I was driving down the 405 freeway in LA, just passing by Skirball Center, when my cell phone rang. It was the inevitable call that every immigrant dread. My dad’s physician and best friend was on the other line from Iran. He told that if I wanted to see to him again, I need to go back before it was too late.
It was only recently that I learned of Baba’s illness. My family tried to tone it down for me and being away and while signs were there, I didn’t know or didn’t want to know better. I realized that for the past few months, his voice became more and more distorted. Being a very heavy smoker, I told myself that it could be that he has changed the brand of cigarettes he smoked. It wasn’t his first time. His voice will eventually condition once he adjusts to the new brand. But the voice got worse. Until one night, late night in LA, he called me. He told me that he needs to go through a routine surgical procedure to take sample from his lung. He told me that once he is out of the hospital, he’ll figure out a way so that we can all be together again. He’s been resisting my requests to move to States. I cried and told him how sorry I was for leaving him and that I loved him so much. His last words to me where “I know you do”. That was the last meaningful conversation we had. The last time I heard his usual, strong, reassuring voice.
Every time I read Hamidi Shirazi’s beautiful poem “Swan Song”, I’m reminded of the last two or three years of my dad’s life. Hamidi’s masterful depiction of the end of a Swan’s life suggests that when the bird realizes that the end is near, she ever so graciously goes to a corner and sings till she dies. Some say that she goes to a corner that she once made love. She goes there so that the song and the memory of that love would overcome her fear of death. She dies where she most lived.
My dad had a short but eventful life. Youngest of seven siblings, he was three when he lost his dad and as a result spent a not-so-happy childhood at any of the not-so-loving siblings who cared to take him and his mother in. He spent his childhood moving from one house to another. From one town to the next. He grew up determined to overcome the humility he experienced at the hands of his siblings and as Karma would eventually have it, ended up bailing every single one of them out at some point in their lives.
In 80s, like many of his contemporaries, he was faced with no choice other than to leave his life behind and start over aboard. A civil engineer by education, at the age of 40 he had a resume and an ability to speak English. That was enough to land him a starting level engineering position in Dubai and we moved. Overcoming the initial hardships, he made a success out of the next two decades. The resilience and ambition were always the hallmarks of his character.
The last two or three years of his life however he started winding it down and insisted that he needs to go back to Iran. His trips back there became more frequent and longer. I guess whether through divine intervention or more likely advice of doctors, he knew the end was near.
He then started a “Swan Song” of his own and travelled extensively to the places where he once loved. Places that were the background of stories he used to always tell me about his life.
One of those trips was to a magical place called Abadan. I had a project in Abadan at the time and he wanted to come to the place with me and visit it. It would be his first visit after 30 years. When we learned that our flight from Mehrabad has been canceled, he asked me if I was up for driving down there. I was. Along the way we stopped at every location that had a meaning to him. Khorram Abad, where he did his military service and where my mom, his then fiancé came to visit. Andimeshk and Tangeh Fanni where his brothers went to work for Anglo-iranian Oil Company. Dezful and Ahvaz where he worked during the war and finally Abadan. The Mecca of his life memories. We roamed the streets of Bavardeh and Breim, a ghost of their heydays, where he showed me his brother’s house. His high school. The swimming pool where he had his first date. The cinema he went to movies at. We stayed at Hotel Abadan where he as a young engineer spent his free time drinking at the bar lounge and listening to music.
When back in Tehran, he wanted to walk down the Lalehzar Avenue. He showed me the house that he once lived with his mom and one of his brothers. Where his favorite deli once stood, where he stole a kiss from a sweetheart, and where his uncle had his medical practice. We stopped at Café Naderi for their famous Chateau Beyran. We walked all the way down to Sabzeh Meidoon in the Bazaar and passed by Toopkhooneh and Shamsolemareh. Stopping at every corner where he told a story and shared an experience. I’ve never seen him this indulging before. He never was the one for sight-seeing, but this was different. He wanted to breathe every breath, relive every experience, embrace every stone.
Me leaving Iran hit him hard. It may have catalyzed his demise but then again it may have been that the army of cancer cells finally conquered the last stand in his body. It was all downhill from there.
The final days at his bed side, he was still re-living memories in his semi unconscious state. One night he was an excited child going to a wedding party with his mom, the other a young man learning English from his brother in law. One night he was reliving my birth, the other he was on a date.
He sang his last song at a place he loved next to people he loved most.
The Swan’s life ended at a corner where he once loved.
Here’s Habib, another Swan, singing Hamidi Shirazi’s beautiful poem.