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tearing the rag off the bush again
Bulgaria: Topolovgrad, July 2006 PDF E-mail

I lie on the bare ground and try to remember how to breathe this kind of air. The kind that carries a whisper of melancholy and nostalgia. The kind that tells you secrets you don’t want to know. It’s been so long. Almost eternity. And I have traveled so far away from everything that matters. This was supposed to be my salvation. I was supposed to cry and become human again. But the mute serenity of the cemetery no longer affects the little girl, for now she is just a distant echo of what I’ve become.

I remember everything so vividly. It has been reeling in front of my mind’s eye day after day, my whole life. Like the credits of a movie that’s already over. The colors have faded away, though, leaving me with the yellowed picture of my interrupted childhood. I remember being curled up in a chair, fetus-like, rocking myself back and forth, searching for answers, my little head not capable of grasping a concept so cruel. I remember our house full of people, waiting quietly for something inevitable. I remember the agonized faces; my mom’s sunken, acquiesced eyes. The screeching silence. Nobody daring to ask for their money back -- the money my parents had been borrowing for medical treatments. All kinds. I remember asking, “Mom, is Tony going to die?” I also remember the comfort of her reassuring words. A child’s trust is implicit. It never occurred to me then to question my mother’s promise.

I wasn’t there when it all started. I was simply born into it. I remember leukemia just being part of our lives. It is the most common childhood cancer, they say. But you never get used to that kind of common. It starts in the child’s blood or bone marrow, the white blood cells demanding more and more of the little body’s nutrition. I remember my brother, either feeling all right, giving us all a spark of hope, or gone -- gone in faraway hospitals in the bigger cities of our small country. I remember my parents becoming frantic when noticing a familiar symptom; my mom rushing around the house, packing up bags for another trip. I always stayed with my grandparents. I remember Tony’s absence. I remember being mad at him for not being there to protect me from the teasing of the neighborhood’s older kids. I remember his arms blue from the needles, the dark circles around his big eyes, his bravery my parents still talk about, never whining or complaining at the sight of hospitals, syringes, or big pills. And to think I still can’t take big pills; I’m afraid they’re going to get stuck in my throat. I remember visiting all types of psychics and healers. I watched my parents’ transformation from agnostics to believers, their faith— a fragile but unrelenting blade of grass, blown in all directions by the wind of life.

A radioactive cloud swept across Europe after the disaster in Ukraine. On April 25, 1986, ironically, while a new safety system was being installed, the core of Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor #4 exploded. Central and Eastern Europe received high amounts of radiation. The Swedes were forced to throw out thousands of gallons of milk each day, because it was unfit for consumption. But the worst was the increase of cancer cases, many of them babies. It happened that same year, a few months later. A mother’s instinct is unmistakable; a week before Tony died my mom dressed us up and took us to the photo shop. The photograph still hangs on the wall in the living room. I remember standing in the corners of the room looking at our picture from different angles, my brother’s eyes always meeting mine. His face, slightly swollen from medication, but still beautifully peaceful and radiant, glowed with childlike innocence.

In my home town the tolling of church bells marks another death, notifies of another loss. I remember hearing it that day. I remember knowing and the disappointment. The custom of wearing black for at least a year is an unavoidable reminder of your misery. Like you could forget! Tony was getting better, and then Chernobyl had to happen, killing the last breath of hope, poisoning the bodies of children with radiation and stifling their immune systems. We need gods and idols. We need something to believe in. But how do you tell that little boy who is lying in a hospital, whose head is bald and body attached to small round electrodes, tubes, monitors, pumps, respirators, how do you tell him that God loves him?

So now, twenty-one years later I stare at my brother’s massive bed of marble, thinking of the many lives I’ve had, and the many times I’ve died. I want to cry, but I cannot. Maybe it’s because I have covered my wounds with the veil of pretentious vigor and ambition. I moved to a faraway land, the land of unlimited opportunities, to be lost among the crowds and forget. And now that I am back home, visiting the museum of my untimely maturity, I start remembering the questions that I once tucked deep inside of me. How do you become stronger than your parents when you are only five? How do you convince them you’re enough for them to live and not give up? How do you give them all the joy they used to get before? They don’t teach you that in school.
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