Abu’s Ice Cream
By Khalid Azim
As my parents and I waited at an airport gate in New Delhi, I asked if they would like a cup of tea. They both declined, but then, with a smile, my father asked for ice cream. I tried to find something in the crowded food court, but as our departure time approached, I told my father I would get him some ice cream when we were back in America.
When we landed, I took my parents back to my home in Rye, instead of their New York City apartment, giving them the chance to recover from jetlag in a more relaxed setting. I knew how much my father enjoyed the landscape of my suburban home, surrounded by families with children, the color green, and the sound and smell of Long Island Sound nearby. For him, the shape and texture — and even the time and space — of the world mattered. “Come here,” he would say, as he showed me something I had seen countless times in my home, and I would look at it through his eyes for the very first time.
“Abu,” I said, “Let’s go for a walk.” Though my father’s mind had faded, when we walked together, it was his intellect that penetrated the poignant elements of our conversation. He would talk about phonological origins of various languages, discuss Islamic history and civilization, and question the validity of a math theorem. As a retired professor, his language was always measured and each word he spoke always had a definitive purpose. His most annoying and endearing trait was the manner in which he repeated himself. Sometimes it was for emphasis, sometimes it was a way for him to gather his thoughts, and sometimes the act of repeating himself became a metaphor for the mind and memory he was losing.
My father’s long-term memory remained largely intact, and it was this history I always tried to mine in the hope that through understanding my father’s past I might better appreciate some of the events which weighed on the course of my family’s history. Yet, piecing that history together was like being on a sailboat, my father’s memories were the rudder, yet without a commensurate wind of context. A rudder without wind simply meant that it was impossible to point, let alone move in any one direction.
As we walked in Loudon Woods, I could see that he was happy, so I asked him if he wanted to continue our walk into our small, charming downtown and get some ice cream. He delighted in the idea. We sat in front of Longford’s, each with a cone of mango ice cream, my father’s favorite.
“Abu,” I asked him, “Do you remember when you took me to your village in India and showed me where you planned to plant your mango orchard?” He recalled that day perfectly, but not the time he showed me the graves of my grandparents, his description of the mango tree leaf, bloom, and harvest, nor the tremendous heat which overpowered me. Most of all, I remembered him picking up the soil from the fields of his village with his hands and telling me how this dirt had brought him tremendous despair and impecuniousness, yet it was also the foundation of everything he would become.
The next day I took my parents back to their apartment in the city. The following day I received a call from my brother who was very upset. Our father needed to be immediately taken to an emergency room. We learned that he had an acute gallbladder infection, which had built up over time but was probably triggered through the digestion of some fatty food.
When my father died six months later, following a maze of circuitous events, I was the second, after my brother, to take a shovel and place dirt on his grave. As I picked up the dirt, which would cover the remains of my father’s body, I tried to measure in my mind the improbability of my father’s life. His horizons were measured in miles, while mine were in inches. Perhaps I might find the wind to set sail, and my rudder might still be the memories of my father’s life, but I longed for my father to direct me along the way.
The author, age 4, in his father’s arms