insomnia has been plaguing me, mildly, but plaguing me nonetheless. i close my eyes and i am back on the bus as it pulls out of the station. i look at saša through the dirty window. i wave. i don’t know who i will be the next time i see him. he seems far away, like everyone and everything else. just beyond what i can fathom at this time and in this place. just beyond my reach.

only one light on the buss is flickering and it’s the one above my head. it doesn’t bother me. i look around and see tourists of all ages. i cough. it’s so cold on the bus. the ac is ramped up to the max and still, people take the bus wearing flip-flops. gross. and a t-shirt and shorts. mind you, my road ahead is much longer than theirs. i am facing a six-and-a-half hour bus-ride, a cab-ride and then a roughly eight hour flight to toronto out of zagreb. i don’t want to go on this trip but i have to.

i cough again.

it’s a dry cough, the kind that goes on and on and on. i can’t get rid of this cold. the first thing i’m gonna buy at shoppers is nyquil. that stuff’s gold. it’ll help me sleep too. i can already imagine chugging half the bottle. it’s not good for you, i know. but, honestly, at this point in the game, that’s the least of my worries.

i crouch forward and try to cough as quietly as i can, constricting my body, trying to cough inward. but there’s only so much i can do. the coughing fits come at about a minute intervals. kind of like contractions. my whole body convulses. i’m trying to be as polite as possible but i know that it’s still annoying as hell. it would bother the shit out of me but nobody around me says anything. nobody turns towards me with a denouncing look on their face. i don’t hear any grumbling sighs, you know the kind that are meant to be loud and obvious. here, look at me, i am showing my disapproval by huffing and puffing but i’m not gonna do shit else about it. that kind.

yeah, no. not here, not now. people are on holiday. they just want to get to the club.

i’ll try to sleep. it’s an overnight bus. i should get there at around six in the morning.

i can’t sleep. i can only cough periodically and think about what lies ahead. all amadej wrote was that she’s not doing well and that i need to come. i’ll be in toronto soon.

finally, we’re on the highway and the bus is packed to the brim. oh happy tourists, how i envy you.

a hazy six hours later, i get off the bus and look for the cab that i ordered. of course, it’s nowhere to be seen. i call for one. he arrives a few minutes later. i wave him to the curb. he steps out and looks at me, surprised. ‘oh,’ he says. ‘i thought you were a sixty-year-old woman.’ i sure feel like one. ‘oh, yeah. i have a cold’ i manage, my voice cracking all over the place. i suppress another coughing fit. i try to keep it at bay at least for the car-ride to the airport. luckily the driver doesn’t ask me any other questions and i enjoy the silence.

i check in, have a tea, i chew listlessly on gluten free crackers and cookies. they feel like sandpaper.

i cough.

travel with carry-on luggage is the way to go. thank you, saša, i think. it was his idea. ‘you don’t need anything else.’ true. i can just borrow one of Barbara’s shirts. me being a size smaller at the moment works out in that sense i guess. plus, it’s august. i don’t need clothes for a toronto winter. i need clothes for a toronto summer. that’s just a few tops and pants. even that seems too much for the sweltering heat that awaits me.

the airline screwed up something and gave me a seat with extra leg room for no extra charge. that’s fine. a tall, beautiful woman sits down next to me. gorgeous hair and way to well-dressed for a long-haul flight. and high heels. lady. that wasn’t the best of ideas. but she changes into some kind of uggs. smart. she says it’s her first time flying to visit relatives in toronto. i nod. i don’t tell her that i’m also seeing relatives but the context of my trip differs slightly from hers. she seems relaxed enough.

we take off. my coughing has ceased somewhat and i can relax. i love flying. you’re literally suspended in mid-air and there’s nothing left for you to do but sit, eat, drink, watch a movie or a show. there is no responsibility to do anything else. you can’t be anywhere else but here, in this space, on this plane. i take in the stillness of the flight. the lights have been dimmed, people are dozing, relaxing. then, the woman next to me calls the flight attendant.

‘can i help you?’

i feel like i’m watching a show. dinner and a movie.

‘uhm, i don’t know how to … open this.’

i never thought i would be in the middle of an old seinfeld skit where he talks about the redundancy of showing us how to open a seatbelt. well, jerry, this lady doesn’t know how to open hers and she clearly wasn’t paying attention to the demonstration before take-off. tisk tisk. she was perhaps the only one on the plane who should have paid attention.

i laugh to myself thinking, i have to tell Barbara and amadej. oh. well. i’ll tell amadej. i’m grateful for this lighter moment where i can forget about everything and everyone and just laugh at the situation.

amadej and my niece pick me up at the airport. i look at my niece, this beautiful girl, only a teenager and already faced with life’s most difficult lessons. she is already so strong. i am full of love for her. and proud of her. and respect for her. what a miraculous child.

we get to my sister’s apartment building. beautiful people have offered us their empty apartment on the top floor with a beautiful terrace. i wash up, change. i don’t even think about my cold, even though i know it’s still there. it never even occurs to me if i’m contagious. this is before covid. way before.

amadej looks at me and asks, ‘ready?’

i nod even though i know i’m not, that i could never be. all i know is that i have to be, like it or not.

we go downstairs. the door is unlocked. i step through the hallway, slowly, one foot in front of the other. i am eerily calm. i see my sister in law sitting on the couch. she smiles a weak but lovely smile. then my mother rushes to me, crying, hugging me tightly, whispering ‘thank you for coming’. i don’t want to let her go. i don’t want to look and see.

but i have to look and see.

nobody told me about the hospital bed in the hallway. that’s where her piano used to be. now it’s a hospital bed with my sister. she’s dozing. she looks peaceful but the position of her body is unnatural. only half of it is functional thanks to the brain tumour growing inside her head. my mom says she can only move her right side. figures. she’s left-handed. way to shit on the shit, cancer. really. way to go.

i do eventually let go of my mom and take a step towards my sleeping sister, an emotional turmoil whirling inside me. this is the same woman who drove an rv across the southern united states. who bussed across europe, following a football team during the european championships. the woman who catered to embassies when she was still in high school. who made a cheesecake from scratch without a recipe when she was 12. the woman who helped with the creation of a famous caterer’s book of recipes. who could whip up a bowl of pad thai on a whim. who organized her own wedding. a wedding with over 200 guests! who surprised me with a visit when i sang eliza doolittle and afterwards said, ‘i have no idea what you were saying in the beginning!’ and laughed. the woman whom i admired because of her willingness to fight her disease, uncompromisingly and decisively. the woman who always had a smile on her face and always saw the good in any given situation. who encouraged me and told me to get my act together when i needed to hear it.

now here she is, her brain slowly dying and her body with it. the doctor said she had a few more days. maybe a week. tops. he was doubtful.

i didn’t know what to expect. i could never in a million years have pictured what it is that i’m seeing in front of me.

but i’m surprisingly calm. i sit next to her, a chair already set. i take her hand. my cough, a distant memory. she opens her eyes and then it happens. my heart swells. my soul is complete. she smiles. a half smile but one full of love and gratitude. ‘hey’ she whispers. ‘hey.’

i know immediately that i am in the right place, that all the moments of my life have led me to this one. as heartbreaking as it is, it is necessary and there is nowhere else i’d rather be.

i am with my sister. with my best friend. i’m home.

now that i’ve typed this up, i hope that when i close my eyes, that i’m no longer sitting on that bus. i hope that i can finally leave it behind me. i never want to get on that bus again.