Lives Journal 4

Iztok Vrhovec

 

DEATH

 

That summer afternoon grandfather and I were alone in the house. He was reading a book, and I was sitting in the corner with my toys; grandmother's rummaging through something was echoing from the yard.

A few weeks earlier, our dog Rex – the animal I'd known all my life (I was six years old) – had been taken away, and I hadn't seen him since. They said the dog had been put to sleep. »And when will he wake up?« I asked. »He won't wake up again,« they answered and exchanged strange glances. A boy from the neighbourhood, Tim (he was two years older than me), said that putting to sleep meant that the dog was given some kind of a shot that made him die. That the dog was taken away, Tim told me – as his father had explained to him – because it had attacked my grandfather.

»Grandfather...« I said thoughtfully and tried to make sense of everything.

»Yes?« he said and kept looking down at his book.

»What happened to Rex? Tim said that he wouldn't wake up again. That he... died after he'd been... put to sleep. What really happened to him? Was he really given... some kind of a shot that made him...«

Grandfather looked up, took a deep breath and turned to me.

»Ehm,« he said. And again: »Ehm.«

I knew his 'ehms' well. They were usually followed by an explanation.

In a while grandfather spoke up again. »Rex snapped at me,« he began.

»Yes, so I heard,« I replied.

»The dog wasn't supposed to do that,« Grandfather continued. »That's why we took him – I took him,« he corrected himself, »to the vet's. And they gave him – as you said before – a shot and then he... went to sleep. And... Yes – it's true, he won't wake up again. Just as Tim told you.«

I was used to Grandfather's straight answers. And yet what he said surprised me; I felt a strange shiver, and was overcome by unusual, unfamiliar emotions. Although Rex had been gone for quite a while, deep inside I believed he would come home sooner or later. But for the first time I felt this might not happen after all.

»What's happening to him now, Grandpa?« I asked, a little irritated. »What's with him now that he... died? What happens to those who die and are gone? Where do they go?«

»When I was about your age,« Grandfather continued after a short pause, »something similar happened to the dog we had then. He had attacked a child. My father angrily grabbed Sultan – that was the dog's name – by the fur and scolded him. For a while everything was all right. But one day Sultan went mad, attacked my mother and bit her in the hand. She was taken to hospital, they stitched her badly lacerated hand, and Sultan was taken away. And never came back,« he explained. »When I saw what Rex had done, I remembered that time. I remembered how immensely angry I was with my father when I learnt what he had done. And then I thought what would happen if something like that happened to you or somebody else; and I thought it better not to wait, like my father had – and was later sorry he hadn't immediately done what had to be done. Perhaps I should've waited a little... Perhaps it would have been different with Rex... But I didn't want to take chances,« Grandfather kept explaining. »This often happens to dogs; when they get older, they become rather aggressive and mean. Like some old people... Who knows, perhaps Rex went mad because he'd been chained for so long. Thinking back now it seems wrong we kept Rex on a chain for so long.«

Having said that Grandfather looked through the window, stared out motionless for a while, then suddenly nodded, turned towards me and continued: »And about those other things you mentioned,« he said, »we'll talk about them tomorrow. All right?«

»Why not,« I agreed.

 

The following morning Grandfather put on his better clothes.

»Do you remember what we talked about yesterday?« he asked when he saw my surprise.

I had to think a little before I remembered.

»Well,« Grandfather said, »put your clothes on. We'll go somewhere. We can't talk here. I'll wait for you outside.« And he went out into the yard.

I shrugged – I had nothing better to do. And walks with Grandpa were so rare that a promise of a walk was a special occasion. So I put on my better clothes, too – at least I thought I did, although Mother, as soon as she saw me, started scolding me that I couldn't go out like this; what would people say, what would they think of the parents that let the child go out dressed like that... but I had already slipped through the door and heard no more of her needless chatter.

After we'd walked for about half hour, we saw a graveyard in the distance. When Grandfather noticed my questioning look, he briefly nodded and said: »Yes, that's where we're going.« I was surprised; I never thought we'd go to a graveyard, although when I remembered what we'd talked about the day before, it no longer seemed so out of place.

When we arrived, we sat down on a bench in front of the entrance gate; Grandfather pulled out a cigarette and lit it. I distracted myself by rummaging through the pebbles, dry branches and leaves that were lying all around. Then I started twisting and turning on the bench, and when I grew tired of it, I started clambering over Grandfather. It seemed to me that this made him puff on the cigarette faster. Finally he threw away the butt, stood up, straightened his clothes, raised his hat, stroked his hair, readjusted his glasses, put the hat back on and took my hand, which wasn't what he usually did; and once more I had that strange, unfamiliar feeling.

We headed towards a little house. Later I learnt it was a chapel of rest, where dead people lay while waiting to be buried. We entered and walked to the centre of the chapel. It was still rather early, and that's probably why we were the only visitors. Some kind of a table stood in the middle. Grandpa lifted me up, and I saw the immobile face of an elderly man. I stared for a while, then Grandpa put me down again and we left.

Once outside, we sat down on the bench again, Grandpa pulled out another cigarette and repeated the whole ritual from before; I just sat silently, holding his hand. The strange feeling that had only touched me before now persisted and wouldn't leave me.

When Grandfather finished his cigarette, we stood up without saying a word and headed for home. We didn't speak during the walk, and never talked about our outing again.

 

A few weeks passed, summer started turning into autumn, and I was getting ready for the first day at real school. Although uncles and aunts were trying to scare me with all possible stories, I was so excited at the thought I would (finally) be going to real school that nothing could hurt me. And one afternoon, in the middle of the teasing, Grandfather suddenly asked: »Do you remember that day we went to the graveyard?« The world immediately stopped turning and I was struck by that – now kind of familiar – feeling of anxiety.

»Yes, of course I remember,« I said, a little frightened.

»That man – that old man – that we saw was... dead. The following day they interred him, buried him in the ground. They do it with all the people when they die,« Grandfather said. »Well, at least in this country,« he mumbled.

»Buried him, good God!« I exclaimed. »How does he breathe there?«

»He doesn't breathe any more,« Grandfather answered silently and looked at me without stirring.

I needed some time before I started to make any sense of what he'd told me. – He doesn't breathe any more! My God, how is this possible?

»Why did that man stop breathing?« I exclaimed. »Why did he die? What happens after one dies? What is he doing now? Will I die, too? And what will happen to me when I die? Will I still be me? What will happen to my body when I die?« The questions kept pouring out of me and I was getting more and more upset. Yet, although Grandfather was calm and composed as always when we talked about something important, his answers couldn't reassure me.

»What you saw that day in the cemetery is all that is left of us in this world,« he said. »And all that I can say about it is that sooner or later we'll all end up like this. This doesn't mean that I like it or don't, this doesn't mean that I agree or disagree, this doesn't mean that I'm not interested in the things you were just asking about... Questions and answers don't change much with years, you know. I've never met anybody who could provide better answers than I'm giving you now... You saw what death looked like. And you felt something when you saw it. And those feelings are telling you something. You're trying to explain their meaning to yourself as best you can at your age. But you'll have to wait a while for the final answer. Sometimes it will seem that the whole thing is dragging on for so long – too long, perhaps – but you know, from where I stand now everything seems like a short, insignificant breath of wind... And if I look back at my life it seems, on the one hand, that I've lived through quite a lot, but on the other hand, everything passed so incredibly quickly... like an afternoon shower, which angers some because it catches them unprepared, but makes others happy because it waters their dry fields...«

Grandfather kept talking that afternoon, but to me his voice seemed only like a distant hum. So many new, unfamiliar emotions were rising within me, and they demanded that I put them in some kind of order, that I try to understand them. Suddenly tears started rolling down my cheeks. It was all too much. »I can't understand it!« I screamed. »I don't want Rex dead! I don't want you to die, Grandpa! I don't want me and Grandma to die and... I don't want it, I don't, d'you understand?!« I screamed as loud as I could and cried.

Grandfather hugged me and I eventually stopped sobbing. For a while we silently sat each on his chair. Grandfather took the box of board games from the cupboard, and we played checkers, draughts and chess. Finally I calmed down. Grandmother showed up and started making dinner. It seemed that the day would pass peacefully and calmly like so many had before. And yet something ultimately changed for me that day. It seemed to me that I'd taken a few huge steps closer to understanding death; as if from that day onwards I could see it lurking somewhere in the vicinity, silently watching me. By no means a pleasant feeling, but it seemed to me that I'd somehow grown accustomed to its company, although we would never be great friends.

I never talked to Grandpa about death again. When I heard of somebody dying, those feelings I'd experienced the summer before I went to real school came back. If Grandfather was somewhere close, we only exchanged glances and then went on with our business.

 

A few years passed and Grandfather was terminally ill. They'd brought him back from the hospital and he was lying on his bed. One cold, rainy October afternoon the doctor came – as he always came at that time of day – and gave Grandfather an injection. He lay immobile for a while, and then slowly turned his head towards me; I understood he wanted me to come closer. His eyes were dim and tired. He tried to say something, but at first I didn't understand him. I leaned close to him, and a tear from my eye dropped on his face.

»This is no time for tears, grandson...,« he said so quietly that I hardly heard him. »Look,« he tried to smile, but couldn't, »this is it now. You're looking death straight in the eye. You'll never get closer to it as long as you live. And the answers to all those questions you once asked me are a bit closer. What you see here now in what death does. That's his job. And I'm almost friends with him now...« He went quiet and looked at me for the last time; his look reached deep, it touched the deepest roots of my soul. Grandfather thus gave a good part of himself to me. That was his final farewell. Then he started breathing more quickly, his head jerked in a strange way, his old, shaking hand grabbed mine with its final strength, and then went limp for ever. His old eyes lost the flame, which had so many times provided explanation and reassurance and understanding and attention that couldn't be put into words, which provided that unique warmth that could warm the heart – the unconditional love of a related soul. The eyes through which Grandfather's life once shone were now immobile and empty. He'd gone... somewhere else.

And death keeps walking next to me; every day it reminds me of the day when it was taking away my loved ones, and of the day when it will take me too.

 

 

 

Translation from Slovenian by Lili Potpara

 

 

 

Slovenian (gajica)

Slovenian (bohorichica)