A Day in the Life of an Old Man
Bratislav lifts his eyelids and looks at the yellowing bedroom ceiling. From the kitchen, he hears Rosa bustling with the coffee pot and washing the dishes. He turns his head towards the clock on the nightstand. It’s 9:25am. He is in no rush. He nods off, the mouth open, his nose and cheeks flaking from dryness and old age. When a dish falls in the kitchen and Rosa curses, he rouses again. Getting out of bed is tricky. On some mornings, when his legs are especially heavy, he calls Rosa to lift him, but most of the time he manages alone in a lengthy process that involves rolling to his right side, slowly extending one leg to the floor, stretching the other one out, and then pushing the rest of his body up after taking a deep breath in preparation for the lift.
The kitchen is next to the bedroom, and Bratislav reaches his favorite chair in about ten steps. He sits there for a while and listens to his wife gossip with the neighbor about the cat that escaped from widow Senka’s open window or Marko’s heroin-addicted son who recently stole a TV from his parents to pay for drugs. “God forbid. Save us from evil,” Rosa says and crosses herself three times.
Most of the time a plate is placed swiftly in front of him, but on some mornings Rosa ignores him. “I’m here. Where’s my food?” he angrily asks when this happens. Rosa usually serves him some leftover lamb or cabbage and meat stew from the day before.
“Why are you giving this to grandpa?” his granddaughter asked once. “This isn’t breakfast food.”
“He doesn’t care what it is,” Rosa replied. “I can put anything in front of him and he’ll polish off the last crumb.” Bratislav looked at his granddaughter, smiled and gave a satisfied nod.
These days, his hands tremble and he has trouble lifting the glass or holding the fork to his mouth. Parcels of food disperse around him and water spills onto his plate even though he drinks from a plastic Mickey Mouse cup with a straw. The year he and Rosa visited their children in America, their overweight dog Lolita always planted herself by his seat at mealtimes and swiftly scooped up all the stray crumbs scattered around Bratislav. Some said his hand shaking was a sign of Parkinson’s disease. Others argued it was because of the accident. “We don’t know. These Bosnian doctors don’t care. They don’t even look at him at the hospital,” Rosa complained when people asked about it.
The accident occurred in the early 2000s. After fleeing to a different part of Bosnia during the war, Rosa and Bratislav had rushed back to their hometown of Jajce when the fighting ended, hungry for their daily routine from bygone days, before everyone had gone mad. But Jajce was dominated by Croats and Muslims, and Serbs like them were shunned on the street and in grocery stores. The home where they’d spent many decades of content domesticity and raised their children became an ominous enclave of foreign faces and unpleasant encounters with former friends. They decided to relocate to a Serb part of Bosnia. On the fateful day of the move, Bratislav drove their red Volvo to the new town, overflowing with suitcases and kitchen utensils that Rosa had stuffed into every nook of the vehicle. As the car swerved around the curving at Jajce’s road exit, the steering wheel was lightly touching Bratislav’s large belly, and he was half-lost in pleasant thoughts of repairs needed for the new bathroom. The image of the waterfall where the river Pliva cascades into the river Vrbas in the center of Jajce was receding in his rearview mirror, majestic as ever despite the war’s destruction. Bratislav was turning to Rosa to say something about the new bathroom when he felt a heavy thud on his chest. There was a loud crash, the horn of a car, and then all became dark. When he opened his eyes again, he saw a man in a white coat talking to a nurse, his cigarette’s gray smoke wafting around him. Bratislav was stretched out on a hospital bed. He opened his mouth to ask for water, but his throat was dry and no words came out. He tried to grab the nurse. His hand stayed stubbornly glued to the bed, like a dead fish.
For over a year, Bratislav couldn’t move, though he was soon able to talk. Rosa bathed and fed him. Bratislav, who loved food more than almost anything else, lost weight for the first time in decades. “He’s too old. He’ll probably never get back to the way he used to be,” the doctor predicted when Rosa took him for a checkup. “Maybe if he was younger, he’d recover.” The doctor had under-estimated him. Bratislav eventually became able to walk and use his hands, even if these efforts were painstakingly slow and interspersed with occasional disasters. He never spoke of the accident or of his health condition, but he always had enough strength to complain if food was not served fast enough or if he did not get his daily shot of rakija. And though he relinquished control over family finances to Rosa, he continued to insist on monthly pocket money for tea and coffee at the retirement center.
Bratislav heads to the retirement center every day after breakfast. He plays dominoes there until mid afternoon. The center is right behind the park by their apartment building. Bratislav advances towards it slowly, surrounded by crowds of students that pour out of the Economics Faculty and rush past him breathlessly towards Marko’s sandwich shop or towards the cafés in the town center. After the accident, his back and head remained permanently bent to the right side, leaving his sense of balance fragile and vulnerable to outside forces such as strong winds or careless passersby. Once, as he was holding his breath and waiting for the crowds to pass, a boy elbowed him. Bratislav struggled to stay on his feet but landed on the pavement. He tried to will his hands and legs to move, his green eyes darting around helplessly to the right and left. But the endless weight of his muscles kept him chained to the ground, and he resigned himself to his fate. “They’ll come for me soon enough,” he thought. As the cold from the concrete pavement seeped through his jacket, he heard voices around him. Shadows of bodies bent over him obscured the sun above.
“Look over there! What’s this grandpa doing on the floor?” a high pitched boy voice asked.
“He fell. I saw it happen,” a girl said. “He’s not moving.”
An ambulance arrived. They lifted Bratislav into the stretcher and drove him to the hospital. He was left with a few reddish bruises on his face that slowly healed but was otherwise whole, as whole as a seventy-year-old recovering from a near fatal accident could be.
There were some efforts to improve his condition, though most of these were not due to Bratislav’s own motivation but were imposed by well-intentioned family members upon his deflated, resigned-to-helplessness spirit. During a visit to America, his children insisted he should exercise to strengthen his arm muscles. They bought him a stationary bike and a set of five-pound dumbbells. His workout regimen started out promising. Every day after breakfast, he biked for exactly three minutes and did twenty arm exercise repetitions with the dumbbells as Lolita sniffed around him wagging her restless tail. Afterwards, he took a long, satisfying nap on the living room couch. He snored lightly, while Rosa watched an episode of the Golden Girls next to him, laughing loudly even though she spoke no English and could not understand what the actors were saying.
“These old women are so nice,” she told her granddaughter. “Remember what channel this is on so you can find it again for me tomorrow.”
They also signed him up for acupuncture sessions after someone suggested alternative medicine as a remedy. His granddaughter drove him to Yin Zang’s office in San Jose every Friday afternoon. He would take off his shirt revealing a shriveled, white back with drooping muscles and would lie on his stomach as Yin stuck tiny needles into his back and neck. His granddaughter sat in the corner and translated Bratislav’s occasionally mumbled jokes to Yin who’d let out a high-pitched laugh in return.
All these efforts bore little fruit, and by the time he returned to Bosnia his back was as bent as ever. His hands continued to shake and they occasionally dropped a glass of water or a shoe just as he had laboriously bent to tie it.
These days, after Bratislav returns from the retirement center, he eats an early dinner and settles into the chair facing the television screen in his bedroom. If Rosa has visitors, he says hello but does not linger or chat. Sometimes Rosa asks him when a relative was born or who inherited Marko’s house in the Ipota village, and he responds “1959” or “his son Simo.” His replies are concise and the words come out rapidly, as if using up the breath to speak were diverting it from some other essential task. Even when he asks for something, he manages to put his request into one solitary sentence such as “I saw that pillow for the back on TV and I want one.”
Every other year, their children visit from America, but not even their presence interrupts Bratislav’s routine. During these visits, he stays a bit longer at the kitchen table after lunch, but he never misses a trip to the retirement center or a soccer match on TV.
Bratislav and Rosa spend most evenings alone. He watches a soccer game in the bedroom and drinks a shot of rakija from a small, elongated glass bottle. In the kitchen, Rosa puts her hair into rollers, never taking her eyes off The Farm, a reality show about second rate Serbian celebrities stuck on a village farm. As she wraps her head into a colorful scarf, she hears Bratislav drop his glass. She curses and peers through the door.
“What do you think you’re doing over there?” Through a slit in the door, she sees a small pool of water forming on the carpet next to Bratislav. Above it, his gray fluffy slippers are propped on the low, three-legged stool facing restless images of a soccer match. “Nothing. I don’t think or do anything,” he says and smiles mischievously, his words obscured by the feverish commentator’s voice announcing a goal.
Jozefina Cutura is a native of Bosnia-Herzegovina currently living in the United States. This story is part of a collection focused on lives of Bosnian refugees. Her work has been published in the Apple Valley Review, Firstwriter, Insolent Rudder, Inscribed, Long Story Short, joyful!, SNReview, Skive magazine, Notes from the Underground, and Danse Macabre. She holds degrees from Stanford and Harvard University and works in international development.