Racing with Mortality
(In memoriam of my father)
by Alenka Kuhelj
““My toenails are getting brittle, I can barely manage to shape an aesthetically correct arch on the big toe,” she thinks to herself, in a state of panic, as she tends to her nails after showering. She glances at herself in the mirror, quickly looking away as her view fixes on her disheveled curls, which have become so sparse that the light from behind easily penetrates through. Her memory drifts back to her youth, when, looking at her father’s foot as he sat, bent over, trimming his toenails, she – even then – forcefully told herself that that would not happen to her. She thought that she was only afraid of those porous, brittle nails in which the years engraved elongated furrows, like the rings indicating the age of the dying stump of a sawed tree. Now, looking back, she knows that it was actually a premonition of passing, of dying away marked by the slow drying out of the body. As if it were trying to get away from her increasingly arid body, her hair is crafting its magnum opus: ever more unmanageable, ever more dry and removed. She had managed to bury the thought of those nails deep inside her for decades… or at least she thought. Being honest with herself, she realizes that that isn’t exactly true. Even before, she had had to chase away, with a conscious energy, as if she were shooing away an annoying bee that would not leave her alone, the thought of her aging father’s toenails. It is now twenty years since her father’s passing. And how many times the thought that dying around the age of fifty or sixty has a dual effect has crossed her mind! You die young, which is terrible, because you didn’t live to experience everything you could have: you leave behind a family that still needs you, you had ideas about what you wanted to do, where you’re going to go the next day, the next month, the next year… but you left, before the pains of old age could set in, before you had begun your descent from the high point of your life, before your extremities started to grow disproportionately, before you had “three legs”, as children like to joke about old men who need canes to move from point A to point B; before you needed those protective undergarments that give seniors a reason to appreciate the discreetness of online shopping.
When the end does come, death is truly terrible only for those who remain behind, and who feel their loss as an act of betrayal, of abandonment, that causes great pain as it tears at the body and soul. Before you understand how losing someone and that final, eternal loss can cause bodily pain, that incomprehensible tightness in the chest that spreads through the entire body, eventually reaching the head, where it produces a sensation akin to the brain exploding. A BOOOOOOM that never ends… and you suffer, and suffer. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in God and eternal life or reincarnation and inevitable repayment for the good one has done on Earth (it’s not like anyone believes he’s ever done anything bad); but until she receives confirmation of the existence of that wondrous world that follows life here on Earth, her belief is not exactly sincere. She believes, and yet she doesn’t really believe. Thinking about it, only now she begins to understand the saying “those whom the gods love die young”. Soon after the death of her father she felt a hatred towards those who would tell her that: both the young, who were more subdued in their consolation, and those with more experience, who were more brazen. In either case, the words were always somewhat muffled, as if the speaker didn’t fully believe them, and had rolled them around in his mouth before uttering them, skeptically, but in the hope that they were true.
She isn’t exactly pleased with these thoughts, as her conscience pries at her, as if to say that it is okay that her father died. But within herself, she knows that they eat away at her only when she thinks of others, of those around her who would be taken aback if they knew what was going through her mind. Courtesy for “others” was something she grew up with and something that, truthfully, she does not like. “What will the neighbors think if you… when you…” were words that echoed in her ears when she was younger. And even later, when she had a family of her own and problems that she didn’t really attempt to conceal, these and other “neighbors” were with her the whole time. But it didn’t always bother her when someone would mention this person or that person who was spreading this or that rumor about her. She would simply wave it off, as if to say: “Let them have their fun, seeing as they don’t have a life of their own.” If she really thinks about it, those things that we say in passing, that someone “doesn’t have a life”, are truly awful. It’s a fate she would never wish for herself or her loved ones. Lives are variably long or short… but they are always limited. Each of us has an expiration date. We just can’t read it. She thinks of a bar code, made up of numbers and thin black lines, stamped on every person she meets. Her lips turn up at the corners to form a smile. She also looks at herself. How intuitive would it be, she thinks, if that bar code were stamped on our left shoulder, in the back, where the shoulder blade ends, in the spot where some people get tattoos of butterflies, hearts, crosses, circles or countless other things that people can think to have inked into their bodies. She herself has been toying with the idea of getting a tattoo for several years now… the sign for eternity, that spiral design. She’d get it where the back and neck meet. She has yet to get up the courage to do it. At the last moment, there’s always something holding her back: a son who doesn’t want too youthful a mom (since they’ve been giving away tattoos that only last until the next shower with chewing gum, he’s equated tattoos with youth), or even the ridiculous thought, grounded in statistics, that a person with a tattoo has a harder time finding employment than someone with “clean skin”. She’s never been fond of excuses, and yet she’s always let them put a damper on her life. Until now. It’s just a matter of finding the nearest parlor, and she’ll get the sign she wants. But it has to be hygienically spotless. Maybe tomorrow… Her afternoon is already booked, as she had promised to take her daughter shopping. Her daughter’s recent shopping ideas often leave her confused. Thanks to the internet, her eight year old knows exactly what she wants and where to get it. Which wouldn’t be that bad if, outside the entrance to a store, she didn’t point out whether it’s OK for a mom in her forties (she doesn’t say it explicitly, but by scanning her from head to toe with a smirk on her face) to shop there or whether she would be “so embarrassed”. “It’s my fault,” she thinks, “I let her behave like she’s going through puberty.” At the same time, she is aware that she is proud of her daughter, because she reminds her of her and the rebellious energy she had in her youth. Again she thinks of her father and of how he understood and supported her in nearly everything she did when she was young. If it wasn’t something completely stupid, he was prepared to overlook it; sometimes, he would even take part in her capers. That’s probably why today she is permissive with her own children. Even when they remind her how aged she looks in their eyes. She would usually take their critiques in good stride, but today, with her thoughts drifting towards ephemerality and the inevitable end, she can’t bring herself to smile at her daughter’s concern with the age of a twenty-something crossing the street. Furthermore, her husband’s inquiries (it’s been two months now) about what she wants for her birthday are getting on her nerves. She knows she’s in the wrong here; her husband loves her, and the gift is his way of doing her bidding. But why, for the love of god, must he point out, every time, the ordinal number of this birthday, and with it her age? Of course, the poor guy has no idea that she’s being haunted by the thought of mortality and that every night, she prays that she’ll have a long life and that she’ll be with her children long after her and her husband, or even her children, have become grandparents. But now, she’s beginning to wonder why God doesn’t appear on high and explain to her that she can’t be the first person to live on Earth forever (well, besides her children, and let’s not forget her husband, whom she loves and would not want to lose). She’s been entertaining this idea of immortality and her self-serving uniqueness in this regard since her early youth. Even as a child, she would seek out a place to hide from reality and the ephemeral world. And she would find it in books. Sometimes, with a cold sense of purpose, she would look for her “special” immortality in all kinds of different literary genres. She read through entire chests of books, and yet she never got outright confirmation, except maybe in science fiction and humorous books. She knows that it would befit her, at this age, to come to terms with the silliness of her youthful ideas, but she can’t stop being herself… Deep down, she can’t let herself lose her childhood belief in eternal life. She admits that recently she was mad at her husband after he shared his own identical ideas about immortality with her, thereby shaking her belief that hers was a unique wish. Of course she didn’t admit that she herself has a similar wish and that up to that point she had thought that that’s just how it’s going to be. Only for her (and then of course for the ones she chooses). “Let him live in the world he took from me,” she thought to herself, sticking her nose in the air and contorting her face.
Summer days are long and even the children, who bombard her with their daily wishes about what they’d like to do, play, eat and drink and take up the lion’s share of her time, exhaust their repertoire of demands and needs by evening. That’s when her email time begins. It’s mostly ads unnecessarily cluttering her inbox. Sometimes, when she’s stressed out, she’ll intuitively smack down the delete key, deleting a mail that she actually should read. That’s exactly what happened today with an email from a friend. It’s someone who she won’t see for years at a time, even though she lives just a few blocks away. They keep in touch through phone calls and emails. The days are too short for her to get together with her girlfriends or join them at the gym or yoga or even at a store. It’s different with family friends. Entire weekends will be reserved for them, and it’s easier because she’s making plans for the whole family. It’s easier than if she were to go somewhere by herself. She knows that that’s pretty unusual for women her age, and her friends tell her about how their children are already independent and they have a lot of time for themselves. Some of her friends with teenagers don’t even know what to do with all the time, and spend their days surfing the web for things to do, from vegan cooking classes (who knows, maybe they’ll become vegans) to book clubs, or clubs for lonely hearts, as she likes to call them. She doesn’t mean to be rude, but she really doesn’t get how anyone can be “on the go” (home-work-home) all day and then want to share emotions felt while reading a book, before going to bed after a hard day’s work. Her thoughts return to the email from her friend she was thinking about before she got sucked into a mental vortex of responsibilities and excuses. She could detect in her friend’s mail the same fear she herself was experiencing: that she has a backlog of things that still need to be sorted out in her head. Mental sorting never was her strong suit, but now she’s feeling it just as acutely as her friend, who wrote about how, over dinner, when her husband wasn’t home, she explained to her only child, a teenage girl, that she isn’t the only child in the family, and that she had lost two children in previous pregnancies. She says things are better at home now, and her daughter isn’t so temperamental. She’s even putting less energy into slamming the door to her room; now she’s gentler about it, as if she were trying to tell her mother that she understands the loss that she previously couldn’t even begin to imagine. She thinks to herself that she should be grateful that she never had an abortion. A few years ago she did want to adopt a child, but neither her husband nor her son took her seriously. Only her daughter, four years old at the time, was cheering for it, as she saw an opportunity to get a playmate. For her part, she wasn’t decisive enough to convince her husband about her excellent idea, as she had in numerous other matters. Thinking about her determination – or lack thereof – she gets lost in a train of thought. She misses herself. She misses the ideas that, when she was young, she almost always managed to bring to fruition. Or, as she called them, her projects. Even if they were small, and outwardly unimportant – knitting a sweater or reading, over the summer, the works of Shakespeare taking up an entire rack at the local library – she would always go about them in earnest and see them through to completion. Over the years, there were fewer and fewer projects. With a job and a family came responsibilities and fewer and fewer projects. Then one day, when there were no more projects, she realized that she herself had ceased to exist. She felt as if she had lost that joy she once felt with herself… as if she could only take pleasure in the successes of her children and her husband. She had long since stopped being able to derive joy from her work-related achievements, even though many a co-worker would jealously keep track of her every change of office or move to a different floor as if they were following her career. As the number on the button she pressed in the elevator that took her to her office grew, she lost her enthusiasm for the work she did. She found that she needed challenges and that the higher up she was, challenges were harder and harder to come by. It’s not that she was complaining about her work, which, at this point, had become pretty much routine; she found herself missing the rush, that pleasant feeling of excitement that comes from finishing something and anxiously waiting for someone to acknowledge that she had done well. Now she’s the one who metes out recognition to young people, that is, to those just setting out on the path she once walked. Sometimes, of course, she can’t. And she really hates that, because she remembers how she was and the times she waited, with high hopes, for praise from a superior, or at least a smile, or a passing nod signifying approval. Now, reflecting on herself, the projects, the challenges, she’s increasingly convinced that she can’t stay on this track. She needs a change of direction, to rekindle that spark of joy she once had, before she began exclusively caring for others and dealing with their problems and wishes. Her children bring her great joy, but their problems and tribulations, and often also their demands and screaming, occasionally drive her crazy. Especially when her daughter decides that the day ahead is going to go according to “her rules” and begins barking commands already during morning bathroom rituals. Those are the most exhausting days. But what of it? She understands her youngest child. She’s trying to make her voice heard in the family even if that means establishing a military dictatorship of screaming and orders. She then thinks about all those parenting handbooks she read over the past seventeen years and the measures they recommend. Before her son was born, she remembers, she bought books not only on infant care, infant psychology, how to bundle a baby, and similar topics. She went beyond that, thinking and reading about the kind of things she can expect as her son becomes a toddler, as he takes his first steps. By the time he was born, she had already hit puberty in her reading. She always was theoretically prepared, knowing in advance how to act when one of the situations foreseen by renowned pediatricians and child psychologists arose. But truth be told, she can’t even begin to recall all the times she raised her voice or slammed the door to enforce her authority. And each time she knew that that was unacceptable, and not in line with contemporary child rearing trends. But in her defense, those manuals only foresee the child’s behavior, and fail to take into account whether mom got up on the wrong side of the bed, or sang in the shower, or barely managed, with her last atoms of strength, to drag herself into the kitchen to make her morning coffee. By the time her daughter was born, her faith in theory had waned, and she handled parenting on a day-to-day basis. She used some charts and calendars with rewards and sanctions (which she would erase from the chart on the refrigerator a day or two later) with her daughter, but her fervor for the academic side of parenting had passed. She also found that if the books say that over ninety percent of children behave in such and such a manner, that doesn’t mean that there is any certainty that her offspring will fall under the average. Actually, the opposite was true, and her children almost always fell outside of it. Who would have though…?
Meanwhile, her quest for faith in the existence of god led her in the opposite direction. Instead of searching for answers in books and scholarly articles, in her search for god, for eternity, she withdrew into her own world and away from institutionalized faith. She found several similarly minded souls with whom she shared the experience of having a wish fulfilled at the wellspring of life and hope and a belief in the existence of a parallel, ethereal world. And that had sufficed until now. But as she grows older, she finds herself wanting to find that from which she had been running all this time: a community of believers, of those who share her beliefs, guided by trust and humility before God. But she still doesn’t know where she belongs. In the environment where she spent her youth, there wasn’t a choice – either you belong to the one and only religion, which operated in the background, or you were an atheist. The thought always brings her back to her political education teacher at the university, who – this was under communism – explained that there are two types of people: those who believe in the equality of all people, in Marxism and Leninism, and those who believe in the “cat’s tail”. “Better to believe in a cat’s tail than Marx and Lenin as the fathers of all creation,” she thought to herself even then, as she listened to the lectures of this now deceased professor. Now, as she searches for a place for her soul, jokes from her youth don’t really help. Except when she and her husband revisit those times to regale their children their children with tales of how under communism, jokes about political leaders were not allowed, of how there was only one legally sanctioned political party, and it would recruit children in schools for its youth organizations, and of how parents were jailed because of children who, in their innocence, would repeat what they had heard their parents say over the weekend. As her children listen, their jaws drop and their eyes grow wide. “I’d like to take a peek inside their children’s souls to see what’s going on there as they listen about my youth,” she often wishes. She believes that despite her descriptions of life at the time, her children can hardly fathom the reality of that uniform, forced education. Parents at home had to go along with it if they wanted to remain with their families and have some semblance of a normal life. Her memories again drift to her father, who had had the habit of drawing the shades the moment it got dark outside. Then he would relax a bit, and sometimes even tell a joke or relate an event having to do with politics. He also read banned books, hiding them in a specially built shelf in the attic. Recently, she found herself rather annoyed with her mother on several occasions, as she caught her shutting the blinds the same way her father once did. She tried to tell her that shutting the blinds was something from a different time, but she couldn’t sway her. How many times, she thought, have I tried to tell her: we live in a democracy now, everything is different and nobody cares what she does at home… at least not in the sense of reporting “anti-state activities” to the police. Her mother would always cast a sideward glance at her as she spoke, and she could see in her eyes that she didn’t believe her, and that she shouldn’t even bother because she wasn’t listening. Everything her father did her mother continued doing, for twenty years now. As if time stood still for her when he died. And maybe it did, and the scene on her life stage froze. People come and go, but she just watches them from her little booth with no doors, without a key or even a lock. Every time she thinks of her mother she’s brushed by sadness. When her mother lost her husband, her father, she became an ice queen. Waiting. And nobody can help her, because she won’t let them to help her.
There once was a time when she had a delightful obsession with the changing of the seasons. The way she saw it, they went in the following order: winter, spring, summer and fall. In school, she was actually bothered by how, when they teach the seasons, they start with spring. She found it highly illogical, as winter begins, or continues, at the coming of each new year. As a child, she eagerly awaited the first day of school. At the end of August, her parents would “equip” her with a multi-purpose fall wardrobe, including new shoes suitable for rainy days and pelerines which could be turned inside out depending on whether it was raining or not. She still happily remembers the first days of school, when, still dark from the summer sun, she would anxiously await the rain and bad weather so she could show off her new clothes. She found spring especially pleasant, as the first warm rays of sunshine began to heat the air. Like every child, she too needed new clothes for each season, and nothing could beat shopping for spring attire. Even before the school year came to a close, it was like a fashion show, and she would plan a new outfit for each day as they days grew nicer and nicer. If she really thinks about it, the happy feelings that accompanied the changing of the seasons were more about fashion and shopping than what she feels and sees today. Really. Recently, when she looks around, she also notices her natural surroundings. Looking through her window throughout the year, she marvels at the leaves of three big, old trees. She watches them change colors and listens to their rustling, which can be soft, like the caress of a mother’s hand, or angry and uproarious, as if driven by some unstoppable force.
She also remembers the “problems” she had with numbers and letters. As she rode the bus to school, in her mind she would juggle the letters of the words that flashed before her eyes. She would split them in half, and search out the “middle” letter; if it was a long word, she would first classify it as odd or even, and then would look for the middle. Quickly and aptly, especially when the bus drove through the industrial zone, which was full of signs. Today, people on buses have their eyes fixated on their cell phones, playing games, sending emails, searching for their next vacation destination on Google… Nobody sees where they’re going or how the surroundings change with each new day. She thinks to herself that it would be interesting if passengers had to fill out a survey about what they had seen when they step off the bus. Well, she wasn’t much better when she was young. Back then, people couldn’t even begin to imagine cell phones. But it wasn’t out of the ordinary for people to carry books or magazines with them, or to stare out the window and think about who knows what. If she were to mention this to her children, they would almost certainly roll their eyes. As she is wont to do in such situations, her daughter would ask: “Mom, were there dinosaurs around back then?” Her son would wisely keep quiet and wait for his sister to finish saying out loud what both of them were thinking.
She realizes that as the years go by, she’s increasingly drawn to the sea. When she was roughly the same age as her daughter is now, a family friend said, in passing and out of the blue, that the older a person gets, the more they are drawn to the earth. She doesn’t know why, but she’s never been able to forget those words. Maybe it’s because at the time, she found this statement from a thirty-something friend of her mom and dad who had always had a way with jokes hilarious, or because, even as a child, it made her think of death. The reason is unimportant. What matters is that the “joke” has stayed with her ever since. But when she stops to thinks about it, she realizes she can no longer identify with it. Compared to the sea, the earth doesn’t mean much to her. Yes, the sea, not the water in rivers or lakes. Not water per se. That infinite blue surface with shades of blue, green and even, along the shore, brown which can’t be captured in a photograph no matter how hard one tries. That murmur that can at any moment change from a light rustling and plopping on the small stones on the shore to a forceful roar and crash, as the waves collide with the large rocks as if the latter were attempting to defend the land from the sea, mutely and stoically absorbing its onslaught. Both scenes challenge her to think about how small and powerless man is, about how, even though he has equipped himself with all kinds of technology, and even sent it into outer space, man attempts to create the illusion of his supremacy over nature. And the sea just splashes on, as if laughing at his failed attempts. Every summer for the past couple of years, she’s chosen to go on vacation to the same beach. The children are already starting to get sick of it, and every spring, as thoughts of the sea begin to gnaw at her, and as she browses the web for summer vacation destinations, she wonders out loud where they should go this summer. Her children stop her and tell her not to waste time on the internet because she already knows exactly where they’re going and that she, that is they, will eventually decide on the same destination as last year, and the year before… Yes, it’s obviously a corner of the earth connected to the sea, a corner that decisively draws her in, to the point that she can’t imagine summer without it. Her husband, who usually only joins the hunt for a vacation near its end, when he needs to take out a credit card and make a payment, quietly shares her love for the sea. It is as if he also feels that indescribable pull that the infinite sea has there, at that very spot. He’s a man, so he’ll never come out and say it. He doesn’t reveal his feelings like she does, but that doesn’t bother her. She even likes how, in the middle of a torrent of words, as she tries to explain a thought that has come over her, he’ll gently take her hand and, without looking at her, let it go, letting the energy of love and approval flow through his hand and into hers. At that moment they are one, two little people, standing on the shore of the sea as it reminds them that it will be there eternally, long after they are gone.
Alenka Kuhelj is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. She is a Professor of Law at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Alenka is the author of many short stories and an unpublished novel. For the past few months, she has been working on a memoir set both in Communist and post-Communist times. She loves her husband Bojan and their two kids, Max and Athena. Her main interests include writing, history, justice and fairness, and the beautiful sandy beaches of Rhodes.