by Kleitia Vaso

We are shaped by factors preceding us, seemingly outside us. We cannot control the lives that we accommodate within us even before being born. Afterward, as we get older, we might have a say in our own fate but, even that, as an affirmation or rebellion, limited by the non-choices presented.

“Fate is geography,” someone wiser than I has said. My first location was the house in which I returned from the maternity ward, without knowing why or how I got there. The first people I probably saw, besides my mom and dad, were my paternal grandparents in whose home I lived for the first seven years of my life. Such an intrinsic part of me, they are the only people who have escaped analysis. Their natures and habits, observed unaware and absorbed. I loved them without judging; I accepted into me whatever they fed me, literally and otherwise. More removed but serving a similar role to my parents, they escaped any anger, judgment, refusal.

Their room was full of sun, hidden desserts in a special cabinet to which the key was mysteriously found and used, and books. My first surroundings which I did not choose but would not trade, the place that fed my senses and shaped my taste without my being aware of it.  Since then, I have loved all of these things: the sun, sweets and books probably more than I should.

As I write this essay, my mother, far away at the moment, writes and tells us that tomorrow is the 10th year anniversary of my grandmother’s death. I had just started to write about them when receiving this sad reminder. I wouldn’t have been able to recall the date on my own as she passed away while I was in the U.S. and, somehow, I never fully experienced it.  Yet, she is the only one I once saw in a dream.

Now, in another foreign country, one that is strangely reminiscent of our childhood, perhaps even more than current Tirana – in sensation rather than looks – every day, J. and I take a walk. And, daily, we see the same birds who, by now, seem familiar. With a little more time, we might start to recognize them and give them names. Swans, the most beautiful and the laziest, pigeons, cute and fat like little flying balls, the ugly but extremely capable seagulls, the pretty emerald-headed ducks and, finally, the lonely-looking crows.

The crow. Initially unpleasant in appearance because it is assumed to be so. Then, you notice its expressive face and its sideways jumping, so simultaneously awkward and adorable that it causes a strange wave of pity and affection in me each time I see it. Perhaps, this love for the unlikely bird was born the day J. pointed out that the strange-looking creature reminds her of our grandfather. Indeed, the two resemble one another. The darkness, the beak, the nice eyes, honest expression, the constant movement.

Now, I think of him every day. I cannot explain otherwise a love that was born before I entered the world and one which never needed words. On my part, at least. My own name takes off from the first three letters of his and then can fly on its own. Jealous of having to share a name – J. says – I nicknamed him, baptized him in a way, with a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life. Everybody knew him by the name I decided he should have. He named me, indirectly; I named him with the name I thought right for him. He studied literature, like me, but this is a fact that I learned later and which only now fits nicely with everything else. I simply followed what I liked. Yet, certainly his love of books was naturally passed on to me, never directly stated, never taking the form of an advice.  Each day, when we find the smallest excuse to leave the house – to buy toothpaste, an extra lamp, anything really – and return hours later, I think of him and his recurrent going in and out the house for various items which he conveniently forgot during the previous time. He loved walking.

He died walking, in a way. He fell and soon afterward he died. We all knew, I think, that his death would come from what kept him alive: his need to walk.

When I received the news of his death, I wasn’t surprised. Or, so I thought. He had been in the hospital for a few days and did not look well. I found out over the phone and did not cry. I was with a very close friend who reminded me of him in certain aspects, despite a great age divide. Again, not physically but in feeling. After I received the news, my friend offered to walk with me to my grandfather’s house. Although slightly disoriented, I thought I was fine and continued talking normally. I started walking absentmindedly towards the house, a road familiar to me since I was old enough to remember and one that I traversed every day on the way to my current home. All of a sudden, at a corner which I must have seen a million times but which looked entirely unfamiliar to me at that very moment, I didn’t know which way to go. I felt entirely disoriented and the city, the street, the faces looked foreign, as though I had never seen them before.

My friend gently showed me the way. Perhaps, he understood the indirect ways taken by shock or pain or whatever it was. As we approached the house, he not knowing what to say to me or knowing too well perhaps, uttered a traditional version of “Condolences” like “may you live and remember him” or something of the sort. I don’t think we said a lot until that point. In the silence I had no need to fill and in my vulnerable state, I could no longer distinguish my interior from my exterior and had felt as one with everything, the street and especially him.  The consoling words awoke me. Meant to bridge a nonexistent gap between us, they split us again into two. We should have used our own language.

by Kleitia Vaso