As frightening then
As now my dear.