Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The Price of a Father’s Labor

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It couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen seconds, but it was so humiliating, I began to shake. I wanted to kick in her desk and smash her computer. I wanted to punch the wall until my fists bled. I felt tears welling up in my eyes.

Finally, she told me to sit down and give her my number. I was so upset, I forgot which document I needed to provide her, and she became frustrated and asked why I had come unprepared. I apologized again and hated myself for it. But I couldn’t return home having fucked up another trivial task. A few minutes later, she pulled up our case, typed a few things into her computer, and the issue was resolved. I asked for permission to leave, and she granted it.

Once, in the middle of the night, Agha’s nerve pain got so bad that he asked me to drive him to the emergency room. Usually, even at his worst, my father suffered his bouts of nerve damage in silence so I knew his pain must have been unbearable.

In the emergency waiting room, Agha clutched his head with both hands, sweat trickling down his scalp and neck, soaking his shirt. He was trembling. Eventually, a nurse called his name and asked him where he felt the most pain.

“In my neck,” he said, “and in my shoulder and down my arm and in the right temple of my head.”

“And how does it hurt?” she asked.

“The wreck,” he said, “the wreck.”

“No, Agha,” I interrupted in Pashto, “she means what does the pain feel like? Can you describe it to her?

“It burns and then it—” he clenched and unclenched his fist.

“It pulses?” I asked.

“Yes, it pulses. But it is like a stabbing, and in my hands a prickly—how do you say it? When your skin is like cotton?”

“It’s numb?”

“Yes, it’s numb,” he said and sighed deeply, “but then the burning of it washes over me.”

The nurse (bless her) immediately admitted us.

While he waited for the doctor to arrive, Agha lay in the hospital bed, writhing and sweating and scraping at his right arm and neck. He pressed his fingers into the sides of his skull as if to pierce his own brain. A few feet away, I paced back and forth, not knowing what to do or say. When he began to wheeze, I panicked and rushed out into the hall and begged for help. A nurse followed me into the room where we found my father laying on his side, away from the door, with his face in his hands. He wheezed and muttered the name of God (most merciful is He) over and over until a doctor arrived and provided a strong shot of pain medication.

I sat with Agha late into the night, watching him sleep, as he, no doubt, had watched me sleep on countless nights in hospitals all over the world, and he looked so peaceful in his dreams, I thought of locking the door and letting my father sleep through the night and day, and perhaps the next night, too. I thought of Boxer and the slaughterhouse. I thought of all the fires—bombs and mines and missiles and torches—my father had escaped in his youth, only for him to be devoured by the fires lining his nerves, beneath his skin, all throughout his beleaguered body.

Over the years, my father figured out a medication, physical therapy, and injection routine that allowed him to manage his pain. He had surgery on his injured shoulder in 2009 (two years too late), which helped with some of the most severe nerve damage. Nor-Cal Trucks ended up settling with Agha, and our family received a one-time lump sum of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, more than half of which went to lawyers and doctors—including the neurologist who had denied Agha’s pain in the first place—ten thousand to pay off old debts, and the remaining ninety thousand went into our mortgage. If nothing else, my father no longer feared losing his home to the bank.

Still, his injuries lingered.

He would have a good week, just moderate pain in his back and shoulder, only for the nerve damage to sneak up and lay him out for a couple of hours—or days. It was random and vicious. It got to the point where I could walk into the house and look at my father’s face and see the aching etched there beneath his eyes, on his scalp, in the creases of his mouth. He would get sweaty and dazed and his eyes would turn glassy, and he wouldn’t be in the room with us, for a while, he would be someplace else, inside the pain, just trying to breathe.

“Despite everything,” my father once told me, years after the accident. “I consider myself a lucky man. I’ve heard the sound of bullets flying past my head. I married an incredible woman I’d never met in my life. I journeyed to a country without knowing its language or custom or law. It ate me up and tried to crush me. And yet, here I am, with all of you, still going.

He won’t stop. The old man. We’ve all told him—his doctors, his children, his wife—to slow down, to go easy with his body, but, even now, I’ll catch him awake before dawn, out in his little yard, squatted and hunched over, tending to his garden as if he’s still a farmer in Logar, as if his body isn’t battered and bruised and torn to shreds, as if his nerve pain won’t act up at any moment, as if the labor is all there is.

“What else can I do,” my father tells me when I chastise him.

Sometimes I wonder if he also means: “What else can I be?”

I imagine him at six years old, a little farmer, lying beside his brother Watak on a toshak warmed by their bodies, their sleepy farts. Maybe he’s drooling a bit, maybe it’s just starting to snow outside, maybe he’s on the edge of a dream, something silly, or joyous, until he hears his old father calling his name, and I wonder if, back then, he would cling to the dream for a bit, just a few more seconds, before rising up and storming out into the cold world. ♦

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