My Grandmother was an amazing person, without whose love and support my life would have been much worse. I owe a lot to her: love of Belgrade’s history, a certain sense of humour, as well as the tendency towards obesity and comforting myself with food.
She was kind, funny and strong, and a rare person whose affection towards me I could physically feel whenever I was around her (yes, in the proverbial, corny ray of sunshine kind of way). In the many stormy times for our family – set off by personal as well as political developments while I was growing up – she was the voice of reason and stability, arguably making me feel safer than even my lovely, but less level-headed, boomer parents.
As I was finishing the dreadful first year of High School, we drifted apart for a bit, despite the fact that we lived close. Although I remember losing my Grandpa, her husband, when I was five, the idea of anyone from my family dying – and especially dying suddenly – seemed impossible and thus I thought I could hang out with her whenever I stopped being a too sociable teenager.
In the quick few weeks, it turned out that rather than simply gaining weight (which she easily did) she developed a sizeable blood clot which was difficult to diagnose, but which we were led to believe was treatable. Indeed, I took it as a given that things would be fine and got into the habit of telling everybody who asked about her one simple phrase: “It will all be okay”.
I believed in this so much that I even skipped visiting her in hospital. I guess instead of that I focused on improving my GPA as it was the end of the school year (or doing some other dumb teenage stuff), but we did call each other. During one of these generally unremarkable calls, I remember telling her how much I loved her, but ending the call with a chirpy “It will all be okay”.
The next day, one lovely sunny Saturday in May, my Dad and I were driving to play tennis and we dropped off my Mum at the hospital. The phone rang, and by my Dad’s reaction I could tell things were going horribly wrong. My Mum, an only child and extremely close to her mother, found my Grandma lying on her bed covered with a white cloth. The hospital did not bother to call us.
Things did not turn out okay.
Neither in this instance nor in many others in the following years. Her death sent us into a very turbulent times as a family, especially as we lacked my Grandmother’s balancing, calming influence.
Her death – its suddenness, its seeming impossibility, its preventability, given the fact that nobody, even the doctors, took her illness seriously (myself included) – made me deeply doubt all that I believed about the world up to that point. I cannot really say what kind of person I was before that day, but I was a kid who deeply believed that things will always be okay, probably in large part thanks to her protection and optimism. Needless to say, after that day, the phrase “it will all be okay” took on a sinister ring for me. Additionally, among other things, I developed a deep mistrust of doctors as well as a slight anxiety from unexpected phone-calls (although this is apparently a millennial thing).
Despite all of this and the turmoil my Grandmother’s death plunged our family, we kept moving on. There were highs, there were lows, many that I brought about upon myself thanks to my turn towards ontological pessimism (a very teenage thing to do anyway), but, all in all, my family, the world and I trudged along.
Eventually, in my late 20s, I kind of realised that life will always be hard, but that having faith – in the world and my path through it – was not only important, but key to anything. My Mum, who inherited a lot of my Grandmother’s upbeat and positive attitude often begrudged me that I was deeply “afraid of life”. Through various experiments with religion and “spirituality”, as well as doing a bit more to steer my life towards things I think are valuable and important to me, my pessimism and fear (somewhat?) lifted.
It was at the end of 2019, that I felt that things are finally as they should be and that I had things figured out, that future and life can be trusted, and that I finally have the wherewithal to withstand most things thrown at me. It was during a wonderful alpine holiday with many of dear friends, that I decided to tempt fate and had a friend’s mother read my palm (she had a reputation for clairvoyance, but did not capitalise on it).
“It seems that you were gravely ill or have lost somebody very very close?”
“Ah yes, my Grandmother. She died when I was 15.”
“No, more recently, in your 30s.”
We looked at each other, and smiled awkwardly.
A few months later, as the Pandemic started and much of the life that I started building began to fray – no travelling meant no travel writing, although people did really listen to podcasts a lot back then – I found myself anxious about this premonition, and could not stop thinking about my parents.
Luckily, in January 2021, vaccines arrived to Belgrade and I let out a sigh of relief, and we all got our first dose. “That is the end of that”, I thought, looking forward to things finally looking up again. A few days later, my Mum fell ill. It was late stage pancreatic cancer.
Still, as bad as it was, it was curable, no? RBG managed to live a decent life with it.
“It will all be okay” became a mantra that I kept repeating to myself every day: as I was walking, lifting weights, praying, cooking for my Mum and watching her blissfully asleep. I was even telling her this when she told me she will probably not live up until my birthday that year.
I, of course, was wrong. She was right.
She passed away on a rainy April morning. This time the hospital did call, but as these things happen, it happened just as I was entering its gleaming lobby wanting to check up on her with the doctors (the Pandemic restrictions on visits would have prevented me from seeing her).
The following years brought on more things that did not turn out okay: relationships, friendships, jobs and many many other plans.
Outside my little and relatively ordered and nice world, things also took a turn for the worse. A major war started. Just last week there were two mass shootings in the greater Belgrade area, one of which in a school that many of friends used to attend, by a deranged monster.
In these years, I have become even more accustomed to looking in the ways people deal with the ways in which life is not okay. Many, probably most, of them include believing that if you only shift this or that, lay all on the blame on this person or the other, things will eventually be okay.
They won’t. At least I really do not think they can be.
This February, around the time I felt started looking up for me and I was moving house, I came across an amazing, haunting, version of the “Tennessee waltz” performed live by Sam Cooke. Having been into sad, angsty indie stuff since my Grandmother’s death, I missed out on a lot of fun, lively older music, which also meant that I only found out about Sam Cooke and his tragically short life at the age of 34 (a year older than Sam Cooke was when he was killed). The song was on an album which was recorded at the legendary Copa in New York a few months before Cooke’s death. It was the only live album released during his life and it ended with this exuberant, gospel laced performance of this nostalgic song about a love lost thanks to own stupidity and bad luck. As I was packing up my life and memories, I was transfixed with Cooke’s delivery in which at the same time conveyed the pain of a love lost in such a dumb and sad way (losing someone due to own scheming is particularly painful), as well the awe for “that beautiful! wonderful! marvellous! glorious!” waltz that was not only the background, but probably even the catalyst to this loss. Narrativizing and reading into things, as I do, and blasting it on repeat, I mused if this recording showed Cooke’s general attitude to life, and maybe even foreshadowed his tragic death.
Maybe he indeed could take in the tragedy of life as well as see the beauty, wonder, marvel and glory that background and bring it about? However tragic his life was, it was a great one, as he managed to conjure, in a few short minutes, this seductive, amazing, brilliant force that makes us think things will always be okay, although we all really know they really won’t?
On good days, I like to think that is the point and reward of it all: seeking what Cooke found that night at the Copa, holding onto it, but also conveying it and enhancing it for others. Much like my Grandma, Mum and many others, and this recording did it for me.