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Watermelon Memories or About Loving Dad

Sweet, cold, juicy watermelon. I closed my eyes and savored the moment when I took the first bite this morning. We bought it yesterday, from our car, when we were driving back to mom and dad’s, a rare occasion nowadays, driving around with my dad in the car.

We were driving into their apartment complex when we saw a boy sitting by his truck, full of watermelons ready to be sold. We stopped and bought it through the car window, never leaving the car, which was important, because it’s an ordeal for dad to get up and he can’t do it without mom’s or my help. “Where are they imported from?” mom asked the boy. “Greece” he answered. And mom was happy with that answer. She knew that Greek watermelons were sweet enough, even this early in the summer. I could tell, based on the color, that they would be sweet, but I was happy too, to hear that they were from Greece. It reminded me instantly of our summers in Greece, when I was a kid and would eat the juicy watermelon, biting straight into it, sitting on the beach, steps away from the Aegean sea. And it would drip all over my small naked body, but it wouldn’t matter, because the sea was right there and I would just run in afterwards to wash it off.

Those summer days were filled with sunshine, happiness and ease of living. We would pack the car in Belgrade and then drive for 24 hours to get there, to the wild beach where we would return to camp every year, always the same people, a lot of my relatives from Serbia, but also a lot of people from Greece and France and Germany that had become regulars as well. We would enthusiastically wave to each other in recognition as we were arriving, and us kids would hug each other tightly and then hang out all summer, even though we didn’t speak the same language. The adults would have dinners together and teach each other small words in the other’s language. The men would drive into town every few days to get supplies and water for drinking and for our makeshift showers, the women would cook and set up kitchens in front of our camper vans and tents. And there was always watermelon, Greek, sweet, dark red, sliced up by our grandfathers, we would stand in line to get out piece and then sit all together and eat it messily, spitting the seeds into the sand.

And sometimes the men would all get in a boat and drive over to Athos, the Holy Mountain with monasteries from all over the world, and they would spend the night with the Serbian monks, sharing food and drinks and chanting. And we would stand on the shore and wave to them as they were leaving, in awe of our strong and able fathers and grandfathers and uncles, a little jealous that we couldn’t come with, but so proud of them, our eyes filled with admiration.

And these memories, beautiful as they are, make it harder to accept the reality of today. My dad barely leaves the house nowadays, especially on “bad” days, when he’s in a lot of pain. On “good” days, when the pain is doable and he gets enough rest, we walk outside of their building. He’s got a cane to keep himself steady, after the stroke and the broken hip and the three surgeries and the complications that followed, all in the last year. We walk slowly and then sit down, sometimes on the bench in the sun at the other end of the playground, sometimes in the coffee shop where he eavesdrops on the conversations about soccer between the waiter and the other guests while I sit in silence and appreciate just being with him.

I wish dad would get better. I wish he believed he could. I wish he believes me when I tell him that our bodies are stronger and more able than we think, that it all starts in our minds, that visualization works, that in order to accomplish something, he needs to first see it in his mind.

He should be doing leg exercises while he’s laying down, but he doesn’t. And I tell him that he should at least imagine himself doing them. I tell him about The Queen’s Gambit, how she learned to play chess masterfully by playing on an imaginary board at night when she would go to bed.

But I get it. It’s his life and his choices. I do my darnedest to motivate him, sometimes passionately explaining about the visualization techniques that are widely known and used in sports, because I know that he can relate to that, the avid soccer and tennis fan that he is. Sometimes I yell at him when I get really scared for his life and sometimes I cry, wailing “but you’re not that old, you shouldn’t be ok with this, being bed-bound until the rest of your life”. But sometimes, watching him sleep in the afternoon with his cane next to his bed, I think that I just have to let him make his own choices and I cry silently, watching this man, who used to be the epitome of strength and power for me, wither away, his legs skinny, his hair gray and thinning, his face gaunt. I cry, but I also sit in gratitude, that I am able to be here with him, that mom is able to take care of him, that we all love each other and that we are still a family.

I hope that dad makes it and finds strength not just to survive, but to thrive, to walk again without a cane, to come visit me in New York. I hope that he finds the strength to live whole again, and that next summer we buy a watermelon, he can carry it himself. But if he doesn’t, I’m grateful for the love and life that we have shared, that we are sharing still.

For him getting out of bed and sitting at the table so that we can have watermelon together, even if the circumstances are wildly different this time.

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