These are the words spoken by dying Beth March to her sister Jo, in Louisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women”.
Three nights ago a childhood friend of mine passed away. His name was Sasha (Saša).
I remember him as the bright-eyed beautiful boy with a mischievous smile I once knew. Since hearing the news, images of him pop up in my head. I see his face, which his cousin justly described as that of a cherub: rosy-cheeked, curly-haired, sun-kissed and sweet. I hear his voice, his accent and intonation. I especially hear his laugh. Throughout our childhood and early adolescence, he was my brother’s closest “summer friend” (those friends we see every summer, who mean so much to us). He was also the cousin of my closest “summer friend”. And though Sasha and I were not that close, he meant a lot to me. He was my first childhood crush. It was a crush that lasted into my early teens and was reignited every summer for years. I never told him that. I remember the feeling of anticipation before that first annual encounter with him, summer after summer… and my invariably blushing when it happened.
For years, our families got together on the Dalmatian island where our grandparents lived. We spent every day together. For the most part, we naturally split into groups: parents with parents, boys with boys and girls with girls. But we were also part of a whole, which reunited one month of every year. A whole that I can now only describe as “a very merry bunch”. To me, Sasha is a symbol of our enchanted childhood summers, of jumping into the translucid Adriatic waters, splashing the tanning tourists, of eating sweet and salty peaches washed in sea water, of excursions to neighbouring islands with our Tomos 4 motor, of knees scorched on the island rocks that we used to run on barefoot along the sea, of us kids escaping the house at “post-lunch siesta time” to play cards in the shade… I also remember one evening when all the families on our street gathered at a nearby hotel for a huge raffle, in which our two families won almost all the prizes. His family won bottles of red wine, ours won a huge leg of prosciutto. For days after that, we all gathered in the evenings to share all that ham and wine on the waterfront.
The enchanted years lasted until the war broke out in Yugoslavia. Sasha’s parents were a mixed couple, so they moved to Canada, where they knew they would be safe. Those were the years of disillusion in so many ways and the island was never the same to me after that. Nor were any of us. We were growing up, and adolescence was a rude awakening for me. Over a decade later, I moved to Montreal. That very first summer in my new country of residence, I visited Sasha in Toronto. I met his girlfriend, who has since become his wife and the mother of his child. I was so happy to see that, in the man before me, there was still that lively, witty, charming boy I’d known and fancied. He had been kicked around by life, as had I. But he had not let the light inside him die. And now it has gone out.
Last night, my daughter crawled into my bed after having had a nightmare. In her sleep, she held on to me and said: “I want you to stay with me”. It brought tears to my eyes. Sasha’s little girl wanted her daddy to stay with her too, but he couldn’t. When I received the message announcing his death, I was in the middle of a conversation with a girlfriend who, like me, lives alone with her kids. Just then, we were saying that we couldn’t risk getting seriously sick because our children depended on us. Sasha probably thought the same. All his hope and positive energy, all the love and support of his family and friends were not powerful enough to keep him alive. Life seems to have neither no rhyme nor reason, and death takes people away at random. I do not believe that good things happen to good people, and bad things to bad people. Sometimes I even get the impression that the opposite is true. Montherlant’s quote “Wickedness, like alcohol, preserves” often rings true.
Thinking of Sasha, I think of all the things he had wanted to experience, and now never will. And I wonder what it is that I want to achieve or experience while I am alive. What do I think I absolutely need to do before I die? The only thing that seems to be essential is being there for my daughter, while she needs me. For the rest, I have ambitions and dreams enough, but when I think of my friend’s death, I feel like none of those really matter. Of course, I wish to write and direct films, to achieve professional success doing something I love, I would like my children’s book to be published and I want to write more, I wish to fall in love again and be loved, I want to dance and sing and see friends and travel… But if I were to leave tomorrow, the great world would go on spinning, other stories would be told, other books would be written, other films directed and other women loved by the men I could potentially fall in love with. Still, no one is replaceable, so when a loved one dies, their family and friends miss them forever. But they, too, go on living. The one person who would be rendered dysfunctional for life by my absence is my daughter. Until she is able to be independent, I am responsible for her health, her well-being, her safety. That is my higher purpose here. The rest is what makes life good, exciting, beautiful, worth living, while I’m here. But it will not matter in the afterlife – if there is such a thing.
And so, once again, my thoughts turn to Sasha and, this time, to his wife. She will have to be strong enough for two now, courageous enough for two, loving enough for two, constant enough for two. I wish her well, and may she never have to suffer such a loss again as long as she lives.
Dear sweet Sasha, may you rest in peace. Počivaj u miru. I shan’t forget you.
(Title: Quote by Beth March in “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott)