The Old Man - Farewell
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Noga Albalach
Translated from Hebrew by Daniella Zamir
When asked where he lived as part of the Mini-Mental memory test, the old man couldn’t answer. When asked what day it was, he didn’t know what to say. Nor did he remember the year, and when requested to state his age he gave an inaccurate number. A deviation of thirty years. The old man’s daughter was sitting beside him, and only then grasped the reality of the situation; only then, so to speak, did the penny drop. What’s hanging on that wall there? The young examiner pointed at the wall. The old man looked at the wall clock and couldn’t remember the word for it. Please give me four words starting with the letter B, the young examiner read off her page. The letter B? the old man asked quietly. Yes, the young examiner said, and gave the word balloon as an example. She had no way of knowing the old man had once composed a dictionary and until recently still collected words, jotting them down on white pages that piled up in towering mounds. The old man thought for several moments and tried to find a word that began with the letter B. His daughter sat beside him and thought: box, bed, barber, boots. But the old man was silent. The longer his silence lasted, the more he shrank into himself. He could not recall the facts. He lost grasp of the words. But situations he could make sense of just the same, and feelings welled up in him just the same, and his dignity was as important to him as it had always been, perhaps even more so now. And so he straightened his back and raised his hand. You, he told the young examiner sitting in front of him, and pointed at the folder resting on her lap, you please write in your form that in the War of Independence I fought with Rabin!
The old man had gone with his wife and daughter to visit his brother, older even than he. When they got there they found the brother watching a singing talent show on TV. The brother turned to the old man, pointed at the TV screen and asked, You know all of them? as if trying to discern who was at fault, he or reality. The old man examined the figures moving across the screen and said, No, I don’t know all of them. Then he sat down beside his brother. Neither of them knew all of them, and yet they sat and watched.
Two months later they visited the old man’s brother again. This time they found him lying weak in bed, porridge lodged in his throat. It seemed he couldn’t remember how to swallow, or perhaps simply didn’t want to.
The old man sat in his armchair at home. In front of him sat a social worker.
Tell me, she said with an empathetic voice, what did you do for a living, what was your profession?
The old man glanced at her and after a moment replied with a perfectly natural air that still carried a sliver of pride: I’m a construction worker.
He didn’t remember who the woman sitting in front of him was, just as he didn’t remember that for over fifty years he had been a lawyer. A dedicated, justice-seeking, upright lawyer. He often forwent payment from clients who could not afford his services. All these things he had forgotten, but he remembered that in his youth he had been a construction worker, and more specifically, a steeplejack. In the evening, after working on the construction site, he would attend night school at the Tel Aviv extension of the Hebrew University and study law. He struggled with the language.
A few years ago, with his daughter, he passed by the large building of the General Organization of Workers on Arlozorov Street in Tel Aviv and said to her: See that? I built that building. On the building’s Wikipedia page the names of all the architects are listed, nine in total. The old man’s name is not among them. Whenever the old man’s daughter passes by the General Organization of Workers building, she imagines her father, putting it up.
Called upon, the old man’s daughter arrived at her parents’ house. She found the old man standing irate at the door. He was wearing a black coat and black baseball cap, clutching a black plastic briefcase.
He says he has to go see his wife, the old man’s wife said.
In the great crisis of her life, it was the old man who had served as his daughter’s sturdiest crutch. He neither offered advice nor gave orders, but merely accompanied her on her search for the right thing to do. He would call her, something he had never done in peaceful days. In peaceful days his wife presided over the channel of communication with the daughter. But during the great crisis he didn’t wait for approval, but rather took six steps forward to the front of the stage. Once the crisis had passed and the quiet days prevailed once more, he withdrew back to his natural place at the stern. Then, when things settled, shingles broke out on his chest, itching and irritating the old man for ten whole years.
When the young Filipina caregiver first arrived at the old man and his wife’s apartment, the old man approached her with an extended hand and a cordial greeting:
Ich möchte Sie herzlich wilkommen.
Meaning, I would like to welcome you warmly.
The old man’s daughter didn’t even know her father spoke German. Thus the number of languages he spoke rose to seven.
Had the old man still been in full possession of his faculties, he probably would have said: Absolutely not! Leave a little girl behind and cross half the globe for my benefit? Under no circumstances! This young woman must return to her home in the Philippines at once.
But since the old man was not in full possession of his faculties, his family members were free to go morally haywire and do as they please.
The old man’s daughter remembers how her father once fretted over finding new Adidas shoes. This was in the eighties, shortly before his trip to Bulgaria, his homeland. He had a friend in Bulgaria, and this friend had two adolescent children. The children felt trapped in their Communist country and yearned for any symbol of the West. A pair of Adidas was their greatest desire, and the old man wanted nothing more than to fulfil it. He loved his friend – a childhood friend. The friend’s name was Vasco, he was a doctor, and whenever the old man visited his homeland he stayed at Vasco's house and went on roadtrips with him and his wife. Vasco’s wife was also a doctor, as was the old man’s wife. Odd how the old man had crowded his life with doctors.
From a distance of thirty years the old man’s daughter could add to this story the two following facts:
1. For reasons never made clear to her, around the end of the eighties Vasco and the old man fell into a big argument. The two never met again. Before this brutal estrangement was imposed on them, the old man sat down and wrote Vasco a twenty-page letter. The old man’s daughter doesn’t know if Vasco ever replied.
2. She, that is, the old man’s daughter, has never owned a pair of Adidas, nor ever asked for one.
After a holiday dinner, the old man’s daughter drove the old man and his wife back to their house.
This isn’t my house, said the old man, standing on the sidewalk in front of his house. Come, I’ll prove to you it is, said his daughter, and the old man obeyed and followed
You recognize this house robe? she asked.
Yes, it’s my house robe, he replied.
Then that means this is your room, she said. And this is your bed, she pointed at the double bed. There’s your pillow, your blanket, she added.
The old man examined the bed.
And who sleeps there? he pointed.
Mom sleeps there, the old man’s daughter replied.
No, said the old man and marched resolutely to the front door.
I want to go.
They let him go. At the end of the path leading to the street, he paused, not knowing which way to turn. His daughter walked up and stood beside him.
I won’t sleep in the same bed with a strange woman. What will they say about me? What will they say about the woman?
They remained standing on the sidewalk until midnight, the old man stubborn in his muddled mind as he was in his lucidity. Eventually, he relented, perhaps out of sheer tiredness, and agreed to go back home.
He slept the entire night in the living room armchair, remaining faithful to his wife, asleep in the adjacent room.
In the bedroom:
The old man’s wife helps him slide his legs into his pants.
Will you be working here tomorrow too? the old man asks her.
Over the years, the old man taped many radio programs in which he took a certain interest: two hours of French chansons with Emmanuel Halperin; a program about the Camp David Accords; a segment on the invasion of Normandy; an interview with Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate; Bulgarian folk songs. The Benzin band concert he recorded for his daughter. Not long ago, his daughter secretly threw away dozens of those tapes.
When the old man’s daughter sees the cluster of skyscrapers soaring before her, not far from her house, she thinks: these high-rises are what brought us the nice caregiver from the Philippines. Bigger, stronger, faster. In this fast-paced life there’s no time to take care of one’s parents. The building will grow, the market will grow, the old man’s daughter will grow in all sorts of ways. The daughter of the Filipina caregiver will grow without a mother by her side.
Meanwhile, the caregiver from the Philippines eats a banana with every meal: a banana with rice, banana with borekas, banana with banana.
At a family dinner the old man suddenly asked his son-in-law: And how’s your brother who lives abroad?
Everyone instantly realized the old man was being visited by a moment of clarity. And indeed, he knew who the people at the table were and even asked after this and that person, who were absent that evening. The table was overcome with joy. They answered all his questions, and every answer gave birth to another, equally logical question. Then his wife turned to him.
Shlomo, she said, tell me, does it upset you that I speak English with the caregiver and you don’t understand?
Then she added: And how are you, Shlomo? How are you?
It felt as though she were rushing to gather precious information, all before the old man turned on his heels and disappeared back to the distant land of which he had temporarily taken leave.