My Life Without Me
To My Late Father and Fatherland
To Gojko and Yugoslavia
1. My Mother
Where was I when it all started? In the hospital, some fifty years ago, but not in the delivery ward, where most children get their umbilical cords cut. No, I was in the cancer ward, where my mother worked. She was a cancer ward pediatrician, and that night, the 7th of March, after a long game of cards with her friends, she went to work on her night shift.
You must understand that my late Mom was a historical communist, one of those who risked her life when she was seventeen for ideals of justice and truth. An activist pediatrician she chose to work at the toughest places, with dying children alone in the ward without their own parents. My mother was all they had, and she loved them more than herself.
She even loved them more than my own little self, who, in her eyes, lacked the stark appeal of a dying creature whom she could save. On the contrary, I was big, healthy and plump. She called me spoiled, and furthermore, denounced the rest of her rich family as “kulaks.” The original kulak was my grandfather, a gentleman father of six who, as an ignorant first-generation capitalist, invested his money in the first bank founded in Serbia. The bank failed immediately because the owner ran off to London with the loot (an evergreen characteristic of Serbian banking system).
Then my mother, the failed banker’s youngest daughter, set fire to her library as a political act. Luckily the rest of the house stayed intact, remaining the family’s last grand possession after decades of depredation by Serbian swindlers, German occupiers, Russian liberators and the communist regime.
My pretty little mother, convinced of her ideological merits, implemented them in radical deeds. She married her husband, my father, the moment she set eyes on him. He was a Communist, clean and hard working: dating and love was for sissies.
The ambitious young couple had no time to waste. My mother was obliged to complete her medical studies, so her husband used to heave both her and her medical textbooks on top of a cupboard, a towering structure where she could not climb down alone. He was ahead of her in his studies, which was why he got to freely pace the floor of their small student dorm. She always admired him for this decisive act.
My mother, small and dainty and dressed in her worker’s clothes, was hugely pregnant as she passed her last exams. The professor quizzed her on infanticide. She didn’t blink, she answered with her usual precision and melodic absolute pitch. He bowed at her in admiration, offering her his hand as a sign of respect. But when she stood he blushed in deep embarrassment:
– My comrade colleague, but you are pregnant!
– My comrade professor, my mother answered promptly, the fact that I am a woman does not make me less a colleague.
She worked throughout her pregnancy. From her first months she vomited incessantly, finally dosing herself with American imperialist pills to stop the nausea. I still wonder if those hazardous pills made me the way I am: the dissident traitor writing this book.
She may have miscounted the weeks and months, for, after the night’s card game, she felt a sudden and violent pain in her uterus.
She screamed for help, and the comrade-colleagues diagnosed her.
– The delivery is underway…
– No way, she started scolding them, no way, it is too early…
They examined her.
– Your baby is indeed on her way and she is arriving upside down, ready to jump on her feet.
At that news my mother lost control and every facade of comrade bravery. She started screaming that she would not survive the shame and pain, and demanded a caesarean delivery. Too late: the wrong headed baby was kicking her way out. In order to calm her down, the comrades doctors lied to her (another common method between comrades), telling her that they were preparing the room for her operation. In the meantime I managed to abandon her body. They took me from the cancer ward and put me two flights upstairs in the delivery ward.
The next day my mother returned to her senses. Small as she was, my mother had huge milky breasts. I can still remember pumping them and playing with them, but I had to earn a right to them, and that was not simple.
In those days in that country, newborns were densely swaddled, much like nuns and bread loaves. My mom received her identical white loaf, she examined the wrapping professionally and the bacterial aspect of the cotton… She then glanced at the baby and looked severely at the nurse:
-Comrade nurse, this baby is not mine.
The comrade nurse glared back at her even more severely. Maternity ward nurses in communist regimes were emergency workers, like firemen. They called all women “Mothers”, screaming, scolding and barking orders at them so that the women never had a moment to relax and experience postpartum depression.
– Comrade doctor, said the nurse, this is the baby you’ve got and you are going to feed it.
My mother stubbornly snatched the baby and unwrapped her little hand to check the bracelet around her wrist. The bracelet was there, it had her own name on it…
– There you go, triumphantly and defiantly said the comrade nurse.
But wow, once the hand was unwrapped the rest of the swaddling went.
– Comrade nurse…this infant is a boy…I was told I had a girl.
The nurse wrapped the baby back in a businesslike manner, not much upset, and said,
– Couldn’t you feed it anyway while I find yours?
At that moment, the search for myself conclusively began. I have never had any certainty that I am who they claim I am. No one has ever done a blood test or DNA test, and in those days the locals went physically searching, seeking clues like detectives: who worked the shift last night, who carried the baby, where? Finally they found the personage that is now writing, being breast-fed by a gypsy woman who had delivered her fourth child the same night my mother gave birth.
The comrade nurse said to the woman:
– Woman, this baby is not yours.
The gypsy mother angrily replied:
– I love all my children and even if I am poor nobody will take them from me!
The nurse undid the baby wrap and there I was, nude as only a girl can be.
– You had a son, you silly woman, said the nurse. The gypsy mother backed down with some sadness and yet relief… girls are far harder to bring up.
– Let me feed her first, look how hungry she is.
And she did it. My first milk was a milk from a gypsy whose name I never knew and which was not meant for me but for her son, my milk brother.
Many times I have asked myself, is he dead or alive? A gypsy’s life is often brief. Did he ever go to school? — gypsies in Belgrade at the time scarcely allowed their children to go. Was he handsome, was he miserable, did he have children of his own? Did he beg in the streets as a child and collect rubbish as a man, beautiful as only gypsies can be in orange dashing suits of the garbage men? Am I risking incest?
Today as I walk the streets of Belgrade I look at the men of my age who could be gypsies, and I think of him. I am an only child, so, thanks to that first meal of my life, he was my only relative. It seems I enjoyed it so much that even the comrade nurse didn’t complain. Although my mother never admitted it to me, my gypsy milk brother sucked my mother’s sweet odorous milk. It was some kind of rape, she confessed to her best friend. The nurse made her do it.
I fantasized about my milk brother. In school I always sat beside a gypsy boy during classes. When I grew up to be a young woman, I started dancing with the gypsies, singing in those mysterious and segregated places where only gypsies were admitted. Though I was blonde, they would let me in (besides, where my mother comes from, the gypsies were all blonde). One of them said: if only you were not so blonde I would marry you, since you sure can dance and sing and make money. (Maybe he was my milk brother!).