-Vlorë, Albania, 1985-
Through word of mouth, the news made its way to shocked family members and friends. At about four-thirty in the morning, the people started to arrive. Every couple of minutes, neighbors and relatives made their way up the front yard, to the front steps, and through the front door. Upon entrance, each person was hit with the feel, the look, and even the smell of a house in mourning. Cigarette smoke hung heavy as a cloud in the living room; as quiet and transparent as a ghost left to linger among the living.
The living room filled with whispers and muffled cries that made the walls buzz and reverberate, as if they too were breathing and listening in on the hushed conversations.
“He was so young…”
“Their only child…”
Repeated from mouth to mouth, the weighted syllables barely crossed the threshold of teeth and lips that curved downward; lines of mourning etched onto the faces of each family member, all scarred by the same force.
Death entering a home was always a burden for any household, but the death of a child, no matter their age, was an unspeakable tragedy. Albania’s traditions dictated that close relatives and friends immediately surround the bereaved to provide relief and comfort, and to share the weight of sadness. The elderly and the young piled into the house. Some brought freshly ground coffee while others brought bottles of raki, the traditional gifts for a family in mourning. Alba stood to the side of the living room, not wanting to be a part of the scene unfolding around her. Her body, though numb, prickled and buzzed all over as if the blood was trying its damndest to keep moving, to keep pumping throughout.
While the men were crowded inside the living room, the women sat in Alba’s bedroom, red-eyed and puffy faced.
From her son’s doorway, it almost looked as if he was asleep in his own bed. Alba thought about how even in the summer heat he liked to cover up some part of his body while he slept. Despite the seemingly ordinary scene in the bedroom, anyone who knew Gjergji well would see how his body was laid out on top of the neatly folded bedspread, laying impossibly straight and looking nothing like how he did in life. Alba’s mother-in-law, grandmother, and best friend, Bela, sat around his bed, not daring to leave the body alone.
Alba slowly lowered herself into the chair next to Bela’s. Her body felt so heavy, so aged. She took slow breaths as if the simple task of living—of existing—was too much for her lungs. She looked over at Gjergji, at his expressionless face—not quite peaceful but not disconcerted either. He looked as if he was having a bad dream. She closed her eyes and her breathing deepened, and she hoped she was falling into death and not sleep. With her eyes closed, she felt Bela lean over close to her and grab her hand.
“Still a handsome boy,” Bela whispered. Alba opened her eyes and looked again at her son’s boyishly long, dark hair matted on the side of his face. As a result of a bicycle accident from when he was a boy, his nose was slightly crooked. His arms and legs lay long as tree limbs on the bed and Alba thought about how he had always been tall and lanky, hovering above most. She nodded in agreement with her friend.
“I have to wash him,” she said quietly. Her hand slowly caressed her son’s as she said the words. His body had not yet cooled and so she could momentarily forget that he was in fact dead and not asleep.
“Do you ever wonder why we feel the need to whisper around the dead?” Alba added, her voice hoarse as if she hadn’t used it in one hundred years and was learning to speak all over again. She looked over at the older women across the room and lowered her voice. “They always tell us to keep our voices low or to walk lightly. But is that more for the living or for the dead? If I keep quiet and calm, is that so everyone around me keeps their composure? And even then, is that for their benefit or mine? God knows my son won’t hear me. He’s not asleep, for Christ’s sake.” She looked over at Bela. “Do you know how many times I’ve had to remind myself of that since he was brought in? That he’s not asleep but he’s gone for good?” She turned back towards Gjergji and brushed some hair from his forehead. “I can’t wake him up no matter how high my voice or how loud my cries. What a foolish thought.”
Bela pulled her chair closer to her friend’s.
“I think almost everything surrounding death is for the living more so than for the dead,” she said. Just then, Alba wished she could take a sip of raki. She needed that tangible pain, that burning. She had snuck some before the guests arrived and it was the first time since she received news of her son’s murder that she didn’t feel quite so numb.
“I shouldn’t be angry but I am. On top of everything else, on top of all the grief and pain, I feel my anger building.”
“Perfectly natural,” her friend responded.
“No,” Alba shook her head. “No, I’m angry at him. And then I’m angry with myself for being such a stupid, selfish woman. For feeling anger when I should be consumed with sadness.” Her voice caught in her throat before she cleared it and continued in a hoarse whisper. “He always took after his father with his quick bouts of anger, that I always knew. But he was such a sweet boy.
For a moment there was nothing but silence between the two friends as their eyes rested upon Gjergji. Alba remembered the day her son was born, how thrilled she had been that her firstborn was a son. The stress of legacies and namesakes had suddenly seemed like a thing of the past. Throughout her pregnancy, Alba’s mother-in-law would eyeball the size of the belly with each passing month, and based on its size and shape she’d proudly declare that she would be having a grandson. Needless to say that a healthy child was, of course, of paramount importance, but Alba never pretended to forget the significance of delivering a little boy—a quiet guarantee that her husband’s name would live on. Despite her concerns throughout most of the nine months, it turned out to be such an easy outcome, giving birth to a healthy, perfectly normal little boy on their first try at having children.
“Next I want a girl,” Alba had said to her husband soon after Gjergji was born. Her husband smiled at her and squeezed her hand. Like many other men, he felt an intrinsic fear at the thought of one day having a daughter. Sweet girls that could one day wreak havoc on the household with such scandals as unplanned pregnancies, stolen kisses, or gallivanting with neighborhood boys. But then it was impossible to not feel joy when thinking about those same girls growing into respectable women, devoted wives, and doting mothers.
Fear never struck a husband’s heart at the thought of raising a boy.
Yet here she sat, Alba confronting her greatest fear, son or daughter—the fear that melted all others away. She thought of how she could shoulder the burden of any other scandal or tragedy, just as long as it wasn’t the one sitting squarely in front of her at that very moment. As her mind was often prone to doing, careening from one thought to another, Alba’s memory shifted in reverse once more and she began to dwell on the instance of her second pregnancy, and then her third. Both memories were drenched in blood as she recalled waking in the middle of the night to pains and sheets soaked in shades of red she had never seen before.
Alba wondered grimly if this was her fate with each child her body would produce, if each were meant to slip through her fingers. Sitting in front of her dead son’s body, she suddenly felt ashamed thinking about her previous pregnancies. Her mind reached back into its deepest corners to dust off the memories of her miscarriages, to awaken feelings of regret and sadness at not having given birth to a second child. Or third. As if another child would’ve suddenly eased her grief at having lost her firstborn, her boy. The weight of shame and despair sat lodged like an anchor in the pit of her stomach.
Alba’s eyes closed and a tear rolled down her cheek. Her hand squeezed Bela’s and she held on tightly as if trying her hardest to keep herself grounded.
“I need to wash him,” Alba repeated.
“Do you want me to help?”
“No. I can do it. I need to be alone.”
Bela bent over and planted a swift but deep kiss on Alba’s cheek before getting up and helping to usher the other women outside of the room, for just a few moments.
“You shouldn’t be here with him alone,” said Alba’s mother-in-law between deep breaths. “This isn’t proper.”
“My son is dead. There is nothing here that is proper,” Alba responded between tight lips. “Won’t you leave me some time alone with my only child?”
Undressing him proved to be tricky as Alba tried to respect his body as that of a grown man’s and not just her son’s; she reminded herself that he was not a little boy to be inspected.
At first, when she squeezed warm water from the towel and pressed it to his shoulder, she felt light as a cloud. For a moment, brief as it may have been, it felt like she was staring down at herself and at her son together, and wished it was that simple: that she could close her eyes and float away from her current life. But instead, she opened her eyes. And with one deep breath she began to run the towel from shoulder to bicep to forearm.
On his chest were splatters of dried blood. She ran the towel over them thinking they’d be erased in one clean sweep. Seeing that they still remained, she began to press harder. Soon she was scrubbing obsessively in one spot, applying more pressure and scraping Gjergji’s skin until she finally stopped, afraid he would crack and peel.
Bir i mamit, she whispered as her hand glided over his chest to his right shoulder and arm, down his hand, between his fingers, back up his arm, and over to his torso. The towel ran over a deep, perfectly round wound on the left side of his abdomen and her eyes grew hazy behind heavy tears. She washed over it gently, and once finished with that part of his body, she pulled the sheet up over his waist. Her eyes didn’t once linger on the ugly red-purple entrance wound that now sat comfortably on his body, as naturally as a birthmark. By the time she had moved on to washing his legs and feet, every bit of action became methodically mechanical—a necessary task a mother owed her son. Alba didn’t dwell on any body part for too long, and in turn, her tears began to evaporate.
The only sound that existed within the vacuum of Gjergji’s room was the sound of water splashing inside the bucket as Alba periodically dunked the towel. The water, rushing out all at once as she squeezed and wrung the towel dry, would revert back to a rhythmic dripping. She began to wash the bottoms of his feet and wondered to herself why this felt like the most sacred of tasks. Among the realized horrors of a mother preparing her child’s corpse, Alba’s thoughts began to spin out of control and in a ghoulish fantasy she began to imagine her son stirring to life and sitting up in his bed, questioning the manner of her presence in his room. And they would laugh together at the absurdity of the situation, of him—a grown man of twenty-two—stripped down to his underwear with his mother washing his feet at the foot of his bed. The corner of Alba’s mouth twitched slightly at the thought of what his reaction would be like, and it was this imaginary resurrection and conversation that gave her body the energy and her hands the grace to finish her work.
She pulled out a comb from her apron’s pocket and placed her chair by his head. This was a ritual she hadn’t practiced since he was a boy; she’d pull him onto her lap after his bath at the end of each day and comb through his knots before tucking him in for the night. Some nights she’d lose herself in conversations with her husband as she combed and combed until Gjergji fell asleep.
The comb ran easily through his slick hair. Alba thought she heard him sigh. Or maybe it was her own sigh, a natural reaction to the memory of his little body curled on her lap. She lifted his head and combed the back. Clean lines replaced the matted knots; his dark hair, rich like soil after a rainstorm, parted into rows as if crops were ready to burst through with new life.
Shhhh, whispered Alba as she continued to run the comb and silently wondered if she had begun to lose her mind. Shhhh, bir i mamit. It was easier to pretend that he had fallen asleep one last time. She put the comb down and studied her work. The sky outside was now a pale gray; soon she would turn off the lights. She remembered the superstitions her grandmother was so fond of sharing when Alba was a little girl. Bodies were never to stay in the dark; the soul needed light for guidance. Alba closed her eyes and willed herself to remain in the present and accept that this was indeed her life—her reality. She was currently childless but she would always consider herself a mother, and if her final act of a mother’s love was to help guide her son’s spirit out the door, she would do just that.
She stood up and bent over Gjergji’s body to study his face for the last time. She held her breath, also for the last time, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for an act of God. But his eyes did not flutter open. His chest did not rise and fall. His color remained ashen. She brushed the hair away from his forehead and planted a kiss, letting her lips linger, before concentrating all of her energy on her legs to push herself away from him and towards the door.
Outside Gjergji’s room felt like a different world. There was still crying that could be heard but most of it was overrun by the sound of various conversations. The rest of the house, though solemn, felt alive.
Alba caught her reflection in the mirror on her way to the living room. Her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, rimmed red from lack of sleep and an overabundance of tears spilling out into an overabundance of loneliness. Her bun had come apart and wisps of hair hung around her head like a raincloud.
She peeked into the living room and saw her husband, eyes half closed, his fingers lightly holding a burnt-out cigarette he had smoked all the way down. The ashtray in front of him was overflowing with cigarette butts and piles of cooled ash. Her breaths became shallow as she backed against the wall for balance. Feeling dizzy and faint, she thought to herself: Am I going to collapse now? In front of everyone?
Her hand went to her chest and she grabbed at skin and bones. Calm down, she thought. Calm yourself. She peeked at her husband again and this time his eyes were closed fully. There was still smoke rising from the ashtray from the last cigarette he had put out. His chest rose and fell like the tide. He needed her just as she needed him, but she wouldn’t be of much help. She knew she’d collapse and disappear into herself the moment he looked at her, and then they’d both be gone. Once they succumbed to grief, there was no finding their way out from its depths, and Alba couldn’t risk losing him.
She remembered her mother once saying that men could never be as strong as women, though they tried hard to be the anchors for their families. Alba wondered if she hid herself from the mourners for her own benefit or for her husband’s. She had never seen his shoulders shake so hard or heard his deep, dry-heaving gasps and sobs catch in his throat as if he was choking, as much as when they brought Gjergji’s body. She herself at first remained stoic and cold as stone at the sight of his body being carried into the living room, and she suddenly wondered, with some small amazement, how deep she had had to dig within herself to find the icy strength to not fall apart beside her husband. He was a strong man; a large man. But Alba saw him break apart before she herself had a chance to scream out her disbelief, and she knew then that her mother was right.
She backed away from the living room until she hit Gjergji’s bedroom door. She closed her eyes tightly until she saw spots behind her eyelids and hoped it was her vision going, hoped this was all a horrendous dream and that her eyes had been lying to her all night. She squeezed them tighter until she felt the pressure in her temples and felt the bubble of building despair rise up from her throbbing chest, to her throat, and out of her mouth until at last, she let out a sob. She banged her head lightly against the door and sobbed until she thought her ribs would crack from the pressure.
There was a knock on the front door and someone, a woman—probably Bela—answered it.
“…she’s preparing him for the funeral.” That’s all Alba heard. And then: “I’ll go see if she’s finished.”
She couldn’t face whoever had come to the door. She couldn’t face the final step of having to lower her son’s body into a casket and seal his face away from her, forever. She choked on a sob and stumbled down the hallway until she reached their little kitchen. In the window’s reflection she tried to spruce up her hair and wiped at her face with the old apron dangling loosely around her body. She looked gaunt and transparent, as if she was disappearing into the background to become a part of the pale cream walls around her. Alba ran her fingers through her hair one last time when a small butterfly fluttered sloppily and wildly past the window and caught her attention. She thought it looked as if it was still grasping the concept of flying when it suddenly landed on the sill just opposite the windowpane.
She didn’t know what to make of this—if anything at all—as she thought fondly of the stories of spirits and all the many forms they take after a person’s passing. She was remembering her grandmother’s stories when the butterfly suddenly batted its wings a few times, as if winking at her, before taking off. She heard her name being called in the distance, in another room somewhere, but she wasn’t ready to close the door to motherhood for good.
It was neither selfishness nor recklessness that pushed Alba out the kitchen door without looking back, wondering to herself whether or not her grandmother’s tales were right. Bela had been calling her name from room to room until she finally stepped inside the kitchenette to see the back of her friend disappearing further into the distance. She leaned against the wall and wondered when it happened that they began to fully feel the pains of adulthood. She waited for Alba to disappear far into the yard before moving to close the door and making her way back out into the living room to greet family, telling them that Alba was with her son.