Part 3: Loss
The children grew up quickly, particularly in those times when they were exposed to the working life so young. They all went to school, but it broke my heart that we couldn’t afford to send them off to college afterwards. Instead, they all had to squeeze in chores before and after school, and on weekends, when they were strong enough, they had to join us on the farms to earn some extra money. Certainly the economy had improved in the twenty years since the war, but wealth was rare and we still lived week by week. Marija had recently married and moved to Sweden with her husband Lajos, and Goran and Erzebet were still in school. Erzebet had high hopes of becoming a teacher one day, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her we had no money for teacher’s college. I kept hoping she would change her mind as school continued. But of course children have dreams. Josef had dreams for them too. He didn’t want them to have the hard life he had endured, and was glad that Marija managed to get out of the country and start a new life for herself.
I was so focused on the children that I forgot to pay attention to my marriage. Josef had always been there, and I just assumed he always would be. We had been married for over twenty years, after all. My one regret is that I took him for granted.
I only noticed things getting bad with him after the death of his father. His father died suddenly of a stroke in 1966, and Josef never really recovered after that. Now that I am older and know more about the world I can see that he had developed depression, but such a thing was never considered back then, especially not by any European male I know. Mourning the loss of a parent is natural and can take time, but Josef mourned so deeply that it was starting to break him. He had never been religious but he started lighting a candle for his father every night, and he would sit out on the porch staring into the flame. He withdrew from the children and withdrew from me.
How does a man deal with such intense thoughts going on in his mind when to speak about them with someone would bring him shame? All I know is what Josef did to cope, and that was to drink. Alcohol and cigarettes were the staple in most Yugoslav houses in those days. We even distilled our own palinka seasonally, as did all families. The liquor would keep you warm during the snow-filled winters and would cure many ailments. But to drink it in the quantities that Josef started to was not the norm. Men still had responsibilities to their families and to the community, but Josef didn’t want the feeling of responsibility any more.
I tried to speak to him about things. Before the drinking took over and it was just the depression, he would speak to me and tell me he didn’t want to feel that way anymore, but once the alcoholism set in there was no longer any talking. Some days he would go to work and not drink for a few days, and I would get my hopes up thinking that he had worked through whatever it was he needed to, but then he’d return to the bottle again. Things developed gradually but they progressively got worse over time. Thankfully Goran was old enough and strong enough to take over being the man of the house, but I could see how much their father’s change in behaviour hurt our children. At least Marija was spared the worst of it.
There were times when I would hide the alcohol, but it was easy to get elsewhere so this didn’t achieve anything except me getting yelled at. At first I wanted to help him, but over time I had started to hate him. He disgraced me. There were days when he would not even step outside of the house, where he would only move from the bedroom to the bathroom and back again, his only other movement being to reach for the bottle that sat on the bedside table. I grew grateful for the days he made it to the bathroom, because that was not always the case. Cleaning up after him made it feel as if I had another child in the house, and made me resent him even more. And I was grateful for the days he stayed in the bedroom, because that meant he wasn’t stumbling around the house where the children could see him. Erzebet was in her mid-teens by this time, but I could still see the heartbreak in her eyes. Her and her father had been close, and she had lost him.
There was no such thing as support groups for people like us back then. Alcoholism was not uncommon around the village, and so people kept to their own business and did not intervene. And to be honest I didn’t really understand addiction of any kind. Instead I grew angrier, and kept asking why he could not just decide to love us and be there for us, and to stop all this silly drinking. I did not understand that he wanted to stop, and that the fact he couldn’t made the spiral even worse. He stopped listening to me so I would write him letters, pleading with him to see what he was doing to our family, but I did not understand that the lure of the alcohol had such a hold on him. His guilt drove him to drink which created more guilt. He just kept sinking deeper and deeper and there was nothing I could do to rescue him. I saw no way of our lives improving. I guess Josef didn’t either, and after years of this cycle he’d had enough.
Goran and Erzebet are spending some time at Marija’s, and I thank God they are. For I returned home today from work to the usual silence. I assumed Josef was asleep in the bedroom again, so didn’t bother to go and say hello, and just got on with preparing our dinner. He was always trim but he hardly ate anything now, so was sickeningly thin. I still prepared a plate for him every night though, and most mornings I would have to throw the untouched food away.
I ate my meal, cleaned my dish, and still couldn’t hear him stirring from the bedroom. The fool is probably out cold, I thought. I switched on the radio to hear the news, and as it ended I was finally curious enough to go and check on him.
I guess he had strength enough today to go to the shed and get the rope. I found him hanging there, off the end of our marital bed, his legs dangling and his face slumped and pale. I did not scream, but instead was frozen in place, staring into his now vacant eyes, once as blue as the Danube we used to fish from. It was then the tears began. I hugged his dangling legs, feeling how cold they were and realising he must have done this as soon as I had left that morning. A strange noise surrounded me, and I did not initially realise that noise was coming from me. My wails filled the room, the house, the street, until eventually my mother crossed the road and found me there, clutching at those cold legs, my tears leaving wet patches on the pants.
I have lost Josef now. He rescued me when I needed him to, yet I could not do the same for him. The rest of the night has past by in a haze. All I am left with now, apart from our children, is the note that was pinned to his shirt, handed to me by my father…