Monday, June 14, 2010

Can Kulduk- A Vestige

As the song goes, a year is a drop in the bucket when you lose somebody you love.
A year has passed since a Turkish friend, Can, died. I wrote about it many months ago in an earlier post, and the most peculiar way I learned about it. I tried my best to convey an image of a person whose passing left me rather heartbroken. During this time, I am sure not a week went by that Can was not on my mind in one way or another. Mostly about how lucky I was to have known him and how sad to know that he has gone.
I have no idea how much longer I will be in this world but I suspect that I will not live long enough to meet another one like Can Kulduk. It had been nice believing that I would leave this world in his safe and confident hands. But it didn't quite turn out that way.
So, it's a strange mix of feelings I have when I think about him, of being blessed and robbed at the same time.

Of course, there comes a time when all grief becomes self-indulgence and extended mourning becomes unhealthy self-pity. (I was not, after all, his brother or even his closest friend.) Still, most people who have mourned the loss of a friend or family member will admit that, although the pain never goes away, the first year is probably the hardest. The first anniversary, therefore, marks a slight falling off of the sadness.

According to the Turkish tradition for mourning, there are timed steps and in some ways this seems helpful. In Anatolia there are certain days in which dead person has been commemorated through religious ceremony and meal. First of all comes the 40th day, 52nd day and anniversary  of dead person. It is a healthy thing because it sets a kind of regularity and order on our emotions. Undoubtedly grief- as well as love- is a potent emotion and it is easy to allow them to overwhelm us, blind and destroy us without some general precepts.

On a Face-book site devoted to Can, his friends had announced that there was to be a ceremony and a memorial swim meet in Can's name. I supposed that's how athletes show their respect to the loss of a team mate and friend and it seems as good a way as any. I know that Can would probably have liked this sort of event, in any case.
Even before this announcement, I had decided to spend the day before, searching out Can's final resting place. I'm not sure why. Maybe I have always felt a lack of privacy- and intimacy- when I was at a funeral -or memorial. It all seemed quite unnatural and showy but the alternative was, of course, to show nothing at all. Equally regrettable choices as far as I was concerned. I just wanted a time alone with my friend.

So, on the day before the actual anniversary, I had gone to the cemetery, arrived disoriented like a tourist right off the plane, and was followed- annoyingly- by a kid who offered to bring water to the grave. (Unless it is a tradition, I assume it is for the plants at the site.) When I turned right, he turned right and when I turned left, he was there too. It immediately became apparent that finding Can amongst such disorganization was going to hopeless. The boy offered to show me to the main offices where they kept the records.

The answer I learned was, "Yok." The most negative of all Turkish responses. Followed by a "tsking" sound and closed eyes and raised eyebrows. Eventually I learned that I was in the wrong cemetery altogether and was directed to another, further out of the city.

I was told to get on the next mini-bus taxi and it would take me there, "ama en son durak." The very last stop. That's fitting, I thought. Had I not been told that, I could easily have decided that I was being kidnapped. Eventually I was the last passenger and the dolmus made a slow circle and stopped. Past the tiny shops for marble tomb makers, I marched down into a treeless forlorn spot in the crook of two large hills. Hot and windy, barren and stony and lonely.

I had been given an "address" by the first cemetery director, which despite the usual Turkish confusion, allowed me to locate the general area where he was buried. And then, just as I was starting to get frustrated, I suddenly found myself looking straight into Can's face. Or at least, the oval ceramic photo that adorned his headstone.  It was typical but sad to see that the crafters of his headstone had clumsily spelled his name incorrectly. Iste Turkiye, as they say with a shrug.

It was like walking into a very dull- impossibly dull- party and suddenly seeing the familiar face of a friend. Of course, this friend was dead.
On the following day, I managed to find the swimming pool in Alsancak, near the center of  Izmir. It had been the pool where Can had regularly trained and competed. He had been well loved by everybody there. He had been their golden child and their legend. However, when I was arrived at the swimming pool, I was rather shocked and disappointed to find that I was alone. I had expected a small crowd of Can's friends to come to pay their respect to his memory, this being the first anniversary of his death. Although I have known to become fairly indignant and self-righteous, I still kept thinking that Can deserved better. I was beginning to doubt whether I was even at the right place until I hesitantly asked one of the staff if there was to be some kind of memorial ceremony.
"Evet," the burly man replied, "Kimsiniz?" Yes, Who are you?
I started to say that I was his teacher but stopped myself and said, "Can'nin Arkadasim Ben." I am Can's friend. It unexpectedly made me quite happy to be able to say that.
The man spoke to another man who had appeared from at a window above and who seemed a bit more involved.
"Alman misin?" Are you German?
"Hayir, Amerikaliyim."
Reverting to English, he waved me on and said, "Come. Come." In a few minutes, I was ushered into through the staff offices. There was Can's father, his face aged and tired. "Do you remember me?" I asked him taking off my sunglasses. He stared at me for a moment. "I was Can's teacher. His English teacher."
He exclaimed,"Joe. Ah, yes, Joe. How are you?" Despite the occasion, he seemed genuinely pleased to see me there. That took my by surprised a little, because I'd honestly thought his father never cared much for me.

I learned that there would be no poolside ceremony at all. I had misunderstood. Outside, on the street there was a white minibus, which would take the small group of Can's friends and family to the cemetery to say a few words at the grave. Altogether there were about eight of us and I had met none of them. All of us were mysteriously connected to this young man in one way or another. We didn't know how and we didn't need to ask.
As we took our places on the bus, I turned and saw Can's father sitting alone in the back. Angry at my own thoughtlessness, I changed places and sat beside him. As we flew down the highway on that hot summer day, he kept repeating, "Off, offf, offf." The immensity of a sadness too large for all the words in the world. All his paternal hopes had been scattered by  winds that blew down from  barren hills.

I know it might sound totally inappropriate- shameful even, but at that moment, I had such a strange feeling of exuberance. It was hard to put into words and it took me a few days even to understand why I should have such a sensation. As a matter of fact, it wasn't one feeling at all, but a flood of them.

It was, I think, a feeling of pride. Pride? No, not exactly. Pride is too self-centered an idea. Honored. Yes, that's the word I want to use. It was an honor to be able to sit there with Can's father, to give what small comfort I could offer. Or even just to shut up and let him know that I shared in a small way beyond the feebleness of words, his loss. There was also the feeling that I was no longer merely an observer of Turkey and the minutiae of its culture but a participant in it. Not just a person who is permitted to observe but as a friend allowed to share.

Higher and higher we traveled up into the hills, passing the village neighborhoods that pass for suburbs in Turkey. It was like traveling in a hot air balloon with the vast city of Izmir becoming smaller and smaller below us. I had often wondered, looking up at the hills from Izmir who lived in the the isolated villages in the Yamanlar mountains.

After we arrived, a few of the visitors planted flowers there and watered them but given the landscape, it seemed kind of hopeless. And then we stood there absolutely motionless, as one of them reading from his phone the traditional Islamic prayers, hands palms up, heads slightly bowed. Not unexpectedly, Can's father broke down in tears and had to be escorted away. It was over now, they told him. It was time to leave now.
And then she sat down very quickly and stared very hard at Hugo's face, trying to remember every expression it had ever had.                                                                                                        A matter of life and sex by Oscar Moore
I recall at my mother's funereal, looking down into the casket and seeing her face and awkwardly hunched body. I wasn't sure how I would react. I had been terrified- for some reason- that I might lose control and break down in front of family and strangers. (Protestants are not known for spontaneous emotional displays.) However, my first thought was when I saw her there was , "That's not her." Although it bore a strong resemblance to my mother , as far as I was concerned , it could very well have been a wax mannequin from Madam Tussaud. Everything that had once made her alive, made her a living, unique entity was gone but most of all the thing that was missing was her expression. Or, in the very real sense of the word, the animation.

I have somewhere among my belongings a cassette I once made of my grandmother and mother speaking. The conversation was trivial and typical. In itself, it was not an important moment. I listened to it once after my mother's death and I will not forget the profound joy and crushing pain it produced. Most of all, there was the distinctive sound of my mother's laughter, startling, heartbreaking and yet so familiar.

Last week, a close friend of Can's uploaded a short video in which Can and a few friends were having fun. There he was again, exactly as I remembered him, before he left for the United States. Innocent and slightly heroic. This is how he looked when he was my student. That is how he acted when I knew him. It was recorded at a time when he was still fresh with his whole life in front of him. Who could have known that, given how brief his life turned out to be, he was already, in fact, past his middle age? And here he was again, animated and smiling and with us again.

At one moment in the recording, he stares directly into the camera and asks, "What?" There was that classic expression, the left eyebrow raised, seemingly irritated but not really. How could I have forgotten that particular expression of his? For a moment or two, he was there, not a photo but the person. I watched it twice before I decided that I couldn't take any more. I'm glad I watched it but I don't want to see it again. It seems like a good time to leave him Can to eternity.
For if the darkness and corruption leave
a vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)


  1. What a beautiful post...written from the heart, and a fitting tribute to your friend xxx

  2. A wonderful, emotional and sincere post and as always a pleasure and a privilege to read.

  3. That is so heart felt. I read the post about Can several months ago. What a beautiful yet sad follow up to his story. Thank you for sharing. Beautifully written.

  4. Powerful story and sweetly told. I appreciated the link to your first post about meeting and teaching Can. I found you through Ayak.

  5. Thanks to each of you for all the kind comments.

  6. Very moving. I felt like I was there experiencing your emotions.


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