You know what struck me the most when I saw you lying flat on the hospital bed? I realized I’d never seen you without your impeccable false teeth. You looked older, defenseless, robbed from authority. A catatonic man with cheeks sunken along the gums that framed a wide dark cave of a mouth, a forehead jutting out of the white pillow, wet wisps of hair drowning underneath. Tiny red drops were sprouting out of your face, and your eyes… so different! I wondered where all that sparkling, ingenious green had gone to. Now coated with some thick membrane, they were just two anguished, anaemic slits on a hallucinating stranger’s face.
‘Pour me some water, Dina!’ you stammered. ‘There, from the tap,’ you pointed to the serum hanging on your right. ‘Bring me my coat that’s hanging there,’ this time you showed me the blank wall to your left. ‘Time to go home.’
‘Yes, patera,’ I told you and before I even finished my phrase you’d lost contact and soon nodded off. A short attention span and cognitive impairment were some of the symptoms of brain cancer, the doctors had warned.
That irrational self of yours was completely new to me, as was your toothless mouth. Your typical quick temper now waned in a flash; sleep swallowed it up. I don’t think I’d ever seen you asleep before either. Your bedroom door had always been locked for your daughters. Only mana was allowed into your holy sanctuary. The pateras I knew was a nimble man, always on the go, with a perfectly shaven face and immaculately ironed trousers. Mana used to say one could slay a lamb with the crease.
As a child, though a real glutton, I often resisted the temptation of my favourite mouth-watering milk chocolate with whole almonds and I rarely came to your grocery store. I’ll never forget your expression every time I attempted to walk up the five concrete steps to the main entrance of the shop. Pursing your lips, you crossed your arms in front of you and waited for me to fall. You were certain I’d fall. And I usually did. Under that ominous look I couldn’t possibly make it.
‘You’re so clumsy, so clumsy!’ you smacked my back and sent me home crying. Those five steps scared the daylights out of me and I knew that even if I managed to clamber them up, the first thing you’d do is check my nails. The moment you discovered they were longer than expected, dirt lining them near the flesh, you chided me and rushed to cut them till red, vulnerable skin was forced out, giving me the shivers. And if I got off scot-free in that respect, you’d check my hair for uninvited, crawling, black visitors and eventually shoo me home to do my homework.
Even after I’d got married and settled into my own home, your visits meant a thorough scan of the premises and nasty remarks such as: ‘Can’t you see the dust on the T.V. set? Clean up the mess in your sink! There’s dirt in your toilet bowl,’ all of which sent me do the house all over again, nose sweeping along the skirting board, across kitchen cupboards, deep into the sink, around door knobs and all over the bathroom. The same surveillance routine was also strictly followed at my three sisters’ houses.
You had your own distinctive smell; carried this mixed odour of detergent and ground coffee with you, skin, breath, clothes, everything. All day in the store, carrying, stacking, serving, counting the money, throwing change onto the counter for the customers to pick; never handing it. The coins flipped and tinkled against the Formica counter, sometimes rolled onto the floor while you let the customers chase after them. Never seen you bend.
You were a proud man. Proud for yourself, your store, your houses, your vine, your olive groves, everything but your daughters.
I was seven and I remember well the day my third sister was born. The angry pout in your goggle-eyed face, your wan lips, my mana’s sobs at the hospital, yiayia’s and pappou’s vain efforts to console you.
‘The next one will be a boy,’ yiayia had comforted you but you just turned your back and stamped to the store, slamming the door behind you. As if you knew. Your fourth child was a girl too.
‘You women worth nothing,’ you used to say. ‘Why go to university?’ you shrugged when I’d passed my exams and entered university in Athens. ‘You’re doomed to end up in the kitchen, washing dishes.’ I never knew whether you really meant that as you let me go to Athens and you supported me financially till I finished my studies. Of course, you never suggested coming to the graduation ceremony, or even asked for my award.
I started thinking you might be right. There must be something wrong with this lanky girl who doesn’t know what to do with her hands or how to position her legs, I’d often think. Carrying the jug of wine from the work surface to the kitchen table was enough to trigger vigilant looks from you, being interpreted as: ‘Oh, no! Not you! You’ll break it.’ And, sensing that, I often did. I trembled, staggered, tripped, did whatever I felt you were expecting me to do; fulfilled your expectations.
I believe the coating in your eyes started forming the day the doctor first informed you about your illness. You entered the store avoiding eye contact with everybody there and asked us to help you stack the spaghetti packets and sugar bags onto the metal racks, balance the milk tins and jam jars in perilous columns while you flung a wedge of rancid feta cheese into the bin, flapping your hands against the midges that have been hovering there. You then scanned the shelves for shortages and scribbled away in a dog-eared notebook; prepared the shopping list for the following week. We were all there, your four daughters and mana. Keeping watch as you bumbled around, issuing orders with tense fingers and fluttering jowls.
We spent two summer months in two different hospitals and as the tumour continued its destructive route towards most of your organs, you got weaker and weaker every day. We were still there, by your bed of thorns. The four of us and mana. Watching with haggard eyes and crashed hopes your stumbling efforts to suck water through a straw first and then lick it up from a plastic bowl like a newborn puppy.
One of my sisters and I were out in the hospital corridor one day when your mobile phone rang. Mana answered and then we heard you yowl, ‘Kosta! My brother!’ It was your beloved cousin calling from Australia, as mana later told us. ‘My daughters. They’re all here. If it weren’t for them…’ you burst into an unceasing weep so unfamiliar to my sister and I, we were routed to the spot. When we finally got into the ward you stopped short and hastily dabbed at your wet eyes with the ball of your left hand. Then, you ordered a shave.
A month before you died we asked you what you’d like us to do with the store.
‘Demetra – your third daughter – will take over, of course,’ you said proudly. And when a patient who shared the hospital ward with you asked me what I did for a living, a sudden glint illuminated your eyes and a gummy crack of a smile came with your answer: ‘Well, she’s a university teacher, of course, my daughter.’ Even if that was not strictly true, that set me thinking. Was it that coating in your eyes or did it have to take forty years and a toothless mouth for the clumsy ducklings to turn into praise-worthy swans?