- 20 Feb - 26 Feb, 2021
- 18 Apr - 24 Apr, 2020
I still feel the indefinable alchemy of our first meeting. He was seated beside me at a dinner for a visiting professor. Darkly handsome in a black velvet dinner jacket, I guessed him to be an elegant older man of thirty five.
“So, you are the new kid on the block,” he said with a heavy spanish accent.
“Yes, I feel quite uncomfortable being here. I don’t know anyone and they are all talking medicine,” I replied.
He smiled in a benevolent sort of way. “I’m Jairo Padilla, so now you know someone and we can talk about anything you wish.”
I remember being amazed that a surgeon could know so much about art and literature. We talked only with each other and as the speeches began, we were aware that neither of us had touched our food.
Thirty years later, I picked him up from a medical conference being held in Tucson. He limped slightly and was dressed impeccably in a jacket much too warm for the climate and carrying his well worn leather pocket book.
“I remember you and Aaron were the only two men in the whole city of Moose Jaw who carried a purse,” I said.
He smiled that familiar grin and climbed into the car beside me.
“Yes, I think your husband and I were a bit too exotic for Moose Jaw. Too different. But you moved on and I stayed,”
The sunset that night put us in a wonderful mood or it might have been the twenty five year old drink that he brought as a gift. We sat out on the verandah as the heat lessened and our reminiscing warmed up.
“When I went to Moose Jaw,
I was twenty-four and so naïve. You were my role model, Jairo, with your house full of books and music. I still remember, when I was volunteering at the hospital, you would invite me to your office to listen to a new tape from Brazil or give me a book you thought I should read,” I said.
Jairo smiled his lazy smile.
“You were such a little sponge.”
“Remember when we belonged to the foreign film society? That was such an eye opener for me. I appreciated the discussions we had after, otherwise I wouldn’t have understood many of the films. I remember all the literature that you thought I should read. I was so impressed that your father knew Pablo Neruda.
I never understood why someone, as cultured and sophisticated as you are, would chose to live a lifetime in a backwater town,” I said.
“I felt that I didn’t have many options. After the coup in Chile, I had to leave because my family was political and it was dangerous to stay. Canada let me in and gave me a work permit so that I could complete my residency. When I finished, the hospital offered me a teaching position. There weren’t many opportunities for me with my poor English. Even when you arrived ten years later, students were still complaining they couldn’t understand me. I’ll never forget hearing about the time you got into a hot argument with Dr Ingles about that,” he said with a laugh.
“People can be such bad. Ingles was telling everyone that his precious son was having problems in your class because he couldn’t understand you. I said the university was lucky to have someone so bright and cultured.” I said, with a touch of heat in my voice.
“That’s what I always loved about you Alice, your passion and your sense of fairness.”
The lights from the city shone in the distance but the darkness enveloped us. The candles had long burnt out, we talked about the other people we had known and left behind.
“Why do you think we have kept contact all these years?”
“Psychologically, we need someone and there was always a strong attraction. Maybe because we weren’t lovers but always wondered if we could be.”
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard a word put to those feelings. It feels good to acknowledge that we had feelings for each other. We did have feelings, didn’t we?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, we did. But we were married to other people, remember? And we knew the consequences wouldn’t be pretty,” he answered. “I remember dancing with you at the party just before you and Aaron moved. People noticed but I didn’t care. I was sad that you were leaving.”
“How could they not notice? Shit! It was the tango! Only you knew how to tango and all I did was hang on. We were the only ones dancing. It was the ‘Last Tango in MooseJaw!”
We laughed so hard that there were tears rolling down our cheeks. Jairo refilled our glasses.
“Why didn’t you go to live in France after Aaron died?” he asked, out of the blue.
“It was late fall and cold when we went to visit my godfather in France. Aaron was well enough in the beginning to take walks. The leaves were falling off the trees and everything seemed unbearably beautiful but tragic. I have a picture of Aaron and Robert, my godfather, standing together smiling. Each one was wearing a hat, Aaron to cover the fact that he was bald from the radiation and Robert because he was a bald old man. They were standing arm in arm holding for support.
It was a bitter sweet time
for all of us.”
“How old was Aaron when he was diagnosed, I don’t remember?” Jairo asked.
“Thirty- nine. After the second week of our visit with Robert, Aaron became paralysed from the waist down. Robert called his physician who came to the house. He told him what Aaron already knew, that the cancer has metastasized to his spinal column. When Aaron went to bed that night, Robert came to talk to me. He wanted to know what I was going to do after Aaron died. Robert was old and crusty but he was kind and generous too. He wanted me to bring the kids to France and live there with him at the villa until I figured out what I wanted to do. Aaron thought I should do it. The kids spoke some French and I had good friends in France who were in a position to help me.”
“So, how did you get home?” asked Jairo.
“We had one hellish time trying to convince Air France to take us. We couldn’t avoid telling them he was paralysed because we needed a special wheelchair to get him down the aisle. Robert had influential friends and fortunately D.D. Duncan, the famous photographer came to our aid and convinced them.”
“Why was it such a problem for Air France? Aaron was stable,” said Jairo.
“We were flying out of Cannes to catch the international flight in Paris. Cannes was a small airport then without sky walks. In those days, people boarded by walking up the stairs to the plane. Getting Aaron on the plane was the problem. They had a miniature lift that took his wheelchair up to the door of the plane and then he had to be physically lifted to another wheelchair that would fit down the aisle. It was so upsetting that I can’t even remember how we got him in his seat. Everyone was gawking at us.”
Jairo said nothing. He shifted in his chair, his eyes looking into the still darkness.
“We managed. Aaron wasn’t in any pain,”I said.
“Was he catheterized?”
“Yes, but we didn’t have a bag. I don’t remember why. We had a small bottle that I would ferry back to the W.C., empty and bring back to him. We did all this under cover of a blanket.
I remember Aaron joking
“He always had an offbeat sense of humour. I really miss him,” said Jairo sadly, “What happened when you got home?”
“It wasn’t as difficult in New York. I remember wheeling Aaron up the ramp to where our friends were waiting. It was a relief to be home. They didn’t bring the children but we had to face them when we drove into the garage. When they were lifting Aaron up the stairs to the house, Morgan said to me, ‘Mommy, I don’t want Daddy to die.’ It broke my heart. Do you remember Jairo when I called you that night? I knew you wouldn’t lie to me. I needed your calm assessment.
I needed the truth,”
“Yes. There are so many different progressions with a melanoma that I didn’t know what to say. Since the cancer had already attacked the spinal column, I knew it could go to the brain. I knew you were going to have some difficult times ahead but I didn’t know then that Aaron would refuse to be hospitalised and you would be the caretaker. How long did you look after him?” Jairo asked.
“Four months. I never regretted it. They say doctors make bad patients but he never complained. He taught me how to do the catheter and give him injections. He prepared me, as best he could, for the seizures you told me about.”
Jairo shook his head, understanding the horror of those seizures for both Aaron and me.
“Well I didn’t mean to be maudlin. There were good times too. We listened to music, I read to him and we talked for hours.
He appreciated all your calls and so did I,” I said, touching his hand.
“Once when I was lifting him from the wheelchair onto the toilette, I dropped him. I tried several times to get him off the floor. We were sweating profusely from the exertion. He started to laugh and then I saw the humour in it. We both just sat there amongst the filth and roared. Tears were rolling down our eyes and we couldn’t speak.
Then I started to cry.
I was disgusted to think that
I was crying for myself.”
We sat in the darkness, silent and thinking about the atrocities of sickness
“Jairo, I’ve never told that story to anyone. I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be sorry, I’m honoured,” he replied, “But why didn’t you go to France to live?”
“Fate I guess. By the first week in February, Aaron got much worse. I was thankful that he had no pain but what you warned me about eventually happened.”
“You mean it reached his brain?” asked Jairo.
“Yes, he became disoriented, pulled out his catheter and was banging his head on the bed. I gave him an injection and called for an ambulance. Everyone was asleep in the house and I was determined to keep the children from seeing their father in that crazed state. Eventually, he went into coma in the hospital. I asked the children if they wanted to go and say good bye one more time or to remember him awake. They chose not to go and I was glad. When I went back to the hospital, I went up to the bedside and held his hand.
I know people in comas can sometimes hear so I told him what a great father and husband he had been.
And then I said, Aaron, you don’t need to hang on any longer. You are tired. You can go now.”
Jairo, sighed, in the darkness. “You think he heard you?”
“I know he did. He gasped twice and he was dead.”
We were quiet again, thinking our own thoughts.
“And Robert?” Jairo asked.
“I called Robert the day Aaron died but the housekeeper told me he had gone to Cannes. I left a message and went back to make arrangements for the burial. It was only after things began to settle that I realised I hadn’t heard from Robert. Before I had a chance to ring him, I received a call from a mutual friend in Paris. Audrey asked if there was anything she could do so I asked her if she could call Robert and let him know about Aaron. There was a gasp on the other end of
When I asked her what the matter was, she told me Robert died the same day that Aaron did.”
The winds had died down and the air was still. Jairo reached over and held my hand. Then he began to quote poetry and
I remembered why
I loved him so and why our friendship was so important. We had an understanding and an acceptance of one another.“If the self’s immutability can bear a hazy long hiatus, vanish, die, and stay the same. What were the months and years of pain?”
Our friendship has withstood time, distance, and circumstance. It remains as unassailable as the self.
We may be ships passing in the night, that distant voice in the darkness but we are on a constant course. I haven’t seen Jairo in years, but we talk. When I don’t hear from him, I know he is there on the ocean of life. We will pass and speak again. In the silence that is left behind, I always remember the alchemy.•