In my dream I’m flying past snow-covered mountains over barren fields and forests. I circle back to return but an invisible barrier bars my way. Again and again I try until I realize I’ll never be able to reach home again. It isn’t me flying and the destination isn’t my town. I wake up panting, and I know. Tears push against my dreary eyes. Out by the rail yard a freight train sounds a horn in passage. The alarm clock says quarter to four. Heart racing, I shake Lindsay awake.
“I think Babka died.”
“Did your parents call?”
Last week my father Skyped me to say Babka—his mother—had been taken to a hospital. Now the sweat on my back turns cold while I recount my dream. I cannot believe the words leaving my mouth.
“She died and visited me in my dream.”
Later, standing at my work station, I read an email from my parents. Subject: babka. I detect my father’s voice. “There has been sad news. Babka passed away at 12:15 pm local time from heart failure caused by acute gall-bladder inflammation.” Quickly I make the calculation: minus nine hours between Slovakia and Portland means the timing matches. I double over and catch my fall on a filing cabinet.
She’d talked about dying since Dedo, my grandpa and her husband, passed away in 1992. For more than twenty years she’d say, “I won’t be around much longer,” or “I don’t know if I’ll be here when you come by again.” I’d laugh it off and tell her to quit being silly and to wait for my next visit. And every time I paid a call, during summer breaks and over Easter and every couple of years after I left the country, she was still there, cooking her groats soup and marmalade-filled pirohy for me. This time she didn’t wait.
When I’m finally able to come, six months later, her absence and the smell of paint fill every room of her house in Spišská Nová Ves. The furniture has been rearranged; her personal belongings—a blue wind up alarm clock, confirmation photos of her sons, the goose down duvet, a silver standup cross—are all gone. In the kitchen I leaf through the local monthly. My father says the February issue carried Babka’s death notice. “It’s around here somewhere.” Lindsay helps me look for it but we can’t find it. The three of us walk down the street parallel to the train tracks to the New Cemetery where my father threads our way through a maze of tightly-packed gray graves searing in the July sun. “Here she is,” he says suddenly; the cemetery is now almost full and we’re near the center. As is the custom, Babka’s name and birth date were engraved, in golden letters, next to Dedo’s when he died, the empty death date punctuating her morbid laments. Now the headstone stands complete, surrounded by a handful of grave lanterns and two bouquets of fresh flowers. Next to three pine cones and a little plastic baby angel an ornamented gingerbread heart inscribed with “Babičke” (To Granny) leans against the plinth—my cousin Mirka’s 5-year-old daughter Sofia placed it there, at Babka’s head, after talking to her through a crack between the tomb wall and stone slab. Lindsay and I place a pot of white geraniums next to the heart and light a redmgrave candle. I translate for her as my father describes the funeral, pointing his foot to where the flowers and wreaths cascaded and sweeping with his arms to show how far the mourners stood. Then we all fall silent.
When my family attended graves on All Souls’ Day—my maternal grandparents, Dedo, my father’s grandparents—I never knew what to do, wishing I could go read a book or ride my bike instead of standing around like this, doing nothing. Now I pass an interminable vacation day swatting flies on the door of the summer kitchen where Babka cooks lunch at the wood stove. When I finally reach my daily limit—one hundred dead flies—I climb the apple tree at the back of the yard. Sitting astride my favorite branch I eat an early-ripening apple, listen to pigeons cooing under the eaves of the house next door and trains pulling in and out of the station a few blocks away, and daydream of someday piloting one of the gliders that crisscross the sky.
About the author:
Peter Korchnak is a writer in Portland, Oregon, where he brews a decent Cascadian Dark Ale and enjoys retirement from guerrilla yardwork. His nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Compass Cultura, Extract(s), Narratively, THAT Magazine (Istanbul), and Týždeň (Bratislava). In 2014 he won Oregon Quarterly magazine's Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest. He co-authors the travel website Where Is Your Toothbrush? and contemplates the wonders of life as an immigrant on the blog American Robotnik. Find him online here and on Twitter @peterkorchnak.