Excerpt from The Shoebox
... I crushed the letter between my fingers, forming it into a ball. I had worked hard to forget these feelings. I was a happy American adult now and nothing would change that. Not the letter, not the shoebox, and definitely not Imre bácsi. Why did he write this letter? Did he want forgiveness? For what? For coming into my life again and stirring up things I had no desire to remember?
Mother’s photos, scattered on the table, stared at me. I picked them up just to prove that nothing could change the way I felt. I was happy.
On the first photo, Mrs. Zalai’s grave stood next to Niki’s with a small crowd gathered around it. Even though her mother’s was freshly made, Niki’s tombstone was the one that glistened like a couple of enduring poppies in the middle of a dying field, impossible to miss. Twenty-two years couldn’t erase the fact that she didn’t belong there.
On her tombstone, I could still read her name.
Zalai Nikolett 1970-1986
Who would care for her grave now that her mother was gone? I didn’t know much about Mrs. Zalai. She had been a young woman with high hopes for her newborn Niki, dreams of a brilliant future, maybe a nice home with children one day.
On the back of the photograph Mother had scribbled the priest’s words. God never puts us into a situation unless we’re ready for it. He strengthens us so that we are prepared to face whatever comes our way. Like the coach who trains the athlete for the competition, He won’t let him race unless the athlete’s ready.
A mother is never ready for the loss of a child. Her own death must have come to Mrs. Zalai as a relief, an absolution, a delivery from her painful life. Her funeral wasn’t a sad event. She had carried undeserved distress for too long already. No one should live a life with an interrupted promise of a daughter.
I smiled to myself as the feeling of grief avoided me once more like twenty-two years ago when I met death for the first time. That time, it had come for one of us. But back then, death had only been a myth, a careless thought, a fact that only existed in history books or old documentary films about wars. It only concerned old people, not teenagers. So when death came in its unpredictable and sly way, we laughed. We turned and walked away.
Now again, at thirty-eight, Mrs. Zalai’s funeral didn’t create a hollowness in my heart.
The photographs with the wide trees hanging above the small graves, the curved back of the mourning people around them made me feel I was standing amongst the crowd just like twenty-two years ago. I could see the sun enfolded in a hazy blanket of colorless clouds, feel the warm and sticky air on my skin -- too humid for an early September afternoon. Mother was right – the place hadn’t changed much. Even though the trees looked more mature, the branches longer, and the trunks wider, the rows of tombs weren’t any different from what I remembered, and the grass was the same faded green as it used to be at this time of the year.
There was one picture of Imre bácsi with his hands folded in front of him, next to the yawning pit. His thin skin hung loose, wrinkled, as if two sized too big on him. He seemed to be mumbling something, his lips forming inaudible words like those of old people who talked to themselves, oblivious to the others watching. Was he that old? Or was it his life that made him look this way?
Mother had scribbled the priest’s words once again on the back. We each carry our own cross. The success of our life is measured by how well we carry it. And Mrs. Zalai carried hers with acceptance, humbleness, and even pride.
The young priest’s black clergy robe touched the grass and his stole hung heavy over his shoulders, like the burden we all had to carry. He had his hands raised in a blessing manner.
I looked at Imre bácsi again. His stare was full of pain and regret, a gaze of shame that screamed for forgiveness. I had nothing to forgive him for. Niki was gone and I learnt to live without a best friend. I was all right. I had my life now, a happy life far from pain with a loving husband and two healthy daughters. I didn’t hold him accountable for anything. The past was just a crumb now in the totality of my life.
The last picture was of Mrs. Zalai’s grave, her coffin already lowered into the pit and buried under the freshly dug dirt. On the back I read Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
I didn’t rejoice, nor weep. I focused on staying immune to the temptation of remembering. I wasn’t part of all that, anymore. If Imre bácsi’s intent with the shoebox was to see a sign of regret or grief, he didn’t succeed. Just like the day of Niki’s funeral, I didn’t shed one tear. Because I was the only one who’d always known the truth.
I’d always known my best friend’s secret. That Niki was still alive.