Talking About …

April 4, 2012

Gracious Living Day by DayI would like to open up a conversation – about a difficult subject.

I have always believed that it takes more effort and energy to avert one’s eyes from what frightens us than to look at awe-inspiring mysteries straight in the face. Unblinking.

These are my thoughts.

Candles in a Serbian Orthodox Church - burning for the souls of the departed

Candles in a Serbian Orthodox Church - burning for the souls of the departed

For most of my early life I had lived under the illusion that I was immortal. In childhood, I was sure that I was. I felt so full of strength and energy, I knew that I would live forever.

But an even greater assurance of everlasting life in this world was the fact that I was beloved. How could my parents, my grandparents, my family, the world continue without me?

Now, I wouldn’t want you to think that I lived in an insular or sheltered culture. Just the opposite. Death was an integral part of the Serbian narrative and I grew up hearing stories of wars and death, of children dying young – my grandmother’s brother, my mother’s brother, my father’s brother and many others.

But that had happened to them, that could not happen to me. I was special. I was me.

During my childhood we talked about death often. I learned Serbian epic poetry from listening to my grandfather’s recitations long before I learned to read –  and most of it was about fighting and battles, and old warriors who knew how to face death with courage and panache.

My grandfather, Nikola, bemoaned the fact that so many young members of the Rakic family had been killed by the Germans during the war, and buried in our family cemetery plot. He wasn’t sure there would be enough room left for him and he wanted to spend eternity nowhere else. (Room was found for him and my grandma after all, although they had to be buried on top of each other.)

But until I was an adult, I was mostly spared personal contact with death. My beloved grandparents lived well into their late nineties and when they died, I was far away across the ocean. Other family members died, but again, they were in Serbia and I was in the US. I only heard stories, I was not a witness.

All those stories of Serbian warriors dying in glorious battles did not prepare me well for my mother’s illness and death. For a long time, close to a decade, my mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. It is a horrible, slow, painful way to weaken, to disintegrate both in mind and body. I had moments during the long years of her suffering when I thought that I would be glad and relieved (for her and for all of us) when she was finally at peace.

When my mother died, it was the first time I saw death in person.

I will tell you this – the most frightening and despondent sight of my entire life was the emptiness of my mother’s eyes after the nurse opened them to confirm that she had died.

I realized then that my mother had crossed a frontier. We were separated, detached, disunited. We were in different worlds. And all I could do was wonder – will we ever, ever see each other again?

To be continued tomorrow …

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