Is there love after death?
I vividly remember that night on December 31 many years ago. I hesitated until the very last moment whether to stay at home or go to the New Year’s party. „Maybe you shouldn’t go, grandpa is feeling unwell,“ my dad said. „Go, everything will be fine,“ my mom said. I went. The party wasn’t great, and I kept thinking about what was happening at home. And when I returned in the morning, grandpa was already gone. We never said goodbye.
I don’t know what explosions are, and I haven’t seen war with my own eyes. War for me is fear, readiness, speed, and cold-bloodedness. That’s how the first days of the war were for me. I saw everything around me as if through peripheral vision, but my focus was on my child. I quickly packed our two backpacks, hugged all of my family members without shedding a single tear, and we left our home.
My grandfather’s name was Hryts. I remember when I was little, I thought it was the most suitable name for any grandfather. The name Hryts was of a yellow-hot color, it smelled of summer, straw, ball games, sounded like a grandfather’s accordion, and the mournful mooing of a cow trying to break loose and head to the pasture. „It’s good to know how to do everything, but do nothing,“ my grandfather would say. Back then, I didn’t understand those words, but now I often recall them when I do what is expected of me, but I don’t quite understand it. When my grandfather said that phrase, he had probably already gone through the stage of internships, incomprehensible project work, and searching for himself. He knew so much and was able to do everything so well that he had only to give up on all that knowledge and finally focus on truly important matters: teaching his grandchildren to write, sharpening the scythe, and sorting beans.
I arrived in Germany after my little death. My old life had ended, a new, unknown one had begun. A sense of danger hung over me, hovering in the German air over the carefree, noisy crowd of students, over the calm splashing of the lake, over the children’s playgrounds, over the flickering shopping centers. I was amazed that no one noticed it. I wanted to stop everyone and say, „Look up, do you hear it, see it, feel it? This is danger.“ I liked to silently stare at my plate during lunch, lock my room, watch senseless movies, and stare for a long time at the black branches of the linden tree outside the window. That’s how proteins denature and no longer recover under the influence of high temperatures. This is how I emerged on the German shore from boiling waters, my molecules of joy and love folded up, seemingly gone forever. My life resembled the branches of the linden tree in the window, gray, ascetic, and unpromising.
If every person could be described in a few words, then about my grandfather I would say „love for life“. He didn’t just love living and he didn’t just live for himself, he fought, gnawed, and wrested this opportunity from fate every day. It’s not easy when you have a severe form of asthma. His breathing could be heard from another room. Wheezing sounds of spasming airways, sharp and labored inhalation, helpless and prolonged exhalation, red eyes strained with effort, inflamed dry cheeks, and the contours of stretched veins on his thin hands. „Write ‚A‘, good job, now ‚B‘,“ he tells my little sister. „You’re so eager, grandpa’s little flower.“ Grandpa’s teeth rest in a jar on the shelf, all of them falling out at once due to periodontitis, but even here he did not see it as something bad, he didn’t throw them away, he started collecting them for my cousin who was studying to become a dentist and needed human teeth for practice (tell me, what are students without relatives with periodontitis supposed to do?). He would hand the jar of teeth over to my cousin, smiling with his toothless mouth. I’m in another room, I hear grandpa, inhale, exha-a-a-a-a-le, inhale, exha-a-a-a-a-le. Unconditional love, „don’t let go of me, life, don’t let go,“ somewhere amidst the noises of his breathing.
„Mom, look, a heart,“ Sofia tells me. And indeed, one of the branches of the lime tree forms something resembling a heart in shape. Now, falling asleep and waking up, we look out the window at the black heart against the backdrop of the sky. Everything changes when one morning, waking up first, I don’t see the heart in the window. It’s not visible, there is lush greenery in its place. Spring has come. Spring has come, and I didn’t even notice. And then everything went like in a rapid and turbulent romance. Smells hit me, the ultraviolet of the newborn delicate sun, juicy untamed grass, children’s playgrounds, a swing, Sofia upside down on it, bicycles given to us by a German friend, wind in my hair, pedals squeaking, falling into bushes, I plunged headfirst into relationships I had never known before. „Can this be true, does it really happen?“ I thought. „Do molecules of joy and love really regenerate?“ If I understood chemistry, maybe I would have made some great scientific discovery, worthy of a Nobel Prize, but I’m really bad at chemistry, so all I could do was wander around the parks like a fool, inhaling the scents of just-bloomed strange bushes and flowers. Perhaps this is how the greatest scientific discoveries of humanity get lost. And when I finally thought I should get myself together, I’m a grown-up after all, and these romances with nature are no longer suitable for me, something happened that made my exit from these relationships impossible. I found out that there’s a lake four tram stops from my house. Sofia and I went there by tram, and when I saw it, I cried. „Don’t let me go, just don’t let me go,“ my grandfather sang to me in his whistling voice from somewhere beyond, but I didn’t stop him.
For a long time after my grandfather’s death, I was tormented by guilt. Why did I go to that stupid party that night? I could have stayed home and said goodbye to him. That night my grandfather didn’t want to go, he wasn’t ready, he couldn’t believe until the last moment that it was time. My sister was only seven, there was still so much she needed to learn. „Give me something, anything,“ he squeezed my mother’s hand, who had been his personal nurse for their entire married life, administering hormones and setting up IVs. Mom gave him the injection, and he asked for more. He clung to her hand, like a person hanging over a precipice. „How can you endure such terrible pain, such agony and still want to live?“ I sometimes asked myself, but I never asked him.
Do molecules of protein restore after exposure to excessively high temperatures? Knowledgeable people say no. Do molecules of joy and love restore after a small death? It turns out they do. Although, in reality, my love for life did not restore or return, that’s not true. It became completely different. It was a love for life that I never had before, that I didn’t know at all. A new feeling, mature and childish at the same time. People touched me with their humanity, animals with their animality, music acquired taste, food – sound. I started doing things I never did before – easily hugged at meetings and farewells, bought short sweaters that I always thought weren’t for me (now everything is for me, everything), tried scary-looking exotic fruits. Sofia and I sat for days by an old water mill in the neighboring park, waiting for it to finally grind all the water, lying on the grass, dipping our feet in the cold water of the lake. My goodness, I didn’t know what it was like to live, it seems none of us did. I think only grandpa Hryts knew. He knew but kept quiet. He knew that this couldn’t be shared, this knowledge couldn’t be transmitted, it could only be gained. Probably, even now, dying, I would scream, „Give me something, give me something!“ I’m sitting on the shore of the lake, the sun warms my bare belly, and finally, I’m not so fat for short sweaters. People are starting to swim, ducks are swimming past them (fearless German ducks). There’s a war in my country, all my relatives are there, everything I love is there, it makes it hard to breathe, as if you have a severe form of asthma. I breathe in short gasps and exhale for a long and helpless time. It’s hard, but I don’t want to stop („give me something, give me something“).
A few years after his death, my grandfather appeared in my dream. He appeared to me only once in that dream. I was at his funeral, standing in the room near the door in it. He was lying in a black suit, pale and serious. I stood there and, as always, reproached myself for not saying goodbye to him before he passed away. Suddenly, my grandfather sat up in his coffin and said, „Alright, dear guests, now anyone who hasn’t had a chance to say goodbye, please come up and do so.“ I was overjoyed; it was a unique opportunity that I had been waiting for so long. I said my goodbyes, and a few more people approached him. And then he calmly lay back down and passed away again.
Love for life… It turns out, I never knew what it was, none of us did.
Short inhale, lo-o-o-o-o-ng exhale, pain, joy, trials, love, suffering, pleasure. Don’t let me go, just don’t let go…
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan