My father, over the years, has become a fount of advice and information in matters of health. He adheres to the adage the information’s out there, you need to look for it. He phones me and the subject of health invariably comes up—after the obligatory weather update where—in his part of the world, Hawaii—the climes vary in degrees of heat: somewhat warm, kinda warm, getting warmer, hot, hot as hell and burning my ass off hot. As far back as recollection will allow me, he has been health conscious. He worked in a janitorial capacity for the City and County of San Francisco. He started work early and would arrive home before the final bell at my elementary school. He would be in the throes of his daily workout as I headed home; a regimen that included weightlifting, pushups and sit-ups, shadowboxing and sparring. He not only boxed with his shadow. Being his shadow, metaphorically and physically, I was his default sparring partner. I was given a pair of ancient boxing gloves—bare of laces and steeped in the crystallized memory of sweat—a mold that I unwillingly conformed to, secreting my own sweat into the pugilistic perspiratory legacy.
I’d walk inside the house and he’d say, hey kid, get over here. He lie on his back for his sit up routine. I was enlisted to hold down his feet, at the ankles, while he hardened his abs: 10…20…30 he’d call out on the way to 100—sweat trickling down his forehead, his breath in my face which smelled like onions, garlic and fish. My face would contort with his every repetition, as if I were the one performing this self-inflicted abdominal torture; and I suppose my father perceived my facial twists and turns as some kind of moral support or solidarity. But in actuality, my face twisted in response to his foot odor. He never wore shoes during workouts. He wore dress socks, thin socks from Sears woven in polyester. The stench was rather unbearable but, to my father’s credit, he tried to rein it in with foot powder and other potions including cologne that never seemed to work.
How’s your health? He asks. Ok, I say, adding that I’m exercising more, trying to control my blood pressure, which is high. His voice has not changed much, he still sounds youthful even in his mid-70’s. He tells me of the books he’s reading about health. You know, he says–2 things will cause you complications—being overweight and smoking. He explains that the more weight you carry, the more stress it puts on the heart. I listen to his voice, some 3000 miles away, grabbing at the flabby folds of flesh at my sides. I hear you dad, I say. He has always been physically active. In the time I spent running back and forth from the refrigerator to the television, he became a martial arts instructor—a guro. He entered and finished in the Honolulu Marathon 3 times, lamenting that each subsequent time was worse than the previous year. In my estimation, being able to complete one marathon is monumental—much less three. What about your diet? He asks. Well, I’m eating one fruit a day, I reply. Hmmm, he says, one fruit a day? What about two fruits…three?
You don’t want to wait until you get sick to see a doctor he says. Before any of these matters became remotely relevant to me, it became relevant to my father with the death of his own father. Grandpa never went to the doctor. The pains in the old man’s stomach stabbed at him. When he finally went to the doctor, it was too late. I remember him as a frail old man in a bathrobe that smelled of Vicks Vapor Rub. I was just a child with no idea that this frail old man raised a family of ten; came to the US as a young man and laid down roots. I had no idea that my existence was tied to this old man, that, if not for him, I wouldn’t be here. All I remember was his thin frame and the smell of Vicks and the 3 Tootsie Rolls he placed in my hand.
Exercise is medicine, my father says—you need to take your medicine every day. He says you have to keep moving, keep the blood circulating. I am doing likewise, walking briskly an hour a day. He walks among the palm, mango and guava trees for the same duration, sometimes longer. It is my hope that I am keeping up with him, footstep for footstep, among the crepe myrtle, red bud, Japanese maples and other assorted trees that provide a backdrop and forefront of fragrance, color, shade and an atmosphere of peaceful welcome some 3000 miles away . He says that walking helps keep the senses sharp as well as providing peace of mind. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the parks are off limits. A kindly cop issued him a ticket for walking in the park. Peace of mind is always under duress, especially in a pandemic.
You don’t want to be on medication, if you can avoid it, my father says. When I was growing up, there was no doubt that my father didn’t take no mess—a phrase coined by the classic song by James Brown–Papa Don’t Take No Mess. However, he has reached another level: Papa don’t take no meds. You got to keep moving, he says. You got to move, exercise. It’s medicine.