About a month ago one of my dearest uncles passed away. I was not home. I was at work when I got the call. For the first five minutes my feet and hands felt numb and I had a hard time breathing. As my mama explained more and talked to me I was able to gain control over my body again. Grief is an odd thing. I discovered fairly quickly that during those first few days I was sinking under its weight. It’s difficult to mourn for a family member when you are away from them and your family. It feels strange and surreal. It makes the grief sharper and one struggles to understand how to say goodbye.
I’ve been less present for the last few weeks. I’ve been compartmentalizing work, marriage, school, and death so that I can function. I allowed myself to sit with my grief some evenings but then some evenings my body shuddered under the black shadows and drew away from it. Writing has helped and given me the much needed comfort of pouring my heart into words. I first wrote a letter to my uncle, and after I finished it, I was finally able to take a deep breath. I didn’t feel as restless and guilty any more for missing his funeral in Moldova. A week later I sent my aunt a care package with tea, a warm shawl, some dark chocolate, and a big bottle of multivitamins. She had developed pneumonia since my uncle passed and I wished I could have been there to take care of her. But I wasn’t, so instead I sent her my love in this box of American things. My heart felt less heavy then, too. I’ve begun to allow my grief to come out more in the last few days, and I’ve sat with it for longer instead of chasing it away. It has become less sharp and the memories of my uncle have become more gentle, more comforting.
I chose to share the letter I wrote to him in those first days, not only as a way of honoring his memory, but also to encourage those struggling with loosing a loved one to write to them. It is has brought me great comfort and allowed me to process more. I do mention some traumatizing events that happened in my uncle’s life. Events that have made grieving more painful to process. I prefer not to share the details because they are very personal and belong to our family.
Letter to My Uncle Zaharia
I knew something was wrong when I saw my grandma in a dream, pushing an old wooden boat against the stream as we, children and grandchildren, watched and asked her to stop. She didn’t. Instead she rolled up her sleeves and kept pushing. I woke up in a sweat. Four years ago my grandpa died on Christmas day (The old Russian Orthodox Christmas day, the 7th of January) and my hand went numb as I tried to type a message to my family asking if nanny was well.
She was. But someone else went to be with grandpa for Christmas this year. You.
I knew you loved me even before I was capable of forming sentences. I remember you and my aunt looking at me and smiling as I lay in my crib. You were my first audience for my songs, poems, and stories, as you submissively sat in your chair with your hands on your knees like asked. No one laughed with more gusto than you at my awkwardly rolled r’s. My family nickname came from one of those sessions, while I was reciting to you my favorite poem which grandpa had taught me:”Three Coats”.
Romanians roll their “r” with a fierce passion and as a five year old my “r” sound had not come in yet, making me sound a bit too French. This did not stop you from listening to me and laughing together. I never thought you made fun of me. I knew you loved me.
I met your daughter that same year and I was jealous you would love me less. She was about six when she came to you. My aunt showed me the toys she got her and told me I would finally have a cousin my age to play with. I did. Your daughter was just as funny as you were and the two of you could make a whole room laugh for hours. Although she wasn’t born to you she became family and you loved her and you loved me.
I wish life stayed as simple as it was back then. I wish I could have kept you sitting in that chair telling you stories but pain caught up with us all. It must be in our blood or in the water or maybe the grapes — our suffering. I remember seeing your wrecked car on TV, I remember mama crying and my dad shaking his head. You were gone for years and I missed you but your daughter was home with my aunt and we loved them and waited for you to come back.
But you hair was silver and the twinkle in your eye was gone. You kept your head down and didn’t say much. You loved me still, I knew because you still called me “Three Coats”, but everything else changed. The world changed, the country changed, and we struggled to survive in a new and feeble world with old sins and old regrets.
I saw you this past summer, sat by you as you kissed me on the cheek and stroked my hair. I didn’t notice how weak you looked. I still remembered you as the strong man carrying me on his back and feeding me fresh cherries from the tree in the back yard. You couldn’t possibly be seventy years old. As the years have gone by that is the image of you I have held. There was so much joy and laughter with you always. Instead this summer we talked about Putin and Ukraine and the economic embargo. I wanted to make you laugh but you seemed so sad and instead I just said nothing. I wish I knew it was going to be the last time I saw you… It suddenly started raining and thundering so we rushed home hugging you hurriedly and telling you “I’ll be back”.
I hope we can meet again someday so I can tell how much I adored you as a little girl and how much I still love you. Until then I will keep your memory alive by sharing your stories with my husband, family, and hopefully my future children. You were a man who knew both great pain and happiness.
May God grant you peace in the afterlife my dearest uncle.
For My Romanian Readers
Cind eram copil nanu Zaharia cu bunelu m-au invatat poezia lui George Cojbuc.
Eu eram cipileaga shi nu puteam sa spun litera “R” ieshea un fel de “l” francez. Nanu shmecher ce era pe loc shi mi-a scos precla “Lii Cojoace”.
Pe shapte Ianuarie nanul meu care m-a dus in brate shi m-a hranit cu cireshe albe din ograda s-a stins subit din viata.
In memoria lui vreau sa recit un fragment din poezia lui preferata.
“A venit un lup din crang Si-alerga prin sat sa fure Si sa duca in padure Pe copiii care plang, Si-a venit la noi la poarta Si-am iesit eu c-o nuia; -“Lup flamand cu trei cojoace, Hai la maica sa te joace” – Eu chemam pe lup incoace,
El fugea-ncotro vedea. ”