Open-ended lives

I was 12 and going to the seaside with my folks in a light blue Dacia we called Mițuna. It was a second-hand Dacia 1310 that someone had stuck a 4 on. The pride this trick would bring me is hard to explain – I would tell everyone I had a Dacia 1410, and this made me feel damn special and certainly less poor. There was frequent sighing, a lot of talking, and mom fanned herself with her crossword puzzle while stretching her legs out the window. I remember she wore dark red nail polish. I looked at her nails, then at the sky, then at the fields, then at the sky, and then back at the fields – the line of the horizon put me in a pleasant daze. Stop that, you’re going to be sick. Look ahead, dad said over his shoulder, from behind the steering wheel. But I didn’t like looking ahead – because ahead I could see everything at once. Sideways, the image moved quickly, in frames jumbled up and fused together by the car’s speed. I never knew what was going to come next.

Suddenly, we slowed down. Dad grumbled as we had stumbled upon something called a jam – there’s a jam, where’s the jam coming from, wonder how long the jam will last. We craned our necks with curiosity, and so did our right-hand neighbours. Lord, have mercy, mom said. And I saw: a pond of oil mixed with blood that was two lanes long and wide. Pieces of broken headlights, scattered like the mirror in “The Snow Queen”. A ball of metal and a few inert bodies were placed in parallel on the side of the road. Perhaps four or six. They were young – I could see their faces. My folks crossed themselves, mom spat on her breast, dad knocked thrice on the dashboard. As for myself, I was wide-eyed: That’s not me, but it could have been. I beheld some kids that had wanted to have fun, crammed themselves into a car, and drove at full speed, a speed that had promised them the joy of going somewhere together and eventually led to everything crumbling to pieces. The thought of it choked me, and I found myself incapable of either breathing or thinking. In the car, we had lost track of time. The heat no longer bothered us and now the thought of going to the seaside hardly brought us any joy. Our family was used to always chatting, even when there was nothing to say: it was the first time we couldn’t find any words to say.

Then the sky became smaller, and death came closer to home.

I grew up in the district of Crângași, where death belonged to all, regardless of whether we knew each other or not. I’d seen everything: from wakes in nylon tents in the backyard of our apartment blocks to mourners and fiddlers that went on about grief and heartache, to coins being tossed on streets, underneath accordions, over which a crowd of children, myself included, would fight. I would also attend these funerals to collect money for Magic croissants or Chupa Chups whistle pops. It was always fun to compete over the little coins that clinked and shone on the pavement.

Soon, death came to our floor. Apartment 56, opposite mine. You’d simply know. A candle and a rectangular piece of black fabric, tied by a thread at the middle into the shape of a bow, reigned at the doorway and gave you a pit in the stomach. The door would stay cracked open for a couple of days, during which time you could unknowingly peep inside and inevitably fall into the universe of the man who no longer was. There was invariable darkness and coldness there. A story ended, only to be followed by others. The lid of the coffin that was prompted against the entrance would disappear, the door would close and everything would eventually be left behind.

Then there were the deaths at the factory where my parents used to work at. This was how I learned about cancer, heart attacks, and suicide. It was the first time I had thought about people that saw life as being simply too much. And this seemed to me neither strange nor tabu, just sad and hard to comprehend. I unknowingly put myself in their shoes, as if living their deaths from the tranquility of my own home. I had questions that I could never voice aloud, as I had grown up hearing that I was only a child and that until they were all grown up, children did not understand much of anything. They filled my head at night when I closed my eyes amongst the stuffed animals: Did they have a family? Did they feel sick before it happened? When did they last come to the factory? Who did they last talk to and about what?  Were they a jokester or rather morose? Did they ever visit us? Would their death weigh my parents down, would they be troubled from now on? It was a fascination that was hard to explain because in the world I came from, there was only one word for it: macabre.

In his theory of the sublime, eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke proposes the notion of “negative pain”: the idea that a feeling of fear—paired with a sense of safety, and the ability to look away—can produce a feeling of delight. One woman can sit on her couch with a glass of Chardonnay and watch another woman drink away her life. The TV is a portal that brings the horror close, and a screen that keeps it at bay—revising Burke’s sublime into sublime voyeurism, no longer awe at the terrors of nature but fascination at the depths of human frailty. (Leslie James - “The Empathy Exams”)

Human frailty continued to show itself to me. A classmate, whose mother died run over by a car while crossing a pedestrian crosswalk with a green light. The bright, handsome classmate from elementary school that I would ride the 41 with each evening when going home, who died in a motorbike accident. A dog I fed on the side of the road became frightened by a sudden move my dad made and ran into the street, where a car propelled it from my sight. The friend that died in a boating accident in Asia, whose number I still have in my phone contact list.

Then it happened to us. The aunt and grandparents I had spent all my summers with died because of carbon monoxide intoxication, as they were watching television together, a few days before Christmas. I was 17. My grandma from my mother’s side was next, after 15 years of living paralysed. Last came grandpa, in November of 2020, four days before I turned 31. It was a moment of transition, painful not because of death per se, but because the poles in my family were shifting: mom and dad were growing old and therefore increasingly child-like. I and my sister were becoming adults and therefore increasingly eager to be young again. The generations were moving up through time, and I was facing the end of childhood.

Suddenly, time began to pass differently, time seemed empty:

Will it soon be my turn to take care of all this?

When the time comes, will I find a way to mourn them in my own way, as they go in theirs?

What if I die before them?

Once grandpa died, I remembered that funerals in the countryside are not easy to go through. It’s terrible to be unable to weep over the shrieking of others – others that have purposely come to be heard sobbing. Everything is much too visible: both the broken heart –  mine, as well as the never-worn long-distance shoes – of the deceased. I didn’t want to carry on rituals that did not make passing easier: turning over or covering the mirrors inside the house – bridges to the other side where the soul could remain captive – a custom that made my mind go so frantic that I would become startled by each mirror I saw; the women of the village who came to cook, wash and dress the body in its new clothes – amused by how upon seeing her father dying because of a hemorrhage under her very eyes, my mom became so frightened that she ran to the village to seek help; the people who watched over him on the first night of the wake – in the room in which ever since I can remember I would look at the stars with my mother and listen to the frogs’ performance over on the river bed in the valley – all far too eager to jest and chat; the sleepless night we took turns to keep vigil – an absurd carnival that forced my mother to see her still father for hours, without a moment of shut-eye.

And I couldn’t shed a tear. I don’t know whether it was out of principle or helplessness, but I could not weep in front of others. I am one to stand on my feet for hours at funerals – I move wreaths away, light candles, freeze to death, give funeral alms, console families, and although I’ve always felt strong enough to lift others up, I’ve never had the strength to do the same for myself. Because it was never about me, but always about them. This last time, after grandpa, I held back my tears for two hours on the way from the village back to Bucharest (I had convened with my sister that such was life, it was just the way things were), as well as during the six metro stations I traveled on my own back home. I kept it all in until I entered the door and went to the bathroom. There, propped against the rack, my nose between the robes and towels, I cried and wailed on my own behind the closed door. In that corner no one could enter, I allowed death to make itself felt. Everything was a living hell. I then washed my face, rubbed an ice cube around my eyes, took a Quarelin and three Vagostabyls, gulped down a glass of wine, and went to sleep all numb, with blood-shot eyes and a sludgy mind.

I’ve often heard because such is the custom. I knew it was probably the last time when I was to see such a thing in the history of our family.

I do not care to hear the women of the village talking about the death scene or about how the blood was bursting out of grandpa like a pig being slaughtered. I don’t care to pass hens that are neither dead nor living over the coffin. I don’t care to walk for three kilometers behind an ever-hooting hearse throughout the whole village. I don’t care to stop at each crossroads and throw coins. On a road that is too long, journeyed with steps that are too slow, I don’t care to have anybody looking at my pain as I look at the face of a dead body that no longer resembles my grandpa at all, asking myself: Who is this? And who am I? Whose arm am I holding? Is this Mother or my child? When death comes to my own home, I want it to be night, the night of intimacy, night as in the abyss of one’s mind. To suffer in silence, without the curiosity of others burdening me. To have the stories sing, to breathe in the memories, to remember the man as he was alive when we enjoyed sharing meatballs and sheep’s cheese with one another. Perhaps that’s precisely why I used to struggle so much with all the questions about my folks’ workmates – my mind could take in their death more easily if I tried to imagine as clearly as possible who they were, how they had lived, what they had given up, whom they had loved. Exactly how we recognise the people we know best by their steps and shoes: tic-tac-tic-tac – hear them coming up the stairs – heart-like.

After hours of crying in the bathroom and enough powder to cover everything up, I accepted the death of my last grandparent. I accepted that a part of his story will always be within me.

Born in a family of tailors and sheepskin coat makers, grandpa was his parents’ eighth child, and four of his brothers had died at a young age. He worked in seven different lines of work and traveled the country long and wide. He did time in prison for mistakenly killing a man when he worked as a driver in Alexandria. The dumper truck he was driving hitched the tarpaulin of an Aro coming from the opposite direction. There were four men inside the car – the tallest amongst them was hit on the head and died shortly after.

The years that followed were harsh on grandpa Milică: he took care of grandma – who had been kind and lively and then became paralysed for 15 years. He chopped dill and parsley, they cooked their soups together, he raised dozens of pigeons in the attic of their house and then grilled their meat for them both. Despite having only four years of schooling, he would tell stories you would see without ever having been there yourself.

The day he died, grandpa had a glass of beer. He didn’t have his coffee-soaked bread, although it was the way he had started his day for over a year. He had hidden little notes containing poems and musings all over the house: under the carpets, the covers, the door sill. He didn’t want us to lose track of him, although he was not prepared to die: his death was sudden, yet foreseen through his never-ending hemorrhage. I’m now left with his jokes, his religious chants, and his recipe for beer and plum brandy-drenched lamb.

I’m left with the characters he alone knew. Also, with the regret of not having known him better, of not having listened to him more. And I’ve understood that his life was also part of mine. It’s something no one can take away from me. When he lived, he would tell his stories and we would listen. I now trace back the road to him by piecing the stories together. I write about him and keep pictures of him where he is ever-young. I laugh at his recipes, and his courtyard dog is now my apartment dog. And I also believe the two of us may share the same love for story-telling.


Grandpa’s recipe

Attention, how to consume lamb on (the Orthodox) Holy Easter Day – “boil”.

1kg plum brandy

2kg red wine

2kg. Beer

(if lacking, water will also do)

1kg garlic (dried, smashed) plus fragrant spices.

Let cool


By me, Milică Savu (that’s all)

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