My cousin is dying of AIDS. She is 39, she is beautiful, her story is a long story, a long and ugly story of injustice. It is a story that could happen anywhere, in the East, in the West, among rich or poor. It just happens. She is even now the most beautiful patient in the AIDS ward, where people walk around missing pieces of their bodies.
The ward is locked. I knock, they ask who am I looking for. I say her name. They look at me with suspicion, then with compassion. It is a nurse who knows her story, but she doesn’t know if I know it too. It is the drug part of the story they are worried about. Am I one of them, am I carrying drugs to her, some of her visitors are. Some of her friends have died while she was lying there: she took it very badly, she asked for pills because they died of AIDS.
I haven’t seen her for 14 years, or longer. I remember seeing her 15 years ago. She remembers that too. She says: I missed you. I don’t cry, I don’t say I love you, I think of you, I just start talking and talking about life life life. She says, when I came here I thought I would die, but I got better and then, something happened and here I am. Does she know that she is dying? She knows that there is even some vague chance for her to recover. Everybody says no, people never give the dying a chance. I have seen dying people in films, I saw my uncle, my grandfather, my aunt, and my godmother die. But it is different now. She is younger than me. She cannot die, she is brave, young and beautiful, death shouldn’t want her. Okay, she sinned, she cursed, she was terrible, probably that is why we stopped seeing each other. We just split, but we never fought. She shouldn’t die.
She still has beautiful big eyes, beautiful teeth, and a beautiful thin nose. I put a ring to her finger, she takes my hand and holds it. She still has a beautiful body, lovely-shaped legs: she is just lovely…
Once upon a time, she was an angry and sad baby. Her mother had a postpartum depression: she tried to kill her and then she neglected her. By the time she came to her senses, her husband had chosen his wife over his daughter. Biljana’s father was a beast, still is. I don’t believe that female beasts are better than male ones, but I say he is a typical male beast dressed in the human costume of the rich and educated. He has money and cares only about money. He chose his wife because she was exactly what he wanted her to be: a woman without ideas, personality, money. Once beautiful, once rich, once intelligent, still all that but invisible. He took it all. And he needed 39 years to take it also from his daughter. But he failed: she is dying as an outcast, as trash, as a woman. But he didn’t get her. She will get him, I am sure, one day.
I talk and talk, I ask and ask, and she talks and talks but her breath is heavy. She chokes, she asks for water, but she smiles at me. She excuses herself for being boring. But she isn’t boring, she is brilliant, she remembers all the details…
I remember holding hands tightly as kids and making up games in bed instead of sleeping. And the laughter, the joy we had, the fun, the tenderness, the understanding. The pain we inflicted on each other wasn’t impersonal, it wasn’t malicious, it was touching and exploring boundaries. It was love and learning to love. We were closed off from the grownups: they just wanted us to be silent and good. Together we were noisy and bad, but we learned that loving means living, and laughing, of course, and that grownups are dead.
I don’t want to leave the room, I want to stay forever with her. I know I will come back, and yet I don’t know if we have time for this bliss. I am going away, but it doesn’t seem so. I promise her a room of her own if she tries hard to get out of the hospital bed. She says promise? Promise, I say, I promise, and I do… She will have a room of her own even if she doesn’t get out of her deathbed. I promise. I always keep my promises.
I want her stories, I want to publish her stories. She says, I am afraid you won’t like them. I say, so what, that is why I publish stories, so that people can not like them. She understands, she always understood me and my stories. My God, is she really going away somewhere? What of her beautiful body that I saw being born and that I see now dying? I want to stay with her forever, until her forever, but she is slipping away; she is blessed, alone, smiling with long lashes over her green half-closed eyes. She is going away from me, abandoning me, but she is happy. I ask her, are you happy? She says, happy, she smiles and she looks exactly like her dying mother.
I have a young daughter, a strong youngster who will bury me with Amazon strength. Now it is the opposite, I am burying my child, my younger sister, my motherless and fatherless daughter, who never knew I was her mother, until maybe now. I remember all the brutalities I inflicted on her as a child, I, a child too. But I don’t remember being kind to her, good, yes, but not kind. I was a strict child-mother. I still am. Nobody really likes me, they just respect me and need me. She made me such a mother. I was too young to become a mother, I was only five, but she didn’t have any grownups ready to take responsibility. I was her only option, and I didn’t have much of a choice either. They just left us together saying, you must be good. My concern was that she should stay alive, and she did. Now, she is dying. I haven’t seen her for 15 years. I had my child, and then something went wrong between us. As she said, I was better and then something happened. Things just happen. They do, and nobody can stop them.
10th November, 1998
I was there when she died. I was outside her window, I sensed her going. The ward had not opened yet. The nurse wrapped her tiny body in a white sheet. Only a glass divided her last breath and words from me. I wish I was there. I was there, I know I was, and probably she did, too. When I entered the ward with a flower in my hand, I went to the door of her room. Its door was draped with sheets, and her tiny body was wrapped so that only a bit of her hair was showing at the top of her head. I wanted to see her face once more, but I didn’t ask to. I wanted to go yesterday and see her, but I didn’t. I am a coward, the selfish bitch I have always been towards her, or maybe it was meant to be so. Our only and last encounter was joyous, we laughed and made plans and talked about our past. We were a world of our own. I wish I had just one more chance to see her. I had it yesterday, but I was a coward. I was afraid of her death, but she was not afraid. My god, what cowardice can do to us. I close my eyes and think of her, I want to hold her cold hand once again. I should have gone, but I was a coward.
I am calm, I am holding my daughter’s hand. It is Biljana‘s hand when she was a kind, thin, firm young girl with long intelligent fingers. I am strangely calm, I feel her inside me, deep down inside me; I want to share her experience with the world. She will be a part of me forever. I am her vessel, she needs not a grave. She was never independent from me anyway, ever. Together we will deal with problems that we couldn’t deal with when we were apart: we will kill the beast and set the world free, and we will be happy. She told me she was happy, well, I am happy, too. I feel her happiness transmitted to me. I was standing near the window when she died, only a glass stood between us, but she came through it without a crack and into my skin. I am calm.
The woman in the newspaper office started crying when she saw Biljana’s photo with the death announcement. The other woman in the office dropped her work and started crying too. How did she die, please tell me, she insisted. I said, of a woman’s life. Please, they said. I said AIDS. They understood what I meant, I am not sure I understand what I meant, but the fact that they do makes me feel better.
For the first time in my life I understand the function of burial, of the ceremony of death. For the first time in my life I need it, like other normal people I know. I need to give prominence, visibility, words to my loss. I wish the funeral would last forever, like my pain, which will never end. Her hand in my hand is still there, I can feel it. Though I washed my hands and clothes thoroughly, because it was AIDS, because it was a ward for infectious diseases, I am not afraid that her aura can be diminished. Every hand I hold now is her hand too, her hand is like a glove to my hand, a glove of love and protection.
Yes, I can feel her love, finally free of life and social rules, finally simple and clean as it was before it got blurred, spoiled, confused with money and drugs. I am learning how to love too. My vanity has gone forever, I became humble in a moment, faced with her courage and heroic death. I saw fear in her eyes, I knew she was afraid to go, I know that she didn’t know where death leads. I know that she wanted to live, live, live. Just as she wanted to talk, talk, talk, saying all the unspoken secrets we shared all those years we were apart. Oh, yes, I was her treasure and island, as she was mine. Together, we were safe and compact. That was love, my first lesson of true love, which later developed into love for parents, partners, children, pets, arts. Oh yes, she taught me simply and clearly what giving without borders is…And then I became afraid, I didn’t want to give it anymore, when she hurt me, I closed myself. Now that she has opened the borders again, she has set me free, I can love her once more. She didn’t manage to read my book, she didn’t manage to finish her book. She didn’t manage to go to the Greek islands and watch the sea, swim like a fish, laugh like a baby… A lot was waiting for her, that’s what happens when you are young and innocent. But never mind, it is as if she read my book, as if she wrote it, and I miss so much her telling me off for my writing. My vanity is gone. I didn’t speak to her because she was angry with me, and now I can say that because of my vanity I never drank wine and talked arts and lives with her. This is my curse, my doom and my tragedy. And I deserve it. Now that I don’t have my vanity to protect me, I will have to drink wine, talk arts and lives with her substitutes, which they all are.
Today is the day after, it is worse, it isn’t better, it is just eternity. It seems it will never end and why should it. People around me are so time-centered, the fools. My life has become timeless, speeding ahead to a place where we will meet again. Never, ever did I tell her half of my feelings, as she never told me hers, and yet we both know, knew that only death will part us as it did. Or maybe not?
Am I going crazy with pain, with not being able to cope with this loss, guilt, anger? I want to see the rest of the family, their faces, the faces of their pain. Is their pain bigger, smaller, crazier than mine, or is it just painful and limited to itself? Is their pain their whole life as it is mine, or is mine a life restricted to pain?
12th November, 1998
Today was her funeral. Like two feuding Mafia families, our family and her husband’s family fought over her dead body. We, her family, came an hour earlier, because we were insecure: they had her, they paid for the funeral, they dictated the terms – bad terms for us. We had trouble finding the chapel, we didn’t know her last name: she had changed her surname and become one of them, a different nationality too. Another cousin said: isn’t it natural for her to lie next to her mother and not next to her father-in–law? I said, what about you? She was married, she changed her surname and she would obviously lie with her in-laws. I said that is women’s social destiny. Only stubborn women refuse it and pay a heavy price for not socializing.
We entered the chapel, took all the best places around the coffin and refused to move. I stood near her head, by her right hand, the hand that I held when she was dying. She was with me again, where else. She told me the best moments of her life were with me, when we were determined and unyielding. She was really brave. We were strong and free when together and thanks to that experience, we developed an awareness of not being free in many other situations that we thought of as natural. Our fathers and husbands could not break us. Better they kill us than break us.
At the funeral our uncle made a mistake: he called me by her name. Not once, but thrice. I knew he meant me when he said Biljana, so I said yes. He said sorry, I said don’t be.
Her grave is next to an endless field of golden crops, it is an Infinite like that of which Leopardi spoke. She is just near the fence which she can jump over whenever she feels free to fly. Somebody said of her once: She is too free. Is there such a thing as too much freedom? Free of one’s body?
Photo montages by Stephanie Damoff