port of spain
from: Donald Kingsbury
to: Nana Twumasi
date: Wed, Sep 1, 2010 at 10:37 AM
subject: One and a half days.
Port of Spain: Day One
I arrive in Trinidad for the third time on 31 August 2010. Independence Day. The air here refuses to move, 97 degrees when the plane touches down at 1 in the afternoon. Black, Red, and White Flags everywhere. This country is 48 years old. My godson, Jovan, will be 12 on the 26th of September.
Jovan is not well. I am told by his mother, his grandmother, his auntie, and the nurses that he has made incredible, vast steps. I couldn’t stop crying.
Jo was never a ‘big’ boy, per se. But today, I count his ribs, trace the feeding tube just under skin as it snakes from nose to neck down his chest, ending at his stomach, a ridge rising among the leftover and drying glue that once affixed external probes, internal probes, and those probes that also touch inside and out. The tube feeds him diluted juice and medicine by the millimeter a few times a day.
When I went in to see him his eyes were half open, a fan on his body. He had been turned into a position approaching fetal, tiny legs all gathered up, lump of taped gauze on an impossibly skinny arm where the IV once attached itself to him. “They took out the IV?” his mother stabs the question at the ward’s head nurse. She mutters something by way of response that I cannot understand.
(It will take me a few days to re-remember how to understand folks down here.)
I am learning more about the events since his accident. Though I can’t help but feel calling them “developments” might be too optimistic. After the accident in mid-May, Jo was taken to the nearest hospital, where after a number of brain surgeries the pediatric neurosurgeon (there is only one in this country, I am told) charted a recovery that, while still precluding Jo from starting school with his friends in the fall, would still see him in better odds than he is by now.
It is called something like ‘hospital infection,’ which comes about as a result of unsanitary conditions. The first steps backward were fevers and vomiting. Retreating leaps came as seizures and pulmonary arrest. Simone (Jo’s mum) registered her complaints. The pediatric neurosurgeon resigned from the hospital in protest at the conditions of the hospital ward that housed his patients.
Before resigning, the doctor told Simone that Jo would die if they didn’t transfer him out of that hospital. That was well over a month before my arrival.
Threats of lawsuits, angry women, and just short of a judicial inquiry later, Jo is in a different (now private) hospital, where the nation’s only pediatric neurosurgeon is chief of surgery and where the nurses exhort my godson to ‘jump for Jesus.’ I don’t mind this last detail. They smile at the boy. Tell him kind things. Touch his taut skin, wipe up the vomit. (Antifreeze green: steady diet of watered down juice, pain meds, and antibiotics.)
Jo is in a ward with three other children. An infant girl, her father always cribside making goo-goo faces and singing softly. Another girl, perhaps Jo’s age, lying quietly as her mother sits with a tired hand perched on the child’s leg. Finally, Jo’s direct neighbor, a teenage boy twisted on the bed, peach fuzz moustache and hospital unkempt hair. He shouts at irregular intervals. Guttural and hoarse, from a dry chest with something like a sob at the tail end; he is in a pain I can’t imagine. Later, I hear that he came from the same hospital as did my godson, carried the same infection, and had only, according to the screaming child’s mother, ‘walked into that goddamn hospital.’ The hospital, you see, was what made him sick.
Visiting hours are from 11-12 and 5-7. Two at a time only, please. The nurses give the family a break and let them linger a half an hour here and there longer: Jo’s grandmummy is a nurse as well, trained with the headmistress of the infant ward of the country’s flagship hospital.
(The flagship hospital, by the by, dates to the turn of the 20th century. Corridors and columns and cracked tiles in the style of a colonial power trying to impress. Solid rock and battered driveways. Heat drenched security personnel and the mostly female staff dressed in the obedient uniforms I have seen on lunch counter waitresses in other countries.)
The drive back to Cumuto takes nearly 1 hours. I am in the car with Simone’s mom, a Hindu vegetarian who loves Christian gospel music. She is all anger and sadness. I try to focus on the peril of holiday traffic to keep back the tears. I need a cigarette.
Back home, finally. The house has changed quite a bit: Mum has put in ceilings and redesigned the kitchen a la Better Homes and Gardens. The consequences of the first addition are immediately striking: the air, which hardly moves outside, moves even less indoors. Before, when one could look up and see the corrugated metal roof (not to mention flying insects, the occasional bird, the occasional bat), one could also appreciate the genius of the architecture of this part of the world: something approaching a breeze in the shade, the benefits of a building and the airflow of the outdoors. I am shown to my room and told not to open the window: no mosquito netting in here. I leave the door open and turn a fan onto the mattress. It is ten o’clock at night.
Mum keeps reminding me that this place does not feel the same without Jo. I turn my head again and bite the back of my fist.
Cumuto: Day Two
I had grand designs of waking up at the same time as Mum. She goes to work in the capital at 6 am. She informed me yesterday evening that, after travelling so long (a two-day multi-stop from San Francisco to Port of Spain), I would need to rest for two days. I should know better than to protest, but tell myself I’ll ambush her, wake up when she wakes up, and if she doesn’t take me to the city, at the very least I’ll go for a run before the heat forces immobility.
My cell phone, functioning only as an alarm clock here ‘in the bush,’ reads 10 am when I wake up, sweating. This notion of going for a run might have to wait until I get more acclimated.
Instant coffee and a walk to the little market about a mile away to pick up soap, Advil, and a phone card. I’ve sweat through my shirt by the time I reach the store to negotiate accents with its proprietress who waits behind bars and informs me ‘papers finished’ when I ask for newspapers. Outside, a man in stained clothes asks me something. I think he ends the question with ‘Yankee’ – but I can’t remember if people use that term down here.
(Graffiti along the highway on the way home last night: ‘Woman Power! Vote Kamala UNC.’ Kamala won, putting an end to the nearly unbroken rule of Dr. Eric Williams’ PNM, the party that negotiated an end to direct colonial rule in 1962.)
By the time I get back to the house from the market, Simone’s sister Shan has arrived, wondering where in the hell I’d gotten off to. She wants to know what I would like for lunch. I saw this coming; I decide to make a stand. I repeat, for what feels like the thousandth time, that I did not come here to be babysat, that I don’t want to be a burden, that I am here to help in whatever way I can.
Shan says fine; just let me clean your room. This goes on for what feels like forever. She tells me that since no one has been around here much for the past 4 months (Jo’s hospital stay to date), the room needs a dust and a mop (Mum told me the same last night). My response, ‘fine, great, show me where the gear is and I’ll hit the rest of the house, too’ is responded to with a head-shake, a laugh, a suck of the teeth. We finally negotiate that I’ll be allowed to do chores after she starts me off with a clean slate, in the bedroom at least. And now I’m typing this.
We get to talking, every so often, Shan and I. I ask about the ‘woman power’ graffiti. She tells me that ‘unfortunately, Kamala’s turned out to be more of the same.’
And there are interesting other bits. Shan peppers our political, personal, and culinary conversations with phrases like ‘we’re a third world country,’ and tends to blame the people themselves. She’s angry that Trinidad is importing rice, that people are fond of foreign things, lack pride in themselves; a mix of a post-colonial internalization of inferiority and a stubborn nationalism. She also tells me she likes Fidel Castro, which I didn’t expect, even though a lot of folks here don’t. “Cuba fought for independence; we don’t know what to do with it because we had it handed to us.”
Five more hours before I get to see Jo again.
It just rained for a few seconds. Breeze broke into the house, but I praised it too soon; the sun fought back and has turned the world sticky again.
The house is starting to smell like the salt fish boiling on the stove: Kallaloo (fish and ‘provisions’ – mostly root vegetables: potato, cassava, yam, plantain) for lunch.
Dogs: Jo’s dog, ‘Mr. Kennedy’ (named after a pro-wrestler, he told me) was hit by a car last year. I remember walking to the kiosk that sold pirated DVDs with Jo last time I was here (to buy wrestling matches, no doubt, though he once tried to convince me his mother would approve of him watching various installments of the Saw film franchise) – we’d play this game, the dogs would follow us down the street until Jo chased them home, I’d act like I was hiding from the animals, and he’d sprint back, hopefully before they could catch up – apparently, or so he thought, the dogs wouldn’t give chase if he was a sufficient distance away; maybe dogs in Trinidad are short-sighted. Walking, sweating to the market in the morning I keep thinking of that game of ours. I am not going to cry over Jo in the hospital tonight.
A second dog, the original of the house, was called ‘Chubsy.’ Chubsy was a friendly old thing, attacked by mange. The sort of animal that makes you feel at one and the same time an intense compassion – that penetrating sort of feeling specific to the presence of an abject animal – and an intense desire to keep it away. Mere sight of Chubsy would even make Mum get itchy. Chubs passed last year.
‘Missy,’ Simone and Jo’s co-dog remains. She chases lizards through the house, wanders into ‘the bush’ just across the neighboring lot that has been vacant since my first time here three years ago. ‘George Bush,’ the neighbor’s dog, the dog of Jo’s Trini godfather, still barks at me.
The parrot, purchased for Mother’s Day three years ago, croaks ‘I love you’ and tips over her water dish every time we refill it.
from: Donald Kingsbury
to: Nana Twumasi
date: Sat, Sep 4, 2010 at 12:50 AM
subject: Day Three
Cumuto: Day Three
I love the feeling of a cold shower on skin hot enough to warm the water by the time it runs down to the feet. The secret is to douse the head. A shock and shudder and sharp shallow breaths and then the deeper, resigned, and even relieved exhale. Keep the head under the spray. The body acclimates with time. This is the best moment to cup hands below downturned face in the style of a Muslim or an early Christian praying, catch water. Cold then warm then slowly cold again. Or run hands through hair; cold water on the knuckles, warm flesh beneath – I could go on.
I wake up to run this morning; the night before I had glimpsed fireflies for the first time on this visit. They were surprising at first; inspiring, really, as I snuck a cigarette after another 9pm commute from the hospital back home to Cumuto. Lazy flight paths, irregular flare-ups, yellow-green distracting from silhouettes and shadows.
The air is thick even at seven thirty in the morning, though more pleasantly so than it will be by ten. Even still, I make it only forty five minutes (this estimate, no doubt, is rather generous). In reality, I time myself by my water consumption. Half way through the bottle: turn back. Running in the bush is more like swimming, the pavement of the single lane crumbles at its edges, the gullies rushing from last night’s downpours. (The house’s new ceilings cannot fool when it starts to really rain outside. The sound starts with a rush and soon rolls into a constant throb. It only lasts a moment before the heat creeps back to its rightful place in charge of things around here.) I top a hill and turn a corner to face a wall of felled trees neatly stacked and blocking a clear-cut from the road. The stack is a striking almost yellow-orange at the cut ends; the earth deep brown with random grey roots and other bric-a-brac pointing this way and that in the way that betrays an earthmover more surely than segmented tread tracks in mud; the abrupt wall of trees, bushes, and jilted jungle in the near distance a green that dances through the air and soaks my shirt.
I am in the middle of a low-intensity civil war between three very angry women. Everyone but Simone (perhaps, depending on who you ask) is having a difficult time focusing on Jo’s condition and avoiding the inevitable explosion at Simone. She was, after all, driving the car. She drives, after all, as fast and as recklessly as everyone on this island aside from Mum.
On the way home from the hospital last night, Mum pointed out the scene of the accident to me. Nothing to see, too dark, though I wouldn’t know if there would be anything more in the daylight.
Taking a corner, the car hit a skid, slammed into a telephone pole on the driver’s side. The pole snapped in half and came down on the car. Jo took most of the impact; his twin baby brothers were strapped into the back, unharmed. All this occurred between five and ten miles from home – they hadn’t even reached the highway yet.
I cannot decide whether to teach the parrot to sing black metal or reggaeton.
Jo was good yesterday. Seeing Jo was good yesterday. He spent the day trying to rip the tubes and probes from his body so the nurses wrapped his hands in gauze and tape. The crude boxing gloves that result, I’m told, is much better than tying him down, which is what they might have done a few years ago. I whisper into his ear that I don’t blame him. I’m proud of him. I love him. Fuck those tubes, little man. Fuck ’em up.
Jo moves his mouth every now and then. Sometimes these movements are accompanied by acceleration in the beeps of what I’ve come to refer to Jo as his “video game” (that is attached to him with wires, tubes, and the blood pressure cuff perpetually wrapped just above his tiny ankle that inflates and then exhales at fifteen minute intervals). Jo’s Auntie informs me that this means he is in pain. But sometimes the beep beep beep remains constant. And today when he moves his mouth it comes with a sound, something small and far away while I am whisper-retelling the day’s events to him.
One reaches for little things at moments like this. Jo lurches forward and pulls his arms upward. I want him to be hugging at me and not just trying again to pull the tubes from his face. I do my best to match the embrace, guarding against overly optimistic over-interpretations. Jo is our canvas; Jo is an empty signifier. Jo is the target of his mother’s cooing that has always driven me crazy. Auntie and I are sure he’s rolling his eyes at our jokes (‘A mushroom walks into a bar…’). Mum retells the way he smiled when she told him the janitor at his school sends love and prayers. This is all true and this is all not-true.
A shunt is a piece of jewelry the doctors give you to wear in your head for the rest of your life. It touches inside and outside, air and skull. Jo has a shunt now. A shunt is the most dangerous of jewelries.
At the house I am dithering on the back porch, cleaning up the dog’s dead lizards (bellies brilliant blue in a rigor mortis awkward even for the reptilian contortionist that is the lizard). I won’t venture into the overgrowth of the garden – Mum’s magic words ‘snake’ and ‘scorpion’ ensure that I keep a one-foot radius of unobstructed tile visible around my feet at all times – and I see Jo’s bike in a pile of everything. A mountain bike, knobby tires, the seat’s plastic covering ripped a bit at its edge, unnecessary but oh-so-cool shocks. I want to clean the chain, true the wheels, adjust the gears. But I have no tools, and I don’t know why I feel like I’ll succeed here in fixing gears when I’ve failed so many times at the same task back home.
from: Donald Kingsbury
to: Nana Twumasi
date: Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 6:10 AM
subject: Day Eight
Hall of Justice, Port of Spain: Day Eight
The sixth of September should have been Jo’s first day of school. I realized this twice. The first time, we were in the course of the forever commute from Cumuto to the capital. Stopped at an intersection of single lane two-way traffic streets, a group of girls crossed in front of the car. I was blinded by the newness of their white sneakers, their bunched socks, their school uniforms. It took a second to recognize why the world was spinning so. Shoes as bright as starched hospital sheets, radio speculating about a government program to hand every elementary school child a laptop.
The second: I promised Jo the evening before that I would bring him a newspaper. I told him we would read the comics, maybe the football highlights, if he wanted. He is responding yes and no with sounds and head nods now, and since he didn’t protest too greatly, his silence was consent. When we arrive at the hospital on Monday, he is shaking, gaped mouth, with a half-stare through half-opened eyes. He has fallen to a flu or something of the like (again, I am told) and nods as emphatically as he can manage when I ask him if he’d like the blanket pulled up over his shoulders. We leave the hospital when a tech comes in to search for a vein strong enough to tap. Jo’s arms and legs, even his neck, are dotted with successful and otherwise attempts to stick him.
That evening, our second visit of the day, I crouch my way to his ear and ask if he wants me to read him something from the paper. He reaches his still-gauze restrained fists down and pulls the blanket over his head.
Undaunted, I leaf through the paper. All of the comics circulate around cliched boys versus girls stories and the first day of school. I tell Jo these funnies suck; I’ll find you something better tomorrow.
‘Small Island People’
Everyone from every other island in the Caribbean is Trinidad’s Mexican. The crime rate that everyone wrings hands about is the fault of migrant workers from other, smaller islands. Rasta selling water in the middle of the highway? Small islander. Squatters next to the chicken processing plant? Small islanders, all. Homeless people in Port of Spain? Small islanders. The lack of meaningful national pride, lack of national identity, Trinidad’s failure to develop and modernize despite its oil wealth, the traffic, the crap minimum wage, the sins of the former government, and the country’s inability to seriously address race can all be traced to the small islanders. Or so I’ve been told.
‘Wit de rain come de heat’
The political parties here do not break down according to ideological lines. One could make the case that they follow communal groupings, but even this would be tendentious. There seems to be a consensus amongst representatives that United States’ style industrialization and development is the key, and the path of this development follows quite closely \ patterns one sees in other mineral-rich market democracies. State-led enterprises in the extractive sectors, inadequate social welfare programs promising some sort of always-deferred managed equality; the gap between rich and poor is a taste that scars the mouth with every bite.
Half-following CLR James, the great Trini Marxist, I suggest that ideology might be useful to cut across these perpetual quagmires. I hint that maybe something like a secular, semi-class-based perspective might at the very least provide for an oppositional standpoint from which new potential paths might be visible; that the current government, like its predecessors, is just spinning its wheels and playing a game of catch-up with the developed world that was rigged from the starting gun.
The suggestion, which was meant as an invite to discussion, is summarily rejected and conversation returns to religion and other things we have no hope of changing.
God is big here. Hinduism. Islam. Various Christianities. I get head shakes and tooth sucks when I explain I am agnostic-leaning-towards-atheist. I have had this conversation every time I have visited Trinidad.
There is very little graffiti here, political or otherwise. There are, however, churches, mosques, and temples on every corner. Every car seems to have some variation of a ‘god is great’ sticker spanning its back windshield. You get the sense that quotidian expressions like ‘lord have mercy’ and the like are much more sincere here than one would expect. Even the Rastas here are a particularly pious and poor set – or maybe I only feel that way because of the Trustafarians one usually encounters where I live and work in Santa Cruz.
One of the infants in Jo’s ward has a crib organized like most children’s cribs: extra space provides storage for the non-lethal supplies of childrearing: a spare bottle, poo-wipes, folded clothing. Perched above the random bits, an opened bible is a talisman set at just the right incline to rain all its holy dust on the child. There is an excess of people in the hospital with perpetual bibles under their arms; I imagine the good book will eventually adapt to their physiology like an Argentine’s hot water thermos or a sea otter’s rock. I am stopped every time they see me with Simone’s twins, Jo’s baby brothers: “Ahh, so YOU’RE the father,” they cluck in what strikes me as a surprisingly approving tone.
This is all the result of Trinidad’s history as a colonial and slave society, I am told by my family, the radio, and the newspapers. Fragmented and underdeveloped. Multiculturalism is multi-valenced here. It is constantly evoked in description, praised as the source of the world’s greatest food and the world’s greatest carnival, boasted in terms of tolerance (the attempted Jamaat al-Muslimeen coup of 1990, I am assured, was a joke, and certainly a far cry from other, ‘ideologicial’ Islamisms). But these days, multiculturalism is just as often lamented as the thing that has kept the country from moving ‘forward,’ as if the commentator actually believes that there has ever been any such thing as a mono-cultural society. The argument is melancholic in the proper sense, and it is something new in that I have heard nothing of this sort during any of my other visits.
This time around, Mum’s constant injunctions to buy “a small bit of prahh-puhr-teee,” to live quietly, and to save money is accompanied by speculation about the nature and capacities of ‘negro people’ in financial matters. Simone believes that the crime rate is a result of the composition of the population, and that Scandinavian social welfare states only work because of the racial uniformity of the citizenry. A newspaper editorial links the lack of black entrepreneurs to pre-slavery African potlatch economies. Black men who wear (more often than not, fake) gold must be drug dealers.
Columbus came in 1498. With him came the Catholic Church and, by the end of the slave trade, around 17,400 African Slaves. By the 1530s, Trinidad served as the rear base for destroying indigenous resistance in the Orinoco Delta in present-day Venezuela. Great Britain took over in 1797, as the waning Spanish Empire awaited Napoleon Bonaparte’s killing blow in Europe. When the Brits outlawed slavery in 1833 and granted full emancipation in 1838, they faced a labor shortage that was only resolved with the first boatloads of Indian indentured servants in 1845. Indian indenture and the sugar plantation economy, complete with regulated segregation and pass laws designed to confine the forced migrants to the rural areas of the island, would last until 1917, at which point over 147,000 souls were ‘contracted’ to work the fields in the West Indies. Syrian, Lebanese, and Chinese traders soon followed. Independence came in 1962.1970 brought with it Black power and Indian equality movements. By then, the Indian population (somewhere around 40% of the total today) was overwhelmingly rural, a land-based culture that Jo’s Indian grandmother unwittingly evokes in her discussions every night we make the long trip back to Cumuto from the hospital north of Port of Spain.
Whoever said the journey is more important than the goal was an asshole.
Trinidad is nothing but travel. I can’t say much for certain about Tobago, the sister island. They should rename the country ‘Traffic and Tobago.’ The national pastime is decidedly neither Cricket nor Football. The great leveler, the activity that unites all Trinis, is cussing at other drivers for the sin of driving in exactly the same manner as the plaintiff – a nation of slowly moving cars and informal courts.
“That man an asshole.”
“She drive like a man.”
“Him fucking kill us all.”
“What kinda stupid you is?”
“Look, look at this id-eee-aught.”
Mum wakes up at four in the morning. Bathes. Makes roti and some curried vegetables. Simone wakes at four thirty. Bathes. Prepares the twins’ lunch for daycare. I get up at four fifty, telling myself I should really do some sort of exercise, as the rest of the day will be spent in the car. I bathe instead and prepare a cup of coffee: two scoops Sanka, boiling water, and Mum’s lectures about the evils of caffeine. (She will drink two glasses of Coca-Cola before she goes to sleep tonight, just as she did the night before and the night before that).
We are on the road by five thirty. The twins unhappy and outgrowing their car seats, Mum wedged between them. I’m eating my knees in the front seat and quietly hoping for air conditioning even at sunrise.
If we are lucky, the twins will be dropped off to daycare by six forty-five and Mum will only be ten minutes late to work in the city. Simone has to be at her office in the House of Justice by seven thirty and will cuss out the drivers who make her late. Since no public is to be admitted to the building before eight, I will walk the few blocks to a coffee shop where I will do the crossword for the next half hour. Back at Justice, the woman security guard will search my bag and tell me I need to quit smoking. She will laugh and say ‘t’anks,’ when I smile and tell her she sounds like my mother.
Jo’s hospital is run by Seventh Day Adventists. In the lobby, a flat screen TV plays DVDs of mundane (to me) white people lecturing on the way and the light. Sometimes there are children singing about how great it is to love god; their clothes are always out of date, haircuts having fallen out of fashion in the mid-1990s. Up the stairs, past the religious artwork (framed posters of the Caucasian-ized Christ lurking behind surgeons, grieving families, racialized children in Edenic gardens) to the hand-washing station. A squirt of alcohol gel and a knock on Jo’s ward, where Brandon, the boy next to him, punctuates the sounds of fans and beeps with his contorted-limbed howls.
Visiting hours end at seven. We will make it home by eight thirty or nine.
from: Donald Kingsbury
to: Nana Twumasi
date: Thu, Sep 16, 2010 at 7:06 PM
subject: Last things Last
La Brea, South Island: Day Sixteen
The ‘pitch lake’ at La Brea, on the opposite end of the island from Jo’s hospital, is like a wound that reaches to the heart of the earth. From a distance, it appears to be a dirty little plain of solid ground in a dirty little swamp. Like an abandoned parking lot, or a late fall drive-in theater in the Midwestern USofA of my youth. At its edge, one can appreciate it for the great heaps of tar and minerals welling up from below that it is. (Pitch, used in the manufacture of asphalt, shingles, insulation, and that sort of thing is a second cousin to oil, and oil is so ubiquitous here that it seeped out in traces and filled the holes Mum dug for the posts of her car park.) The pitch rises in pockets and flows that fold in on themselves, accompanied by sulfur, iron, copper, and water that turns clear, brown, rust, or green depending on its chemical composition. The ground swallows and burps, soft in the midday sun (it is nearly ninety eight degrees at this point in the afternoon, before the inevitable and epic if brief rains). We are told we are standing on the surface of a lake, essentially, of tar.
The lake is less a lake than a place where what once was below is now above. We are assured that this is the only pitch ‘lake’ of its kind in the world, though it has subterranean veins that spike out to Venezuela, Africa, even Sweden. The pavement leading to the lake has been betrayed by forces associated with it, and the roads for miles around have buckled and risen according to the movements of the earth below, all related to the extraction and movement of pitch and oil.
I am here with my friend Shen – Jo’s auntie – and her boyfriend Michael, who have abducted me for a day of “liming” – which is apparently a day like any other (too much time sitting in traffic on a tropical island) save the additional visit to a natural resource, my first beer since I arrived 2 weeks ago, and doubles for lunch. Cars follow the British convention in Trinidad: the driver sits on the right of the vehicle. Hence the day after the excursion it is still my left forearm that is sunburned in the truckers’ style even though no one trusts me to drive.
The three of us are equally giddy to bathe in the sulfuric ponds that form in the faults between pillows of pitch and equally surprised to find ourselves feeling as such. I strip down to the waist and, following Michael’s lead, do a sort of inverted push-up into the greenish water that smells slightly of rotten eggs. We collect water of different colors in bottles to bathe with back home, as the old man guiding us (to keep us from mis-stepping into the ‘mother of the lake’ – quicksand-like areas that have made the tar pits of the same name in Los Angeles so famous) extolled its curative properties and chuckled at Michael’s head-banging efforts to force water from his dreads.
A good day, punctuated by rain and laughter.
I am coming to the end of this visit. Jovan continues to improve, if on a timeline that is only of his own choosing in as much as we don’t get to choose it for him. To our eyes, he slept from Wednesday last to this Monday. The nurses assure us that he was up, awake, fighting his cords and tubes and wires the whole time, but that the struggle had simmered to a unhappy truce by the time we arrived for visiting hours.
Two days ago, in Simone’s windowless office, the head nurse – the one who calls everyone ‘boss’ in a tone tinged with warmth, accusation, and jocular curse at once – called to say Jo was awake, and that we had best get our butts down ‘to hospital.’ She was excited, the nurse. She was excited, the mother. I was excited, the godfather. More traffic. We arrived at the hospital in time to see Jo sitting up in a chair, stabilized by a bed sheet tied around his chest. Such a thing can make a day.
He still carries something of a stare-right-through-you look when awake, but seeing his eyes in any shape at this point would be enough to make a person cry were there not practical matters requiring attention. We are teaching him to drink again, to swallow juice or water by the milliliter, and to hold up his head on his own; his diaper needs changing; soon I will scoop him into my arms and carry him back to his bed. When I do, I am so worried of crushing his little body I almost miss his clumsy obedience when I ask him to put one of his arms around my neck to make the move easier for us both.
Swallowing, the automatic swallowing one does to prevent the mouth from overflowing with saliva, is a skill that must be relearned. The temporary shunt in Jo’s head drains to a clear plastic bag attached to a tube jutting out of his stomach. His mother checks the bag and frowns. The fluid – the fluid that his head can no longer deal with on its own – is speckled with bits of protein that confirm the stubbornness of this fucking infection.
It will be Jo’s birthday in a few days. I swallow my loyalties to Liverpool FC and purchase him a Manchester United replica jersey, his favorite team. He’ll have to grow into it; Jo will be able to wear his own hand-me-downs during his recovery.
It has now bled into my seventeenth evening this time around in Trinidad. Tomorrow, I will see Jo one last time and board a plane headed north. Six hours later I will be in Miami. A day later, back in Santa Cruz. Today, we get to see Jo’s doctor, a tall, thin man of Indian descent who has a tired but kind face and three cell phones.
The doctor says that he is very enthused with Jo’s progress, that the boy is doing all the things a doctor could hope in a patient on his or her way to a ‘full’ recovery. But he reminds us that the recovery will not be linear: two steps forward, three steps back, so says the cliche. We inform the doctor of Jo’s vomiting green-yellow again this morning after three promising days of sitting in the chair and making eye contact. The doctor shrugs but does not frown, “three to six months…” he repeats.
A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, don kingsbury is finishing a PhD in Political Theory at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He divides his time, when he can, between Northern California, Caracas, and Trinidad.