Thursday, October 3, 2013

On being a housefather

After completing my standard three-year stint of work in an offshore-tax-haven in 1981, in Cayman, I retired again. This time, I became an unpublished author and a housefather (“parent of first resort”) to Ross from age six to age eleven. During those five years, absent from the world of business, I was known as either Linda’s husband or Ross’s father. I had no particular identity of my own.

Home all day, it was I who rescued Ross every time he fell in the swimming pool – and (once) in the septic tank with the too-easily removable cover. I was one of the few men at the parent-teacher meetings of the private primary school and later the government high school. I was the family’s representative in the neighbourhood baby-sitting club (one ticket for every hour before midnight, and for every half-hour after midnight).

I dealt with all the injuries – lacerated feet from broken beer-bottles beside the cricket-field, a bleeding thigh from a friend’s pocket-knife while out in the scrub playing, a dislocated ankle from slipping on a concrete culvert...

My terms of employment included hospital attendance, so it was I who took the ankle to be un-dislocated – and who discovered the traditional Jamaican remedy. After administering a local anaesthetic, the doctor said to me, “You might not want to watch this next bit”. But of course I did watch – and bravely stifled a yell when he knocked the bone back into place with a mighty thump with the heel of his hand. Yikes.

One Saturday morning I risked a lynching by walking into the Hospital’s Waiting Room with a six-year-old boy whose face was puffed up to double its size – for all the world, a victim of brutal child-abuse. Hands raised to ward off the hushed hostility, I faced the mob and said “maiden plum”. Upon which, the room sighed with relief and resumed its conversations, leaving us to go about our business.

“Maiden plum” is a wild plant with a very effective self-defence mechanism: the touch of a leaf brings pain and swelling. Think poison-ivy times ten. Ross had been fooling around in the scrub behind our apartments with Jay again, had touched a leaf and then his face. (Somebody told me of a bulldozer-driver who ran his machine into a whole patch of maiden plum. He saw the mist rising, and ran – left the machine in gear, left the field, left the job: left the Island, for all anybody knew.)

Linda took Ross to Peru for a couple of weeks, when he was eight. An accidental dunk in the Amazon River exposed him to possible infection by some dread disease whose name I can’t recall now, that required an antidote to be administered with a large needle. The hospital nurse recklessly showed him the instrument; Ross fought him off; and I helped hold my struggling son still. It was the most shameful thing I ever did to him, or anybody else; the very recollection makes me break into a sweat. I apologised desperately at the time, and he forgave me; but I never forgave myself.

A few days later, the hospital phoned and told me the inoculation didn’t take properly (or something like that) and had to be done again. I told Ross, “The doctor says if you don’t get the injection again you will probably get very, very sick. I think you should do it, but I won’t make you. And I won’t let that stupid nurse anywhere near you. You have to decide.”

He trusted me, as he has always trusted me.

 I didn’t want to be a parent, and I haven’t been a particularly good one; but there is a huge, huge, love between us that makes for an amazingly strong bond. At age twelve, he begged me to give up cigarettes because he didn’t want to live without me. Well, fair enough: I knew I couldn’t live without him.