Love is a form of forgetting.
When they carried her out of our apartment into the rainy day, she was in pain and barefoot, so she turned and told me to bring her “some shoes.” I picked up the first ones I found. I drove behind the ambulance in which she was traveling toward the hospital, glancing from time to time at those white tennis shoes on the passenger seat. Rain and the monotonous sound of the wipers. Canvas tennis shoes are not for a rainy day. Sanja was in the red vehicle in front of me, her shoes were following her.
In the hospital, two doctors asked her synchronized questions and she answered. Questions about her allergy, about her medical history, she answered with wide-open eyes in the face of the authority of the two men in their white coats, as though she were taking an exam. And then one asked: “Do you smoke?”
“Yes,” she said, “but only two or three cigarettes a day.”
She’s no good at lying, in situations like this she will sincerely confess everything. When I heard her answer the doctor’s question, I thought that may well have been the case: at work she probably smoked two or three cigarettes, but she’d kept it from me, because she was very anxious not to revive my desire for tobacco (and in the past I had been pretty dependent). After my heart attack, five years ago, she, too, stopped smoking, out of solidarity, or at least she didn’t light a cigarette in my presence. She had smoked “two or three cigarettes a day” all her life, and it had never become a real addiction.
More than twenty-four hours had passed since that conversation with the doctors, and now it had become clear why she had said she was a smoker: she had suffered a stroke and one of the consequences was forgetting. The stroke had damaged her so-called short-term memory so that she’d forgotten the last three years when she no longer went out onto the balcony to smoke.
She looks at her arm, which she can only move with difficulty, and asks: “What’s happened to me, Sem?”
“Yesterday,” I say, “I was making coffee, you’d gone to the bathroom, everything was all right, it was raining. As I was pouring water into the machine, I heard a cry from the bathroom, I thought you’d fallen, but that wasn’t it, your arm was hurting, you said it was tingling and you couldn’t feel your fingers. You didn’t want us to call an ambulance, but you weren’t getting any better, so I did call. They came, and after a quick examination, decided to take you to hospital. I drove behind the red ambulance and when I reached the hospital, you were already in bed, a nurse was giving you morphine, you were already having a transfusion, then they took you away, with your bed, to a different room where they did a CT scan. It had turned out that you were very anemic, so they sent you to the oncology department, as they thought you had cancer. The CT showed that you had a clot in an artery near your left shoulder, and they said it had caused a stroke, or rather a series of mini strokes in the peripheral microvascular tips on the left side of your brain. And now, because you’re anemic, they don’t know how to treat you. A stroke is treated with blood thinners, but the reason for your anemia is potentially an internal bleed. So now, if they put you on thinners, it would exacerbate the bleed and that would be a serious problem . . .”
She looks at me anxiously, but she has already forgotten what she asked me, and has already forgotten my reply, and now she asks again: “What has happened to me?”
The first night in the hospital. She sleeps and wakes in short bursts, her sleep is shallow. She wakes up, looks at me with an expression of disappointment on her face and asks:
“Is Daddy angry with me?”
“Are you asking whether your father is angry?”
“Yes, he’s angry with me and that’s why he’s not coming home . . .”
“Listen,” I say, “your father died four or five years ago.” She thought for a while, it seemed she had remembered, then she put her head on the pillow again and went back to sleep. What had actually happened? She’d woken up in her hospital bed as a little girl of five. That was a time capsule, a trauma of fifty years earlier and now it was alive in her: her father wasn’t coming home because he was angry with her. Oh, my little frightened girl!
Her father. I never met him, although we lived in the same town for sixteen long years. He never tried to contact his daughter, nor did he ever show any kind of interest in her. That was all important to me, of course, but I didn’t ask, I left it up to her to talk about it, or not. And she rarely mentioned him. So I know nothing about him, apart from her incidental, sparse anecdotes. One was from her early childhood. Somewhere near the coast, they had a caravan. During the night he came with an unknown woman, woke his daughter, and took her outside, forcing her to spend the night in the rain. A little girl at night, in the rain. Nothing connects me to him, apart from the fact that he marked my life indirectly, influenced it, and altered my personality over time. Through his relationship with his daughter, he formed her hostility toward the whole male species. We have lived together for thirty years, and all that time she has been wary of me. I never saw him, but I bear that man as my personal burden. I’m tired of him. And I’m used to him. The other image is connected with Libya. Her memory of Africa, where she lived on the sensitive cusp between childhood and youth was quite bright and consoling. She would often say: “I’d like to go back to Africa.” That was where she spent her last summer with both her parents. Remembering Libya, she would always mention her father: “He immediately felt at home there, he quickly learned Arabic, and began to make friends with the local people.” Then she’d talk indifferently, as though describing a stranger. Later, when he left, she didn’t miss him. We’re now on the verge of old age, but one doesn’t stop being a child at fifty. All these years, she hasn’t missed him, that concrete man, but a father, one who ought by biological imperative to be on her side, when a daughter needs protection and security.
She woke up a little while ago as a little five-year-old girl who had blamed herself fifty years earlier because her daddy hadn’t come home for days.
I keep finding her white tennis shoes in different places. Maybe the nurses move them? I haven’t moved them. Or else they move around the ward on their own, impatient to get out of here as soon as possible. Yesterday, with her bag and white tennis shoes, I came through the transparent hospital door that opens in a circle, asked directions to the emergency room, where she’d been taken, intending to wait for the medication that would cure the pain in her arm, and then help her to tie the laces on her white tennis shoes, hold her hand as we crossed the parking lot to our car, and we’d drive home slowly, return to our everyday concerns, finish the tasks we’d begun in the kitchen: turn on the coffee machine, into which I had already poured water, spooned the coffee . . . But that wouldn’t happen, the doctors would meet us with bad news, she’d be settled into the oncology ward, and I’d stay beside her all night, like a loyal dog.
It all happened too fast. The doctors stated that, in all probability, she had cancer. I held her hand while she slept, she clasped mine tightly, because she was dreaming about something. And I thought, She isn’t dying, because dying people no longer dream! A ridiculous thought, but I held on to her till the morning, because there was no one there who could console me. The warmth of her hand and her whole sleeping body was the only acceptable reality for me.
All my life I have borne the burden of my meaningless name. But I came to terms with that early on, convinced it was after all just a name, that it didn’t matter what a boat was called, just that it could sail, and that we fill the being bearing our name with the glow of our being. It was a consoling thought. It’s only today, in my fifty-sixth year, that I have completely accepted and identified with my name. This is why. The doctor asks her: “What year is this? Which month? Where are we now?” She looks at him and there’s no reply, she has forgotten the year and the month and the place. Then the doctor points at me, sitting beside her bed, “And who is this man?” For a moment she settled her gaze, she appeared to be looking right through me, and I felt a chill run through my whole body. And I thought: She’s forgotten me. But then her face experienced a total transformation, she looked at me as though she had saved me from nonexistence, or as though she had just given birth to me, and with an expression of the purest love she said: “Semezdin, my Semezdin.” And that was the moment when my name filled with meaning. I was her Semezdin. That is my love story, and my whole life.
All of a sudden, bodies in a hospital start to become distorted. The nurse who injects her with morphine looks pearshaped. Her head is minuscule in comparison with the rest of her body. It’s probably due to some inner optic problem of mine, which recurs whenever I find myself in a hospital. That is, I see human bodies as defective and incomplete. Perhaps because in a hospital a body is transformed from a subject into an object. But as soon as I get outside, my gaze becomes normal and I see people the way they, presumably, are. So a hospital becomes in my eyes like a crooked mirror, which distorts bodies. And then it seems to me that it’s the presence of people that makes this world imperfect, when it’s otherwise beautiful and amazing!
H. Gallasch, my friend from work, brought us food from an Italian restaurant and briefly took me outside the hospital to breathe in some fresh air. Through the big circular door we went slowly out into the rain. Everything in the hospital had slowed down, adapted to the movements of the patient. Time slowed down as well. From our ward, you had to pass through a labyrinth of corridors to come out into the rain. “It’s just as well you aren’t a smoker,” said H. “Otherwise you’d be popping in and out for a smoke.” I didn’t stay long outside, it was a cold April day, we said goodbye and I went back inside through the round door that revolved so slowly. I glanced at the paper sack of food in my hand and saw an image of Venice showing a palace and bridge with a gondola passing under it, and suddenly the revolving door became a time capsule.
Venice. The night before last, I was reading an essay about Venice by Sergio Pitol, his first encounter with the town, which he saw through a fog because he had lost his glasses somewhere on the way. I read that two nights ago, which now seems like the distant past, or some other life. And while I was reading, I could smell cement, because a few hours earlier, at work, my friend Santiago Chillari had been showing me photographs of the inside of an old building beside one of the Venetian canals, which he and his family are restoring with the intention of turning it into a hotel; the photos were of workmen scraping the walls, stripping off the old paint, with building materials, sacks of cement around them on the floor . . . After reading this piece about Venice, I wrote one about Aleš Debeljak, my friend who died tragically two months ago, I thought about him and jotted down memories of our encounters. We used to meet often, speak on the phone, and exchange emails. We got to know each other in the early 1980s, but it seems to me that our contact became pure friendship only last year: in October, at a literary conference in Richmond, for a few days we shared a common balcony in our hotel and chewed over our two pasts in lengthy conversations. I went through my email inbox to find his last sentence to me. His last message ended with the announcement: “This evening I’m taking our dog on our regular walk beside the Venice-Budapest train-line.” A poet! So a whole cultural space was transformed into the boundaries of a “regular” evening stroll.
The door described a complete circle, and I stepped back, into the hospital . . .
In the morning, as I was washing my face, I spotted in the mirror some white strands of hair on my forehead. Only two days have passed since we got here, and I’m already going gray.
When the nurse comes into the ward to give her an injection, Sanja says, “You smell nice,” to please her, to establish human contact with a small compliment before the pain.
Otherwise I think there’s something deeply problematic about the way treatment is managed in a hospital. Every ten minutes people come to check her name and date of birth; to scan the bar code on the plastic armband around her right wrist; to take her pulse, blood pressure, temperature; to take blood samples, knock her knee with a rubber hammer . . . It’s torture by lack of sleep, and it could all be done in a slower rhythm, so that the patients have time to catch their breath, to fall asleep, to have a minimal amount of rest, at least during the night. A hospital ward is a torture chamber. I think hospitals ought to sign the Geneva Convention and stick rigorously to the rules.
I put my T-shirts on her, because they’re bigger and more comfortable than hers. I’ve got one here that’s the color of the September sky in Sarajevo on a sunny, cloudless day. That’s the one she likes best.
It’s three in the morning now. Through the high hospital window I count the planes descending from the night sky to the airport, the lights from their windows merging with the occasional lights from the windows of houses in Arlington. She opened her eyes briefly, glanced at me, then turned onto her other side and went on hovering between sleep and waking. She glanced at me, but I’m not convinced she knew who I was.
It’s three in the morning. I have always liked her early wakings. When I used to write at night, it sometimes happened that I woke her because I would forget to move the kettle off the heat before it whistled. So I might wake her at three in the morning and she was always cheerful, ready to joke. There she is in the doorway, she looks at me, shakes her head, and says: “You’re fifty years old and still writing ditties!” And once, woken like that, still half asleep, she said: “The Chinese believe that dragons like the smell of copper.” Dawn is her time of day. That’s why I remember many of her morning sentences. Showered, her hair wet, ready for work, she would spread out her arms and ask: “Is someone going to tell me I’m beautiful?”
She has forgotten everything. She asks: “How old am I?” Whatever number I tell her, she’ll believe it. So I ask her her date of birth, because she has to answer that question every five minutes for one of the hospital staff.
“September 17, 1960!”
And I say: “Now it’s 2016. Can you work out how much time has passed between 1960 and 2016?”
She closes her eyes and counts. Then she looks up and says, “I can’t be that old!”
Befuddled by the painkillers, she easily drifts into sleep and even more easily wakes from it. She woke briefly and said anxiously that she kept sleeping and she ought to get up, because she’d be late for an exam at the university. And then I didn’t have the heart to tell her that our student youth is far behind us, in a past that would be best forgotten for our own good, in a state that no longer officially exists, in a world that is no more.
I went back to our apartment to bring some essential things that we’ll need in the hospital, some clothes, toothpaste and a toothbrush, some fruit, in case she gets hungry. I picked up the mail from our mailbox. On the way to the apartment I opened a package in which there was a book, I leafed through it briefly and read a sentence from the first paragraph: “All our problems are a consequence of our not being prepared to stay inside.” I walked along the corridor through which she had gone in the opposite direction the day before yesterday. Our lengthy corridor. From the elevator to our door the distance is the length of two football fields. Once, weary, I stood at our apartment door, having set off on an urgent errand in town, but when I looked along the lengthy corridor, I lost the will, I couldn’t face the long walk to the elevator, so I turned around and closed the door behind me.
It was less than two days since I’d been in the apartment, but when I went in memories had me reeling, first of the previous morning, and then of all the days spent here, because every object in the apartment reminded me of the motion of her hand putting it in that place. I took a shower and changed. On the computer I tried to find out what household maintenance tasks needed attending to. I know nothing about that, she did it all. And my system soon collapsed in the face of all those passwords! I’d now need to reconstruct our reality from scratch, or would it be better to wait for Sanja to remember everything? I stood in the kitchen thinking about Saturday morning, before she complained about a pain in her arm. I had been about to make coffee for the two of us, I had poured the water into the machine, spooned finely ground coffee into the filter, all I had to do was to press the button on the coffee machine. I did that now, and the sound of bubbling water drove the silence out of our room. I made coffee for two. I poured mine into a glass cup, but what to do with hers? And I don’t know how to emerge from that Saturday morning. I want to freeze the time in my memory, to keep us there in the room, to prolong for as long as possible the peace in which two people are getting ready to drink their morning coffee. I want to stop everything in the state before her stroke, before the pain. We won’t leave the house!
I’ll try again to describe that reaction that filled me with anxiety. When I entered our apartment, I glanced at the familiar objects around me, thinking at the same moment that all those objects were imprinted with the movement of Sanja’s hand. She had put each object in its place and it was the movement of her hand that had maintained those objects’ sheen. That thought was dangerous because I was, unconsciously, seeing a world without her, just the movement of her hand. That’s what brought on this anxiety, the swelling around my heart.
Her invisible veins, her punctured arm, so much blood taken for innumerable tests, so much pain from the needle . . .
In the 1980s, she had been allergic to everything: pollen, dust in books, and probably me. Twice-weekly injections kept her allergies under control. Her body was a living wound. My Frida Kahlo. It seemed as though she could only survive in a world without plants. It’s true that in her late childhood, her pre-allergic period, she didn’t get along with plants either: she refused to drink tea . . . Every morning her parrot, Charlie, would repeat the only sentence he knew how to pronounce: “Drink your tea, Sanja! Drink your tea, Sanja!”
When we moved to D.C., her allergy returned for a while—because of the swirling winds that spin dust and pollen around in the basin between the Atlantic and the Appalachian chain—and she had allergy tests. The doctor in Vienna scratched four long rows on her back with needle pricks (testing for all possible kinds of allergy) and for a while she bore those scars on her left shoulder blade like Angelina Jolie’s tattoos.
But where is the pain from her past now? And where is the pain I concealed?
The woman who takes her blood at five in the morning announces herself from the doorway loudly enough to wake us: “Blood work!” She’s called Dora Castro.
Today Sanja’s right arm is numb, so she no longer feels the needle prick. And I’m glad it doesn’t hurt her, but I’d like it to hurt her. All my senses have gone haywire.
This evening we are doing qigong in the ward with Asim, a doctor who believes in traditional Chinese medicine. A nurse came in and found us in the middle of our exercises, which resembled a sacred tribal ritual, and she left the room, walking slowly backward so as not to disturb anything. And later, when she came back to take Sanja’s pulse, she made my day by asking: “Are you a Native American?”
Shared remembering, a precious part of our relationship, has pretty much vanished. How can I now restore to her memory the important days that should not be forgotten? Not the big, important events, but hundreds of tiny ones that we have reminded each other of over the years. Once we were driving in New Mexico, and if you looked through the window on the left-hand side of the car you saw a lovely sunny day; but if you looked through the right-hand one there was rain pouring down the pane. A quite unique moment of pure beauty! What if she’s forgotten it forever? But how good that she doesn’t remember all those sad and difficult days. There would be justice in their remaining forever in oblivion.
“Are you related?” asks a nurse.
“She’s my wife.”
But when I say, “She’s my wife,” that is a simplification, she’s more than that. For instance, in 1993, during the siege of Sarajevo, a murderer pointed the barrel of a Kalashnikov at my chest. And she stepped between the gun and me.
Excerpted from My Heart by Semezdin Mehmedinovic (trans. Celia Hawkesworth), with the permission of Catapult. First appeared in FREEMAN’S: Love issue.