The Bird’s Nest
My father chopped the parsley, cutting it into fine pieces. I worked on the tomatoes. The radio played in the background with a jazz medley. As the saxophone merged with the piano, my father said, “Do you remember how your mother used to talk with her mouth full? Your Mom did this at the hospital functions we went to with my colleagues. I’d cringed, but your Mom always said ‘Elias, it doesn’t matter how you eat as long as you’re enjoying the food and the company, even if it means talking with your mouth full. Whoever came up with this etiquette in the first place didn’t understand the pleasure of eating and talking!’” My father laughed.
I smiled now, sliding the tomatoes off the cutting board and into the plastic bowl.
My father mixed them with the wheat and parsley. “Can you open the lemon juice, Alice?” I unscrewed the bottle and held it over my father’s open palms. “That’s good. Now the spices, please.” He mixed everything with his hands, which were now trembling profusely.
“Babba, are you all right?”
“I get emotional making this dish, Alice,” he answered softly. He shifted the bowl, but the force from his tremors pushed it over the edge of the kitchen table. I tried to catch it but wasn’t fast enough. My father knelt on the floor picking up bits of parsley with his long fingers. His eyes were cast down and the nerves around his mouth were straining. I gazed across at him then took a broom and swept the taboulleh. My father looked up, his lips lifting in a sad smile. “I’m sorry, Alice. I’ve ruined our lunch.” He sat down on a chair and massaged his hands. “They’ve been giving me some trouble.”
“Have you been to the doctor?” I reached across and grasped his hands, then let go.
“I’m a doctor. It’s nothing, honey. Just getting old. Why don’t we order some pizza instead?”
I nodded, picked up the phone and dialed our favourite pizzeria.
Later that night, a loud noise startled me awake. Rushing out of my room, I saw that my father’s bedroom door was open. I flicked on the light to his room. My father was slumped on the floor. “Babba!” I said, panic rising in my throat as I rushed to him.
“Alice, I fell out of bed. Nothing to worry about,” he murmured, patting my arm. He struggled to get up. I put my arms around him and helped him.
“Are you hurt?”
“Just a little. But nothing serious, I’m sure.”
“I’m taking you to the hospital. Can you walk?”
He nodded, but when he took a step, he winced.
“Sit, Babba.” He sunk back on the bed. “I’m calling an ambulance.”
He waved his hands and said, “I’m all right, Alice. I just need to rest. I’ll be fine.”
“I think we should check you out. Maybe you broke a rib or something?”
My father pressed his fingers in his sides and when he flinched, I said more forcefully, “I’m calling an ambulance.”
“No ambulance, honey. I don’t want to concern the neighbours.”
“When have you ever been worried about the neighbours, Babba? You never cared when they said Doctor Zhivago lived here. Do you remember that?” I smiled mischievously.
My father chuckled softly. “Yes, yes. They used to think I looked like Omar Sharif.” He turned his face towards me and asked, “Do I look like him, Alice?”
I nodded. “More so with a moustache.”
My father traced his upper lip; it was hairless. “Aren’t you the lucky one to have a father who looks like a movie star?” He laughed louder this time and when he clutched at his sides, I wrapped my arms around him and helped him up.
“Easy, slow steps, Babba.” By the time we made it downstairs, my father was out of breath. I left him on the sofa while I slipped on my coat.
I undid my father’s coat before helping him into a wheelchair. “I can walk, Alice. There’s no need for this thing.”
“I know, Babba, but this is easier…” I stopped for a second. “For me. I’m not as strong as you,” I said, trying to smile.
I sat with my father in an examination room. X-rays had been taken a little earlier. I remembered the times I sat with my mother in a hospital room while she underwent chemotherapy. My mother tried hard to speak but the aggressive treatment had dried her mouth making her voice crack. Silence surrounded me again. I felt the sting of tears. My father opened his eyes wide and said, “You all right, Alice?”
“Yes,” I whispered. “How about you?”
Before my father could answer, the emergency doctor returned. My father asked, “Did I break any ribs?”
“Fortunately not, Dr. Karim and your lungs are good, no punctures there. I’m prescribing some painkillers for your discomfort. I see from your file that you have Parkinson’s,” the young doctor said. He looked to be in his mid-thirties.
“Parkinson’s? My father doesn’t have Parkinson’s,” I said.
My father looked at me and whispered, “Alice, I’m sorry, I meant to tell you but I didn’t want you to worry.”
I lowered my gaze.
Clearing his throat, the doctor went on, “I’m concerned about your tremors. Have you been experiencing more?”
“A little more. I have an appointment with my specialist next week.”
The doctor said, “That’s good. Go home and get some rest. Take care of yourself, Dr. Karim.”
“Thank you,” my father said.
I gave the doctor a solemn nod.
As soon as we stepped into the house, my father walked over to his hookah and lit up the coals. “Babba, please don’t smoke,” I said.
“It calms me, Alice, like my garden and the birds. The beauty of nature,” he explained. “You know there’s this bird’s nest in the tree out back. Those little birds will arrive soon. New life, new beginning.”
I sat across from him in the living room while he blew out a thin line of smoke. He passed the hose to me but I shook my head. He took another puff then another.
“You should quit, Babba, especially given your condition. Why didn’t you tell me you had Parkinson’s?” I asked.
“You have enough to worry about, Alice. First your mother, now me. You just got tenured. You need to focus on your career, not on your old man. When your mother became ill, you gave up so much.”
“I don’t regret coming back home to take care of Mama. You shouldn’t have to go through this alone.”
“I’ll be all right, Alice. I’m managing on my own.”
“But for how long? You can’t take care of yourself forever.”
“No, but I’ll deal with that when the time comes. Right now, I’m fine.”
“Falling out of bed? That’s fine?” I said, my voice rising.
“You put everything on hold to take care of your Mom. I can’t let you do that again. I’ll manage. Don’t think too much about it. I try not to. I live for my garden, my birds…”
I looked away in hurt, then faced him again. “You’re my father! I want to help you.”
He took another puff and didn’t say anything.
“Babba, please, let’s talk about this.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. Why don’t you tell me about your classes? Do you see a future Hemingway or Steinbeck in one of your students? Or an Austen or Bronté? Or maybe Kahlil Gibran? Your mother and I always thought you’d be the next great American novelist. Why did you stop writing, Alice?”
“I don’t know.”
“She didn’t want you to stop. She never wanted that.”
“When Mama died, everything changed.”
“But time heals, no? Isn’t that the old cliché?” my father said softly. “I used to tell my patients that, especially those struggling with serious illnesses. Time heals everything. We all need faith, don’t we?”
“Teaching is my new passion. Like the garden is yours and this damn smoking habit.” I took the hose from him and tossed it on the coffee table.
My father sighed. “Alice…”
I glanced at him before going on. “Sometimes dreams die like people. Sometimes we have to let go and move on.”
My father picked up the hose and inhaled deeply, then exhaled. “Sometimes you can find beauty again. Alice?”
“Let’s make a deal. If I quit smoking, you’ll try writing again. Deal?”
“I don’t know, Babba. I want you to quit smoking, but…”
“And I want you to write again.”
Changing the topic, I said, “Is the specialist you’re seeing any good?”
“He’s one of the best, Alice,” he replied. “I’ll be okay. I’m just tired. I’m going upstairs. Why don’t you get some sleep too?”
I helped him up the curved staircase and tucked him in his bed. I tried to remember a time when he tucked me in but I couldn’t. It was always my mother. He was always busy with work. “Good night, Babba,” I whispered.
“It’s morning, honey. Good morning/good night,” he said, looking at me with puppy-dog eyes, dark and soulful like Omar Sharif’s.
I must have fallen asleep because when I woke up the sky was streaked with a purplish-red sunset. I sat up in my bed. The music my mother had often played in the mornings flowed upstairs. I opened my bedroom door, then headed downstairs. When I walked into the kitchen, the scent of strawberries and pancakes enveloped me. The kitchen smelled faintly of tobacco. My father stood in front of the stove, flipping pancakes. “Good morning/good evening, Alice!”
I smiled and replied, “Good evening, Babba. How are you feeling?”
“Much better. No pain. Those pills really did the thing,” he said. “Have a seat.” He motioned for me to sit down, his hands trembling somewhat, but less than before. “I thought we could eat our pancakes with some Lebanese music.”
Within minutes, my father piled some pancakes on my plate and poured syrup on them.
I cut a piece and lifted it to my mouth. “Delicious!”
“You’re not just saying that?”
“These are really good! Just like Mama’s.”
“Your mother was a great cook. If only she were here now to taste my pancakes, Alice.”
I placed my hand on his and squeezed for a second.
He smiled and walked to the fridge.
Remembering my mother, I spoke with my mouth full. “Look, Babba!” I said, pointing to the bay windows. My father looked outside. Two baby birds, naked and featherless, trembled and chirped in the nest. A red cardinal was perched beside them.
“So beautiful,” said my father, pouring orange juice into my glass. Some spilled on the table from the tremors that started up again.
I took the container from him and poured the juice into his glass. “New life, new beginning,” I said. We ate in silence for a while. Then I said, “Babba, when is your appointment next week?”
“I’m going with you.”
“But you have to get back to New York.”
“I don’t have classes until Thursday. I can make it to the appointment.”
My father sat across from me. He patted my arm. “Maybe you can write about the birds, Alice.”
I smiled, taking a sip of my juice. Dusk poured through the windows. “You know, Babba, those neighbours were right. In this light, you’re the spitting image of Omar Sharif! I think I’ll teach Doctor Zhivago in my class next year and I’ll ask the university if I can bring in a guest. Just imagine how impressed the students will be to see Omar Sharif! Or at least the lookalike!”
“Well, I better grow back my moustache then!” My father and I laughed softly. We ate with the music filling the open space. The young birds chirped louder. I took a deep breath and just then, I realized that the smell of tobacco had disappeared.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
Beauty consists of layers of memories and colors as vivid as a sunset after a busy day or as distant as the mountains of my parents’ village in Lebanon. I remember a colleague placing a beautiful bouquet of flowers at my desk when I returned to work after my father’s death. Grief made me sluggish but that beautiful arrangement helped me make it through that first day back at work. When a photographer captures a resilient child in a war-torn country or a journalist describes a soldier bending down and smelling the powerful scent of flowers, this reminds the viewer or reader that there is still hope and beauty in the world. Beauty gives us comfort in the midst of calamity. It soothes us like a mother consoling her child with a lullaby. That’s what beauty is to me: a lullaby sung softly just before dusk gives way to night or just before the morning light welcomes a fresh start. As a writer, I hope to capture beauty in the worlds I have created for my characters. Sometimes the worlds are dark, but there is always a glimmer of beauty in the way a daughter helps her ailing father or a father encourages his daughter. And then there are the chirping birds! A lullaby sung softly.
Sonia Saikaley’s first book, The Lebanese Dishwasher, co-won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. Her first collection of poetry, Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter, was published in 2012 and a second collection, A Samurai’s Pink House, will be published in 2017 by Inanna Publications. She is currently working on a novel called Jasmine Season on Hamra Street, which was awarded an Ontario Arts Council grant. In the past, she worked as an English teacher in Japan. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers, she lives in her hometown of Ottawa, Canada.