He had already been ill for a long time and I believe he knew there was no cure.
We both knew it. The fact that there was no cure. Which is why these regular visits to a dying man in the hospital weighed on me so much. All the forced conversations in which both of the collocutors keep pretending they do not know what both in fact do know that the other knows, an unnatural leisureliness, a pretended casualness, this entire playacting…and for whom, why!? Yet still we continued this game, week in, week out, from one month to the next, not knowing how much longer he truly had. But not long! That much we knew. Both he and I.
I would bring him the obligatory fruit—an orange or two, some grapes, bananas—and place them on the small grey-white cabinet by the bed, pushing aside the box of tissues and last week’s newspapers. There were days when we would share everyday pleasantries—a sentence or two on the weather, hospital food, the TV program from the night before, an article in the newspapers—and on the odd occasion he would be interested in his other, younger son, Vladimir, a doctor, thanks to whom we had managed to get him this lovely, tidy, and clean twin room which, when we had brought him in for a check-up a month earlier, had been empty, so that the old man had the room to himself.
“Great!” I had tried to convince him. “At least you can get some sleep here! No one to disturb you…you can even open the windows as much as you like… I know you don’t like the room too warm.”
“Warm, cold… it’s all the same! I’m not going to last that long!” he would reply, full of bitterness that stemmed from his eternal depression and defeatism.
I was not glad that he was giving in without a fight, so I used to scold him about it. But now, what was I to say to a man who was dying of cancer and who really did not have that much time left? What was I supposed to do to make him feel better? How was I supposed to animate him when I was aware of the fact that there was no cure; that it was a matter of time, time that was running out of the clepsydra that represented the rest of his onerous, wasted life?
“Vladimir sends his greetings,” I would tell him, and he would remain silent and stare out into empty space, as if Vladimir were guilty. As if it were Vladimir’s fault that the old man had succumbed to cancer, and his younger son, although a doctor, could not help.
Sometimes he would ask me to bring him books. Usually novels or collections of short stories. Marinković, Šegedin, Novak, and Aralica were his favorite writers. But, as of late, he had turned to Solzhenitsyn and his works that bore symbolic titles: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and, of course, Cancer Ward. I thought it somewhat morbid, or too pathetic, but I did not contradict him. I regularly supplied him with the books he had asked for and pretended not to notice the all too obvious wickedness in his choices. He, on the other hand, pretended not to notice my pretense. I partly understood his fury. Within myself, I found crumbs of understanding for the old man’s anger, for his raging at fate that had played him so cruelly, in this manner, at the end of the road, as one would say, now at the end of the day, after all the adversities he had endured on the death marches after the surrender at Bleibourgh, as an eighteen year old who had been recruited right before the end of the war, the Second World War, and then afterwards, first at the collection camp in Brod, and later on Bare Island where he ended up “by the Grace of God” as he would often say. He would tell us about it, my brother and me, rarely, unwillingly, and always after he had had a drink; how he had ended up there and how he had survived the Golgotha there. He would reminisce upon all the details. “They came at one in the morning. Two of them. Dark hats, long leather coats, and boots! Just like out of Russian films, damn it! And then off to the regional prison. You had just been born, Martin; you were no more than a year old. Outside, it was winter! I remember it to this day. I went out without a hat, I put on a coat on top of my pajamas, they did not even give me time to change; they simply forced me out into the street as if I were vermin. Thin-soled shoes and outside it was snowing, slush. My shoes were wet the moment I crossed the threshold! My wife was crying as she held on to the sleeve of my coat with one hand, while she held on to you with the other. You were crying, and my heart was breaking! A short interrogation; a number of slaps; and three years of hard labor on Bare Island. Afterwards, I could not find a job. Nobody wanted to employ an ex-convict—a political convict. The years after the War… poverty… nothing to eat… but the children needed to be fed… I did whatever needed to be done… I cut wood for people… went off to the Drava to catch lunch. No catch—no lunch! Then they employed me as a worker in a warehouse of the local matches factory. And we’d just about managed to get back on our feet when they came again, the leather coats, and another three years of hard labor…” My old man would continue, his throat constricting and we would think—this is when he’ll start crying.
And then, on that particular Saturday, having entered the hospital room, I stopped short in consternation. On the bed, right next to the door lay a transparent creature, enmeshed in tubes that were coming out from everywhere, so it seemed, from every orifice on that greyish yellow, gaunt, and shrunken body. My old man was lying on his bed facing the wall and he seemed to be asleep. I did not want to wake him up. I set the bag with fresh fruit and newspapers on the floor next to the cabinet and went to look for the doctor on duty.
Doctor Ožegović was a middle-aged, slightly podgy, but still very attractive blonde. And she was aware of it. When I asked her how my father had spent the night she did not beat around the bush.
“Not too well! I suppose he needs time to adjust to the new circumstances. I assume you saw… he’s no longer alone in the room. Two days ago we had to give Mr. Badovinac a bed. And he’s not doing too well…he kept groaning all night on the first night, so your father couldn’t get any sleep.”
“Well, no need to worry! He’s a tough old goat. He’ll get used to it. He should be grateful that he’s had the room to himself so far.” I commented somewhat ingratiatingly.
She reached out and held on to my hand coquettishly and said “It’s only for a few days. He’s terminal. A day, or two…”
On seeing how taken aback I was and that I had turned red in the face, she quickly added “Not your father… Mr. Badovinac... I’m sorry, that was rather tactless of me!” she blurted out and then turned around and headed down the corridor. I continued standing there, watching her retreating behind which, so it seemed, she intentionally waggled provocatively as she walked, and then I too turned around, in the opposite direction and returned to the room in which there were now two terminally-ill men.
My old man was awake, but was still staring at the wall, with his back turned to his roommate who was also conscious, and staring up at the ceiling.
“Hi, Dad! How are you?” I said, letting him know that I was there.
My old man remained silent and continued staring at the wall.
“I see you’ve got a roommate,” I continued as if talking to myself.
This time I thought that he murmured something inarticulate, but I could not be sure.
“The doctor on duty tells me that you didn’t get much sleep last night.” I continued talking to the shrunken back and the light-grey hospital wall.
“Old bastard!” He finally croaked hoarsely.
“Sorry?” I did not understand what he was saying.
“I want to be transferred!”
“What are you on about?” I was still in the dark.
“I don’t want him in the same room as me!” he said and finally turned to face me and stared at me through shrunken dark eyes in which the light was dimming and becoming more and more translucent.
“But Dad, the man’s dying…What did he ever do to you!?” I added in the most pacifying and gentle tone of voice I could muster.
“What did he ever do to me!? What did he ever do to me!?” He kept repeating in disbelief, as if I should be able to deduce things thanks to one glance at the dry, wracked body on the adjoining bed. “What did he ever do to me!? The old bag of bones! This sorry excuse for a man! Nothing, absolutely nothing!” He grumbled on in anger.
I was at a loss, and his outburst of rage could not be put down to one sleepless night.
“If you really want to know, I’ll tell you what that bag of shit did,” my father suddenly continued. “I first encountered him on the death marches, when they started herding us like cattle on the road to Maribor and on the route to camps in Serbia. At the time he was the main partisan bludgeoner! Ask him how many dead he left behind in ravines along the way!? And then, as if that were not enough, he was later my jailer on Bare Island. There too he clubbed and bludgeoned. There too he sent a number of people to their graves!” My old man continued to rave on in anger.
“I should have done the same to you… then… one in the back of the head and end of story,” said the cadaver on the adjoining bed, suddenly coming alive.
I could not believe what I was hearing. I was witness to a war led by two dying men, a war they had been fighting for over half a century and which did not seem to be stopping here either, at a point when they were both at death’s door, when neither of them had a chance at survival... they continued to wage a fierce war with the same degree of hatred.
“Well, not anymore you won’t! You’ve had it, you and the likes of you! No more partisans, no more Yugoslavia! It’s all gone down the drain, all gone!”
“I should have, yes I should; given you one between the eyes, like I did to all the traitors, and then buried you, you fascist motherfucker!” the dying man rasped.
“You red vermin! Anyone who wasn’t like-minded, anyone who wanted a free Croatia, they were all fascists as far as you were concerned. All those children recruited at the end of the war… all fascists! And afterwards if you told a joke you’d be sent off to hard labor! They too were the state’s enemy. If you were schooled in a seminary—hard labor! To be re-educated! Anyone resisting, sentenced without the jury! Everything for Tito and the Party!” My father continued to rage.
I was beginning to worry about his health, if this was not absurd in view of his diagnosis and his state of health when I had first brought him in to hospital. And as I was just about to try to calm him down again, the man in the neighboring bed rasped:
“I would—if it all happened again—I would do the same again! You motherfucking traitors! You’re all Ustashi… you always were and still remain!”
“Oh no, it won’t work! No more Tito, no more dear Yugoslavia… and there will soon be none of you left either. Times have changed, freedom, democracy, other people, another world! Now my sons rule!” My father would not relent.
He tiredly raised a shrunken arm, made a fist and then extended his index finger and small finger in the air and pointed them towards his neighbor’s bed and the half-dead creature that continued to stare at the ceiling as if there were a vast screen on which an ancient film was continuously being screened about a time, which he still believed today, was a legendary, but bygone and forgotten age.
What kind of rule was my old man blabbering on about, I thought, what kind of authority were we, one a doctor and the other a retired journalist!? I was about to say something, to try to calm down the two dying old men, two completely irreconcilable worlds, which, so it seemed, only this conflict was still keeping alive and who would disappear the moment that the conflict vanished.
At that moment, the half-dead, tube-enmeshed body on the bed adjoining my father’s mustered the strength to raise both hands, cross his left arm across his right in a fuck-off sign, and hiss his last words:
“Do you think that I don’t have children?’