SOMETIMES LOVED ONES LEAVE AND DISAPPEAR. BUT THEY NEVER LEAVE, NOT REALLY.
Janine di Giovanni
This summer, the summer of war raging in Aleppo, and refugees pouring through Europe’s borders searching for a home, the summer of pre-election hysteria in the United States, there was a fire at my friend’s house in Greece.
It snaked through his land, up through the hills and groves of dense olive trees, and burned everything in its destructive path. Planes from Athens dropped gallons of water, firemen arrived, and all the men who were nearby worked like demons to put out the flames. By the time I arrived, a few days after the fire started, it had burned all the soft wooded trees to a sinister black – these once lovely trees that had welcomed visitors to the house among the lush fields of olive trees that lined the way up the hill and were almost dreamlike in their beauty. Now it all smelled of acrid smoke.
But the fire had stopped, strangely, just before it reached the house, almost as though some force had pushed it back to keep this place, which all of us love so much, protected. It was this side of a miracle. The strength of the fire raged through trees and hillsides, but left the lovely family home — where a generation of children were raised, where many friends have laughed, where cats and dogs wander around in amazement, where delicious food is cooked, bottles of wine emptied, and many secrets told – intact. There was something mystic about it, and very strange.
At the foot of the house, also intact, was our friend Roy’s tree. Roy was a part of our gang, a funny, wise, beautiful and sweet friend. Ten years ago, he went shopping with a friend near Piccadilly, then sat down exhausted and said, "I don’t feel well," and died. He had been ill for a very long time, but because he never complained about the massive amounts of medicine he had to take, and how tired he often became, or that he might have even been scared about what was coming, we often forgot he was so sick. So his death was a terrible, bleak surprise, a gigantic hole that ripped through all our lives, like a tsunami. I missed him terribly.
I remember where I was when I heard the news that he was gone: getting onto an airplane with my small baby boy strapped to me like a baby kangaroo. It was my friend Sam (not his real name) who told me, and the minute I picked up my phone, my heart felt cold because Sam was crying. "Roy’s dead," he said. I was so startled that when they called my flight, I left my computer behind.
I am not someone who loses things, but now I had lost one of my best friends, as well as all of my work, on that damned computer. I got another computer, that was easy enough, but Roy — I missed Roy every single day.
Back to the fire. After Roy died, we had a little ceremony at the house, the following summer. We sat around a meditation pond, where giant lily pads grow like something out of a fairy tale, and we all held candles and spoke about Roy. Some of us cried hard, but mostly we just thought about how, one brief summer before, we had all been together swimming, laughing, gossiping, eating. No one knew what would happen next. Reunited, we could somehow still hear his deep, raucous laughter which always made you laugh, too. "Dahling!" he loved to say, like Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Sometime later, one of our group of friends who stays at the house every summer, a landscape architect, planted a beautiful, sturdy tree just down the hill from the back door at the house. In another part of his life, Roy had been a gardener; he loved beautiful things. His taste was exquisite, so a lot of thought was put into what kind of tree it would be. A poet friend who also loved him, Tor, wrote some simple words which were put on the plaque by the tree. From then on it was known as Roy’s tree.
I was at the same house in Greece last summer when I got more terrible news: my own dear brother, Joseph, the sweetest, purest, most tender soul, had also died suddenly. Like Roy, he had been ill for some time but I never expected him to die, and certainly not so young. We were only two years apart, and when we were small, people thought we were twins — there we were with dirty blonde hair, holding hands and catching frogs down at a pond near our house. I remember thinking after he died: who will be the keeper of all my secrets now? Who will remember the telephone number of our home when we were children, or what strange aunt said this or that at Christmas dinner? Who will be my twin?
At the very moment of my brother’s death, I had been on a boat with Sam and some other friends, and my own son, now a much bigger boy. A sea bird that no one noticed suddenly appeared and followed us all the way, from out at sea, back to shore.
That fire, again… When I returned the summer after my brother’s death, ten years after Roy’s passing, I was a more reflective person – I had gone through my own share of trials and disasters over the years, which had the strange effect of calming me. When I went for a walk over the scorched earth a few days later, I noticed that the fire had not disturbed Roy’s tree. It was scarred, perhaps a bit shaken, but definitely still standing. I am someone who likes subtleties, so the metaphor is almost too much of a cliche to mention. But it was true all the same. Roy was not going to let a fire defeat his firm, gentle spirit. He was still very much with us. Sam’s wife, a beautiful Spanish lady, told me how the fire seemed to go around the tree but not near it. This was what happened. One could see it.
That night, at dinner, one of our friends who gathers with the group at the house every summer mentioned something that Sam had done – some act of kindness. Sam is a humble person, but a very loyal and loving friend as well. He does things for people he loves and never talks about it. He simply doesn’t like to turn anything he does into a drama. He would hate that I am writing about him.
Linda, who was sitting next to me suddenly said: "Ah, that’s why the fire was raging but stopped just outside your door. It’s because you are so good – the house remained protected."
I also thought, but did not say: It’s because Roy was watching out for all of us. There was no way he would let that house burn.
Like my brother Joseph, Roy always said the right thing to me when I was going too far down, when life seemed as brutal and as drowning as the waves in the Atlantic Ocean – the waves I once loved to get pummeled by, body surfing as a kid. But when good things happened, Roy always reminded me there as well. "Look what you made," he said when I answered the door with my much-yearned for newborn son in my arms. It was the first time Roy saw my baby, who was a miracle baby. "Look at what you made."
Roy, and my brother, they are never far from me. I talk to them both, and sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep, I swear they are nearby. When I have an insurmountable problem, I talk to them in my head. Roy always has wise answers, straightforward, simple, direct. My brother gives his wisdom with a strong dose of humor.
Someone once told me that love does not stop just because you don’t see that person anymore. Sometimes they die, sometimes they go away, and sometimes they just leave you and disappear. But they never leave, not really. The night after my father died, I dreamed I saw him wandering around in his pajamas on the street.
"Dad!" I said. "What are you doing? You’re dead!"
"I’m not dead," he answered. "Who told you I’m dead?"
"You died today!" I insisted. "You’re dead!"
But my father smiled. "I’m not dead. I’m just in the next room."
Janine di Giovanni, Middle East Editor of Newsweek and contributing editor of Vanity Fair, is one of Europe’s most respected reporters, with vast experience covering war and conflict. Her most recent book is "The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches From Syria." This past year, she was awarded the 2016 Courage in Journalism prize by the IWMF. Her reporting has been called "established, accomplished brilliance" and she has been cited as "the finest foreign correspondent of our generation". She recently became an Ochberg Fellow at Columbia University in recognition of her work on violence and war and the trauma it brings to society, and has been named as one of the 100 most influential people reducing armed conflict by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV). Website: www.janinedigiovanni.com