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The Other Side (Part II)

When you are a kid, they don’t tell you that you or your loved ones are going to die one day. So I had to figure it out on my own. When you are a child, death is not discussed, it’s hidden away, it’s the greatest taboo. Then, as we grow up, we are trained

Living with my family was a process of continual adjustment. It was like living in a foreign country, I could never guess what was going to happen next. That's how I felt. I didn't know if my mom would be in a good mood or a bad mood, if my brother would be in some kind of trouble or if he would be home watching TV, if my dad would get upset at my mom and escape for a few days, or if he would stay home and we would all get along. The good times we had felt like Christmas day, full of pleasant surprises and joy, while the bad times were something like a new disease, and most of the energy was spent finding a new cure for it every time. Sometimes it would take forever. Yet, these, so far, are my favorite memories.

My brother left home when he was 15 years old since a decision was made that he would live with his biological father, who was a successful businessman. It was for my brother's better future, everyone thought. When he turned 18, his father gave him an apartment on the 13th floor of a condominium, a car, a slot machine business and lots of gold. My brother was no longer the little boy covered in scars and mud. His deep brown eyes, smoky black silky hair, and strong body often were the reason why young ladies turned around as he walked by them. But most notable was his brilliant sense of humor that had a magical effect on people. He was capable of making the grumpiest person laugh. Yet, his voice and manner of speaking, his polite way and haughty modesty, were better suited for someone of a more mature age. A contrast that didn’t stay unnoticed.

Then, it was time for my brother to serve in the military, which was mandatory in Bulgaria. During his year and a half naval service my brother had a number of health issues and frequently had a cold. He was once released for a few weeks to be treated at home. After he got out, he started to have severe pain in his right leg. When he finally went to see a doctor, he found a tumor as big as a baseball in his pelvis. My brother was diagnosed with lymphosarcoma when he was only 22 years old. For the next two years, he battled the deadly disease and underwent a series of medical tests and chemotherapy treatments. Of all the side effects, losing his hair was the hardest one for him. His collection of hats became his key to the outside world. He would not go out without covering his bald head, afraid people would start treating him differently.

The last time my mom and I saw my brother alive was at his apartment. He was lying in his bed, moaning from pain that he couldn't handle any longer. About a dozen family members and friends gathered around his bed. Everyone looked quite disturbed. I sat with my mom on one corner of the room, squeezing our sweaty hands together. We were afraid to get close to him as the slightest move made his pain even less bearable. Everyone was afraid. Only his girlfriend held his hand tightly while he was coughing. His weak body needed support. The cancer had spread to his lungs, making it impossible for him to breathe. After an hour of an intensive coughing, his pain was no longer bearable. Terrified, my mom and I tried to make our way to his bed, but then he screamed with the last of his might for everyone to get out of the house. We ran out of the door, covered in tears. The same day they took him to the hospital where the doctors made last attempts to save him.

What does a person feel when a loved one dies? A total distortion, a pile of human flesh melted with the ground, with no hope turning back to life. As I waited in the line to the coffin to say goodbye, I kept my eyes closed. I tried to ignore the cry of old women praying nearby. I tried to avoid the thought of kissing his cold corpse for the last time, determined to remember him alive.

During the five minutes waiting in line, our life together played in front of me, packed in a short movie with a lot of action. I remembered his jokes that made me giggle every time. I remembered my seventh birthday when he gave me a Russian classical game called Nu Pogodi, which was a big deal at the time since it was very hard to get. I remembered how we chased each other in the garden of our grandparents' house until our grandfather would scream at us to stop stepping over his vegetables. I remembered how he carried my heavy schoolbag every morning on the way to school. I remembered all the good moments we spent together. Then I kissed his cold forehead for the last time and walked away.

My first real encounter with cancer was in 1995, when my grandfather (a passionate hunter who had more than a dozen guns) shot himself in the head following a nearly two-year battle with lung cancer. From 200 pounds he went down to just 60 in little over a year. He was a brave and proud man who wouldn’t let some illness take him down. So I understood him. When we face death, we deal with it in different ways, perhaps because there are so few rituals to guide us through this. At least he was no longer suffering, I contemplated, and saluted his life. My brother's death, two years later, wasn’t as easy to accept. It didn't seem natural to me. I knew kids and young people were dying every minute all over the world, but it was something I never quite understood. It was just news from far away that had nothing to do with me, until the news happened in my own home. For years, I was battling with my question, "Why do young people die?" I needed answers and justifications.

My battle with Death started a long time ago. But my first perception of Death wasn’t Death itself. In other words – nobody was dying. I was only six when I grasped what death really meant. My mom was peacefully sleeping next to me, when I woke up and jumped out of bed, sweating and out of breath. I must have had a nightmare, perhaps someone dying. "Please go away," I quietly repeated throughout the night.

At that moment, I discovered the real meaning of death. It came like a shooting star in the dark night and shook every inch of my body. I realized that one day my parents will be gone forever (at the time the thought of my brother dying wasn't even an option). This discovery frightened me so deeply that it didn't leave me for awhile. I couldn’t sleep all night. I kept running different scenarios through my head, different possibilities of how and when my parents might die. I cried silently through the night, watching my mother sleeping and wishing she would be next to me forever.

When you are a kid, they don’t tell you that you or your loved ones are going to die one day. So I had to figure it out on my own. When you are a child, death is not discussed, it’s hidden away, it’s the greatest taboo. Then, as we grow up, we are trained to ignore death until we are faced with it, and then encouraged to let go of those feelings and move on after it’s happened. We shrink the subject to its minimum so when we face it, we often don’t know how to deal with it. Secretly, we all crave eternal life and forget that one day we will all cease to exist. Maybe if we are more often reminded of death itself, life would be sweeter and the whole notion would be less disturbing.


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