They continued to cope, poorly, with the excretions and secretions of their stepfather’s body, moving from revulsion to pity to anger, and back to revulsion. They were bewildered, and indignant, that a human creature of blood and bone, so efficient in good health, could suddenly become so messy. Neither Nariman’s age nor his previous illnesses had served to warn them. Sometimes they took it personally, as though their stepfather had reduced himself to this state to harass them. And by nightfall, the air was again fraught with tension, thick with reproaches spoken and silent. (p 68)
Nariman Vakeel is an elderly, retired English professor suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. He lives in the family home — ironically named Chateau Felicity — with his middle-aged step-children, Jal and Coomy. Nariman married their mother Yasmin when Jal and Coomy were children, after his family forbid him to marry his true love, Lucy. He raised them along with a younger half-sister, Roxana. Coomy is filled with resentment; everyone else walks on eggshells to avoid her bitterness. Jal feigns obliviousness, tinkering with his hearing aid when tempers flare.
When Nariman falls while out on a walk, Jal and Coomy are quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for him. Coomy wastes no time tricking Roxana into taking him in. Roxana and her family live in a smaller flat and struggle to make ends meet, but they are blessed with a more positive outlook on life. Even Roxana’s young sons take things in stride:
The balcony door framed the scene: nine-year-old happily feeding seventy-nine.
And then it struck her like a revelation — of what, she could not say. Hidden by the screen of damp clothes, she watched, clutching Yezad’s shirt in her hands. She felt she was witnessing something almost sacred, and her eyes refused to relinquish the previous moment, for she knew instinctively that it would become a memory to cherish, to recall in difficult times when she needed strength. (p. 98)
But as weeks pass, the strain takes its toll on everyone. Coomy takes dramatic steps to keep up the illusion she is unable to care for Nariman. Jal is silently complicit. Roxana tries, in vain, to stretch Yezad’s salary to cover the cost of Nariman’s medication. And Yezad responds to the financial strain through a series of progressively destructive acts aimed at improving their financial situation. Eventually they hit rock bottom in ways both inevitable and shocking, and are then faced with the challenge of rebuilding what they hold most dear.
I put off reading this book for some time, thinking it might strike too close to home. My father has Parkinson’s, and last year a medical incident set in motion a series of events culminating in my parents’ long-overdue move to a continuous care retirement community. Family Matters was indeed painful to read, although I could distance myself from it because the Vakeel family’s situation was very different from mine. And yet there are valuable messages in this book about the importance of family, and living for today, that are still with me days after finishing the book.