Some stories are easier to tell than others. It took me more than three years to be able to tell this one. Not because of how personal or sensitive the topic is but because the story was not yet complete. I did not realise this until recently but I myself became part of the story. My actions defined the ending. For a long time I felt no need to share the below words publicly but as the world around and inside me kept changing now it only feels right to do so.

I will admit, when I started writing this I had a quiet voice in my head telling me ‘a female expressing her emotions? that is weakness’ but I shut it down which just goes to show how much I have grown. I mean if anything (as someone who calls herself a writer) I sometimes feel like I do not talk about my own life experience enough… Anyway, as you will see, this story has nothing to do with weakness. On the contrary – it is about the person who taught me how to be strong.

I think most of us can remember the first time someone close to them died. The first time death introduced itself to me was in the form of an early morning text message received from my aunt. The message simply stated that my grandfather passed away. I remember thinking ‘okay then’. That was it. I simply went on with my day. I had an assessment to submit the next morning and a drama rehearsal to attend later in the afternoon. My grandfather’s death was something distant and not yet real. My behaviour was so normal none of my friends or tutors realised something happened.

Thinking about it now, I probably thought if I simply ignore the message the matter will just go away. Truth to be told I felt an absolute emotional emptiness. I (of course) wanted to be there for my family, offered to drop everything to go back to where they all were but this was not what they wanted and I simply moved on.

The roller coaster came a year later. I woke up in the middle of the night crying, grabbed a pen, my notebook, quickly scribbled some of the below words on paper. This was roughly two years ago. For a long time these words rested safely in my notebook, waiting to be processed. Today I share them with you.

I wrote this in a notebook I knew you would like. Telling our story on a piece of paper, remember how you never told me yours? 

I would sit next to you, my hazel eyes filled with unconditional admiration, listening to narrations from your childhood and war. Playgrounds you built in an abandoned old town buildings, secret tunnels nobody knew about, a misery of war cleverly turned into a motivation to move forward.

You always stood for what you believed in but not in an aggressive way. Reasonable mind, carefully selected words, well-researched and facts backed explanation. You were the one to show me that the ticket to wonderland had to be earned, it could not be bought. Like a glacier mountain, there you were, standing still and tall, sheltering me from destructive winds. 

A book filled with cyphered answers and me pointlessly looking for ways to untangle them. I asked you to record your story. I wanted to know how the chapter begins. You were a foreign hero, someone I admired from far away yet could not find a map capable of showing the way to understanding you. I still remember the first story you shared. It gave me hope that the Pandora box your mind so carefully guarded might one day open. 

The last time I saw you, we both knew. Unspoken truth, consciously ignored. The last time we could have spoken on the phone you refused to say hello to me. Perhaps you knew that we will not have another chance to hear each others voice and you wanted to leave it that way. The next day I woke up, but you never did. 

It seems unfair that the strongest person I ever knew left without a chance to fight. I wish I could change that. I would sit and look at the moon. Bargain for another moment with you. Then I stopped asking for more time because the time we had was enough. It was us who were selfish, asking you to stay. You once told me how you thought that the inevitable ending of your story was fair – you sailed through life from harbour to harbour. Withstanding each storm, dancing with tornadoes, befriending the thunders. 

I was occupied building the life I wanted to live while living the life you helped us to create. High school exams, joggling my first part-time job with my studies, worried about University applications, hopelessly looking for ways to achieve my dream, to see the cities I used to read about, to explore the academic seaways I knew nothing about. My complicated presence turned into a simple solution while your simple back pain turned into complex cancer.

That first time I went to visit you in the hospital felt surreal. Delightful, soft spring, nearly summertime. Nature was waking from sleep and you were falling into one. You were so strong yet that day I was the one helping you make your way down the hall. I was learning to take my first independent steps while you were fighting for each one not to be your last. That moment felt strange for both of us, unspoken words were echoing within our meaningless conversation.

I never saw you stronger than you were at your weakest moments. You taught me how much internal strength it takes to allow people who always saw you as a stone to now see you like a trembling leaf, just about to let the wind take it on its next journey.

I went and bought us ice-cream later that day. It was the first time you took something I gave and said a simple ‘thank you’. There was no follow-up statement, no awkward exchange of money to ’pay me back’. I felt treated as an equal for the first time that day and something around and inside me shifted. It was the money I earned working the job everyone wanted me to quit I bought the ice-cream with. Something I have earned, my independent work, the first physical proof of how much more I can achieve. Your acknowledgement meant the world to me. 

Maybe because of this significant moment when I received a call later that day congratulating me on receiving a job offer abroad I did not question my ability to do it. I accepted what later turned out to be the first chapter of my life. It was the beginning of an end for you.

I never actually found a way to communicate how grateful I was for having you in my life. What an influence you had and still have on the choices I make every day. The sky would always remind me of you but the day they told me you have passed away it was just blue. Every once in awhile I recognise parts of you around me. The voice of an elderly man on the phone, the sentence in the book I am reading, the landscape you could have painted with the stories from your memories. 

I do not think I ever told you I love you. Love always seemed too primitive of a word to articulate the respect and appreciation I felt for you. Nevertheless, while they say you cannot love a stranger, I will always love you.’

Dear Gabriele Marija,

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