29 January 2014

Teach Us to Grow

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:20 pm

Why is a certain party growing a mustache? Because, I’m told, the electric shaver pulls the hairs under his nose and he yells, and nobody who shaves him wants to get yelled at. You can use the electric nose hair trimmer on his mustache if you want, I’m advised.

At dinner I pull a book randomly off one of the shelves nearest the table. Turning to the first page I read the first line aloud:

Deep one night he was trimming his nose that would never walk again into sunlight atop living legs, busily feeling every hair with a Rotex rotary nostril clipper as if to make his nostrils as bare as a monkey’s…

When was this book published? Copyright 1977, though I suppose that the four short Kenzaburō Ōe novels compiled in this volume had appeared in print in Japan before then. Halfway down the frontispiece is an acknowledgment:

Happy Days Are Here Again,” copyright © 1929  WARNER BROS. INC.

Just this morning, for the first time since he’d moved in with us, a certain party broke into song: “Happy days are here again, the skies above are clear again.”

Frequently, for the benefit of those who came and went around his bed (who, although they were certain to outlive him, lying in bed awaiting the moment of his own death as if it had been finally scheduled, were treated by him as if they were already among the dead), not necessarily to flaunt his happiness but simply to enjoy the sounds that reached his ear along his jawbone from his own eccentric vocal chords, and to revel in the furtive, complex sympathetic resonation of his internal organs, pregnant now with cancer cells, he would sing, in English, “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

It’s been nearly two months now since a certain party moved in with us. He calls the cat Chicken. Sometimes when looking at the cat he sees two chickens, as if the writhing tail were a separate creature. If the cat stops moving for half a minute he sees no chickens at all and starts calling for it to come back. He sees my feet as two chickens; he talks to them.

Why do you keep calling him a certain party? Can’t I change to “father”? When you say “a certain party” he sounds like an imaginary figure in a myth or in history, says the “acting executor of the will.” …At times I’ve thought to myself maybe I have been mad since I was three just as my mother says, and someday if I recover my sanity the phantom tormenting me I call a certain party will disappear. But I feel differently now; if I’m a madman, fine, I’m resolved to stay that way and continue sharing life with my favorite phantom, a certain party. Ha! Ha! Ha!

Yesterday he tripped and fell trying to get out of his chair; Anne and I propped him up under his armpits as he struggled to regain his feet.

And when the boy dropped to his knees on the ground that retained the midday warmth and threw his arms around the calf or thick pole of a leg a certain party was still laboring patiently to lift and tried to lend him strength, a certain party fell over on his back as unceremoniously as an infant but with a thud that shook the ground. Then his large, pitch-black penis sprang from the long-since buttonless fly of his “people’s” overalls, and he energetically urinated. The boy remained on his knees, chilled with a sense of failure, and the smelly urine wet his naked side and right buttock.

Though not yet incontinent, a certain party has very poor aim. Also, he sometimes mistakes the wastebasket or even the dark corner of the living room for a toilet. Presumably because of his enlarged prostate he has to urinate frequently. We have installed a rubber mat next to his bed that sounds an alarm when he steps onto it at night. The alarm sounds: one of us gets up, escorts a certain party to the toilet and back to bed if he gets lost on the way, helps him change his socks if he walks through the puddle on the bathroom floor, attempts to persuade him that his blankets aren’t some sort of ill-fitting gigantic clothing placed there to torment him, swabs up the mess afterward. He is not always easy to steer, inasmuch as his severe cognitive impairment is further compromised by a profound loss of hearing.

Exasperated by his refusal to remove the headphones, a resourceful doctor plugs a microphone into the tape recorder, connects the headphones to a monitor and begins to speak through them. It’s time we started being honest with one another about your condition, you must understand and cooperate. Your condition  .  .  .  Having swiftly broken the connection to his consciousness, “he” is deaf to any further disturbance from the outside. Gasping in the shrill voice of a ten-year-old on the verge of death, distorting the melody in a multitude of ways, “he” continues to sing, Let us sing a song of cheer again, Happy Days are here again!

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is the title of the volume. A certain party scrutinizes the cover with one squinted eye, attempting to compensate for his macular degeneration. “Teach us to grow,” he reads. “Teach us to grow,” he repeats, again and again.

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