There are certain things I know about myself:
My surname means branches.
My family comes from Latvia, but I was born and raised in Sweden.
The family is build up of five brothers, and their families.
I want to be a writer.
My mother and father love me, and will always be there for me.
But what happens when these realities are no longer true? My oldest uncle, Juris, died on the second day of this year. He was the only one of us who was actually born in Latvia, who arrived in Sweden by boat rather than stork. He was the head of the clan, the strongest branch from which the rest of us grew out, connecting us to each other and to our roots. Now he’s gone. Without him, will the rest of us fall to the ground as dry, lonely sticks? Or are we alive enough to grow together by ourselves, and fill his void in time?
The snow laid thick and white in the greyness when I arrived in Sweden, for the third funeral in seven months. I was there for a week before the service on the Friday. I didn’t see the blue sky in all that time. Only grey clouds, and white snow.
With my sister and father I stayed at another uncle’s house. We walked through the forest by his house, where the branches of fir, spruce, pine, beech and birch were weighed down by the snow; a duvet of death covered every inch.
It’s easier to walk through snow in someone else’s footsteps. But there is something special about being the first to tread through untouched crystals; to break the frozen crust of the surface to the softer fluff below. My out of breath fogged in front of me as we spoke of Juris.
He was a one of a kind man. The oldest of the five brothers, who grew up at the age of 12 when his father died, and he became the man of the house. His youngest brother, my father, was not a year old, and his immigrant mother worked as a cleaner. Juris studied hard and worked extra at the local bakery, and became the male role model for his younger brothers.
Later in life he went to Oregon, where a girl of another Latvian family had emigrated. They had been pen friends, introduced by the girl’s uncle who lived and was part of the same Latvian community in Uppsala, Sweden, as the Zarins family. At the end of the visit to Oregon, Juris proposed. She accepted, and they married and moved to Sweden. They had three children, and lived eight years outside Wolverhampton in England, when Juris’ work took them there.
Throughout his life Juris was infamous for his hard work. Apart from his full time job as a manager at industrial manufacturer Sandvik, and his devotion to playing and coaching basketball, he baked, fished, foraged, wrote poems, letters and reports, he sailed, skied and skated, gardened, mowed lawns and shovelled snow. His heart was weakened in his early 60s, and he had more than one heart attack. He had arthritis in his knees, but remembering his father’s death from complications after an appendectomy, he avoided hospitals as to avoid death.
His brothers were immensely proud, but increasingly worried about about him. No one could possibly work that much, and still remember every birthday, names day (Swedish and Latvian calendars), wedding and christening anniversary, and commemoration day. But Juris did. And he just said: a word of congratulation to make someone feel special costs me nothing. And if there are 24 hours in a day, why shouldn’t I utilise them all?
We’d carry on through the snow each morning, my father, sister, uncle and I. We talked about Juris, how he was sensible but crazy, sensitive but stubborn, superior but impossible. I also want to do everything, but I also fear death. Juris memory inspires me, but his legacy scares me. Who were we, when he is no longer here?
In the afternoons, we visited cousins who have moved house and had babies. Life goes on, new branches grow towards the sunlight. A family gathering was planned for after the funeral, after the official reception. The brothers planned and arranged it, baking, buying and bringing food and drinks to the venue.
Tensions and anxieties were high throughout the week. Cousins were annoyed with uncles who were frustrated at my auntie who just wanted to be left alone. Everyone I talked to kept saying how difficult it was, how surprised they were by their own feelings, and how they mustn’t judge anyone for their reactions. Yet everyone was angry at someone for how they were reacting. I said that emotions are irrational and can’t be controlled, so we must be accepting. But I couldn’t control being angry with my mother who arrived the day before the funeral, so anxious that she didn’t want to attend, and annoyed with my father who tried to hold all tears and sadness back.
Yet I didn’t want to leave my father’s side. His soft, loud warmth was precious to me in the house covered in deafening snow. He loves me, but he will not always be here. The snow continued to fall and weigh the branches down. It was the death time of year, and only the light from inside could make it glitter.
Friday arrived, a day we’d never experienced. There were no footprints to step into that day, but afterwords this would be our path. There will never be five brothers again. The old truths no longer remain.
We all arrived wearing black, and a Latvian patriots ribbon in burgundy and white. We were the wife and children, brothers, wives, ex-wives, cousins, husbands, wives, second cousins. There were 38 of us. The vicar conducted the ceremony in Swedish, Latvian and English. Juris’ portrait sat amongst the flowers and the candles. The chapel was so full that people lined the wall at the back standing. The Stockholm Latvian choir, for whom Juris was the flag bearer at last summer’s Song Festival in Riga, sang Pūt vējiņi to the sobbing of all. We took our farewells. Juris will rest now, for the first time in his life.
It’s 4am when I write this. I’m back in Cambridge and can’t sleep. I have so much I want to achieve in life; so many words to write, to read, to say; friends to see, miles to walk and work to do. Juris did it all, to a full but too short life. Maybe sleep will give me more time. But the only time I have is now. There are 24 hours to each day – why shouldn’t I use them all? So I got up to write. I will be tired later, but at least the anxiety of not having written will be gone.
There were many speeches at the reception. All praised Juris’ spirit and ethics and contributions. His brothers made sure to clarify: Juris was never their father. He never tried to be. He was their unachievable aim and role model, but he was always one of them, one of the five. He was their big brother. I watched the four old men speaking form the podium. We must all be thinking the same thing.
After the reception, the Zarins clan went to our private gathering. We ate pirogs that many of us had baked, we drank Rigas Black Balzams and looked at pictures and read Juris’ poems. But mostly we talked and laughed. We hugged and played with the children. The snow fell thick outside, but the lights were on inside. The strongest branch of all had fallen, but throughout the night the rest of us grew together. We bore up the heavy snow. We didn’t let a single one of us fall to the ground alone, we held on to each other and to our roots. All the anxiety and anger from the past week was gone.
Since then I’ve been able to sleep for the first time since the year began. Until tonight. Perhaps Juris’ spirit came to me, or perhaps it was the lack of him that woke me. There is no snow in Cambridge, but walking where no one’s walked before is still hard. I still worry about my father and about myself. All I have is the now. How will I spend it?
At least I know who I am.
I’m a Zarins. I’m a branch.
My roots are Latvian but my blue sky and yellow sun give me life.
My father is one of five brothers, four of whom are alive.
I’m a writer.