My father spent his whole youth fighting for a piece of bread. He never had any family. He lost his mother at the age of six. He remained an orphan together with his two sisters and one brother. My grandfather remarried and had two children with his new wife. It was almost impossible for my grandfather who was prone to alcohol to feed six hungry mouths. It was also impossible for my father's stepmother to take care of other children. Peasant life was already difficult enough. She herself had to fight to survive and feed her children, especially after my grandfather's death. She was left on her own. So was my father, his sisters and their youngest brother.They slept together on a thin mattress during the cold winter nights covered with old, thin rags, warming each other's backs, pressing their hands on their hungry tummies to sooth their starving wailing. They remembered with sadness their mothers' warm hands and her soft caring face when she used to come to their room to cover them gently while watching over them. When they would finally fall asleep, they would dream of a warm home and hot cups of milk.
My father's older sister found salvation in early marriage. She took her younger sister to take care of her. Now my father and my uncle were on their own struggling for life and a piece of bread. They were struggling to survive, but they were not alone. They possessed one of the most beautiful gifts from God: an ingenious talent for music.
They were so talented that they learned to play on their own. My father played the guitar, and my uncle played the violin. They became the most famous musicians in the region. Soon there was no cultural event or wedding without them playing. One of my father's dreams was fulfilled: they were not hungry anymore. And soon he realized his second one: he met my mother and had a cozy home, glass of warm milk, love, and a family.
As usual, this silent man didn't talk when he met my mother. But he found the way to conquer her heart. He came in the evening with his guitar and played his music beneath her window.
"What are you doing?" my mother asked already half asleep. "Nothing," he answered calmly. I am just practicing. "Well go and practice somewhere else. I have to sleep, she replied angrily." Another part of her was probably flattered by having a "musketeer" in love singing ballads under her window, but she certainly didn't show it.
That didn't stop or scare my father. He kept coming again and again. Every single evening he was playing and singing under my mother's window until he touched her heart and his music finally got under her skin.
When my mother came to work as a teacher in his village she couldn't possibly dream that that would be the place where she would start her family. She had a fiancé, a doctor, who was preparing the wedding in another city. But when my mother heard my father playing music, she forgot about the doctor. She fell in love with my father, through his music and decided to leave her fiancé. She got a letter from her fiancé saying "I got you a job in my city. Everything is ready and waiting for you." She simply replied. "Don't wait for me. I am getting married. It was simply like that. It is my mother. Whatever she does she does it with certainty—without any regrets—without any second thoughts.
But there was a huge problem that my father had to struggle with: his brother became an alcoholic. Unfortunately, my uncle Ilija inherited what was my father's worst fear: a propensity for alcohol. Besides his two passions, music, and this dangerous sin, nothing else mattered. Neither women, nor money, nor house. Whatever he would earn he would spend on this poison. He would go to the pub where he would spend days and nights drunk to unconsciousness, and to his last coin. Often in his unconscious state he would be throwing money around himself while the owner of the village pub was picking it up maliciously putting it into his own pockets.
Then he would throw my penniless uncle out without any feeling in the middle of the night, and my uncle would then come to knock on our door, no matter what time, seeking refuge.
Our house was always open for him. My father never lectured him. He was both father and mother for his younger brother. Their joyless childhood, misery, and poverty that they had gone through together bonded these two wounded artistic souls forever. My father found refuge in his family to heal his wounds. My uncle found refuge in alcohol.
Like my father, he was a silent man. He carried this deep sadness in his heart, and locked himself in a deep solitude. His violin talked instead of him. His violin was his voice; his violin was his sweetheart and lover that he never had. His violin was his pain, his sorrow, his mother that he never remembered but always missed. His violin was his best friend and the love of his life. She was his soul. And she knew it. This violin wasn't playing music. She was crying the music under his long fingers when he passed by her bow strings. They were one soul: they played, they breathed and they cried together.
Alcohol destroyed the health of this wonderful man. In his early fifties he was diagnosed with diabetes. "If you would like to live, the doctor said, you have only one choice—to stop drinking. For the rest of your life you will have to live with everyday insulin shots. You have one illness to save you from another illness."
My uncle chose insulin over alcohol. This was a very long cleansing process which made this lonely man lonelier than ever. He closed himself off in his house, and only opened the door for my father and my family.
"Go to the village and bring your uncle some food;" my mother would send me often with homemade food that she knew my uncle loved. "Who knows for how long he hasn't eaten properly."
His house was in the same village where I was born, just a few kilometers from the school where I grew up. When I was approaching the village my heart started bumping joyfully. Once we moved from the village to the city I became nostalgic for the joyful days that I spent here as a child. I stayed attached forever to its people and my father's family, especially my other uncle's children, carrying beautiful souvenirs of Christmas evenings that I spent with them.
Uncle Ilija's house was the last one on the hill among four of them. This little old brown small two-story house had a red roof, with new big three-story houses next to it, all walled with white brick.
I knocked on his door. There was no answer. I knocked again, this time even more loudly. There was no answer. I wonder where he could have gone, I thought ready to turn back. Then I heard quiet steps inside of the house. He is inside, I thought remembering what my father said before I left, "Don't go away," he said," if he doesn't open the door. He could be in one of his moods when he doesn't open to anyone. Let him know it is you. I am sure he will open."
"Uncle Ilija," I screamed. "It is me, Natasha." Then I heard fast steps. He was hurrying to open the door, scared that I might leave.
"Natasha," he said happily with a beaming face, "You come to see your uncle. Come in. I will make us some coffee." Then when the coffee was ready, he took out of his pocket a pack of cigarettes offering me one. "I know," he would say, "it is a very bad habit, and I wish you would not smoke. But I know that you do it secretly from your parents. I am a poor man. Therefore, I can't offer you a lot except my understanding and love." Let's enjoy this habit together," he said with the proud smile of somebody who has this special privilege to share a secret with me.
"You know why I opened the door?" he said. "Because I know that your father, your mother, you, and your brother are the only ones who love me and care truly for me. You are my family!"
He survived only with my father's and my mother's constant care and support. For so many years of his illness my father never scolded his younger brother. He was his nurse and his friend, his mother and his father. Until the war. Until the day when we departed, in a panic rush to catch the last refugee convoy from Bosnia to Serbia to save our lives, without my uncle. At five-o-clock in the morning at daybreak during the truce between two firing sides, there was no time to go to the village to save him.
"We left my brother alone," my father said to my mother with a broken voice. "He will die without us and without insulin."
"You have to understand that your brother is very sick and that he may die soon anywhere," my mother tried to soothe my father's pain and regrets. "Who guarantees that he would have medication even in Serbia today?" This couldn't console my good father.
"You know, Novka," he kept saying, "the first nearby clinic with his doctor is four kilometers away from my brother's house." which at this pointwas a huge distance for this sick man. "He can't go anywhere. He is completely trapped in his house."
My father was right. This otherwiseCatholic village was surrounded on one side by Serbian villages and on the other side by Muslims. There was no way out from there. People from the village couldn't do anything but stay in their houses and pray for their lives.
I often wondered how long they could go on and survive with their modest economies and small food reserves on the border between several warring parties.
The night before I got my answer in the early summer of 1993, I dreamt a very symbolic dream.
I was traveling with my uncle Ilija on a train. When the train stopped, my uncle stepped down and got out. I looked outside. It was very dark. My uncle was standing there facing me. I made a step to get out when I heard him saying," No, Natasha, this is not your stop, it is not your time yet."
I woke up with a very sad feeling in my heart. The sense of premonition that my uncle was dead didn't leave me the whole day. At the end of the afternoon I got the phone call from my cousin, the daughter of my father's sister.
"You have a call from Italy," the receptionist said." This must be some mistake, I thought. I know nobody in Italy.
"Hello," I answered confused, waiting for the answer. Then I heard a joyful voice on the other side. It was my cousin, Nela, my father's sister's daughter. "I found you, finally," she screamed through the tears. "I have one good and one bad news for you," she said.
The sense of fear went through my body like a strong current. "Tell me the good one first," I replied.
"My brother and I managed to escape from Mostar to Italy with our families. My parents are still in Mostar, but we are all alive." I sighed with relief, but I still didn't feel relieved. I knew that she had bad news as well.
"Uncle Ilija is dead," she said with a sad voice. "He passed away several months after the beginning of the war. Powerless under the dailyshelling, alone and forlorninthe absence of medication and food he could not withstand for a long time. Our cousin Bruno found him dead on the doorstep of the house with his eyes fixed to the sky in his last prayer."
Bruno had just enough time to bury him along with his violin during a ceasefire. The commander of the Serb troops warned my cousin to run before the fire. In this cruel war where brother kills brother, there was a man who did not want to kill his neighbors. My family and the village people had one hour to get ready to leave before the whole village was burned. They went over the hills and mountains from where they watched the village in flames, running through the forest over a cliff to Croatian territory where they finally found shelter. My uncle rested in peace with his violin.
"My mother managed to go to his grave during a truce," Nela said.
"The only house that was not burned is the school where you were born. Every other house vanished in flames. Only debris of walls and foundations protruding from the ashes remained as silent reminders of a former life.", she pronounced.
Listening to Nela's words, I vividly imagined my aunt walking through the ruins of the family houses, remembering with sadness the days when she was united with her brothers and her sister, poor, but bound tightly together by love.
When she arrived at the top of the hill where uncle Ilija's house used to be, she found red bricks sunken into the earth and a stone gate which was once the entrance to the house.Almost everything was overgrown with thorns. Beside the gate, one red rose was visible watching her curiously. My aunt took the rose gently into her palmsand kissed it fondly, sprinkling it with her tears.
Deeply touched by Nela’s story and frozen with grief, I thought about my aunt walking like a ghost through the thorns and cinders, sad but consoled, carrying in her soul the loving touch of the rose that represented serenity and comfort for her sorrow.
For a long time after I hung up the phone, I stayed in the reception hall motionless and staring blindly into the distance.
How am I going to tell this to my father? I kept repeating this same question for hours. Don't say it, I heard my inside voice telling me. He doesn't have to know. Yes, he has to know, another voice was telling me differently. Sooner or later he will find out. You can't spare him from the truth.
Finally, after a long time that seemed like an eternity, I pushed myself to move. I walked slowly to my parents' room dragging my feet. I opened their door, silently getting in.
"You have a worried face," my father said anxiously. "What happened?"
"Uncle Ilija is dead. You have to know. There is no point in hiding the truth," I said soberly, in a strong and reasonable voice, playing the adult to my father. I hoped to protect him from the pain, hoping that my motherly authoritative voice would spare more pain from this delicate man.
My father didn't say a word. Only a jolt of pain passed for a moment through his eyes, transforming his facial features into a silent mask.
"Daddy, say something." I tried to talk to him, but he was deeply distressed. There was no answer. He didn't hear me. The silence was heavier than a brick. Nothing could have broken it. Neither my cries nor my screams.
He put his coat on and left the house. I watched through the window as my father walked slowly until he disappeared behind the corner of the building. His already bent back now looked more bent under the burden of pain and inner suffering.
My father left in the early afternoon and came back in the middle of the night. Nobody saw him for a whole day. He simply disappeared from the town. I never knew where he went that day. He never talked about it. He probably found a spot where he could cry his tears out loudly hidden from people.
My father never again talked about his brother. He buried his pain deeply into his soul forever. But I know that he never forgave himself for leaving his younger brother alone. He didn't have to tell me. His eyes told me everything. His eyes remained forever sad until his death.