When you read this, Papa – and already I’m stuck. Should I call you that? I know that Aylin calls you that when she’s talking about you – on extremely rare occasions, don’t go getting any ideas. But unlike with me, you two were still smiling as you let Aylin soar between you, one hand in yours, one hand in Mama’s and then up we go. She tells me these kinds of things every once in a while, when she and I are in a good place. And like this memory, Aylin also still has the word “Papa” from that time. She learned it as if it were a totally normal word. It’s different for me. I’ve often tried it out: Papa? Father? Baba? Saying the word aloud isn’t actually that hard, it’s just I can’t continue. Even stranger than saying “Papa” is hearing myself say it. It sounds like a word from a different language, one that I picked up or read somewhere. It sounds fake when I use it. How do you say “Papa” so that you can’t hear a question mark? Until I have an answer, I’ll stick with Murat. So: When you read this, Murat, I will already be dead.
During my first internship at the theater, the director had the actors sit on the floor in a circle and gave them a writing assignment: “Pick a sentence that you, under pain of death, can say belongs to you, that is part of your very being, and then ask yourself who you would be without this sentence.” The director strutted across the dance floor. “For example, the sentence: ‘I’m scared of silent rooms.’ Or: ‘I do everything for my children.’ What would your day, your life look like, if this secret fear hiding behind every encounter were suddenly gone? Or when what you had always believed in disappeared from one moment to the next, or when the reason you leave the house every morning suddenly wasn’t there? And now start writing.”
I was sitting in a corner of the rehearsal stage, silently sorting a pile of copies, and I asked myself what sentence I would shed. I’ve since realized what it is. It goes: “Tomorrow I’ll wake up and then life will start.”
I’ve often imagined what it would be like if you had died. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never wished for your death. I don’t think you’re a bad person. Quite the opposite. After prison you probably became the most gentle, loving father in the world. You probably come home from work late in the evening, when your second wife is already in the bedroom, lying on her side of the bed. She must be wearing pink satin pajamas, like the ones you gave Mama for her birthday even though we didn’t have the money for them. (I also know this story from Aylin). Your second wife might be reading a magazine with pictures of expensive furniture, a cucumber mask on her face, her hair wrapped in a towel. She hears the key turning in the lock. She’s been waiting for it all evening. A quick glance at the clock: “Later than usual,” she thinks and remembers how hard you work every day. She knows nothing about your life before prison, your life in Germany; she doesn’t know that you work so much because you don’t want to screw up your second life the way you did your first. So you come home, a stressful day, the office telephone still ringing in your head; you close the door behind you, softly, no one should hear you; you carefully hang up your coat on top of the other jackets and place your shoes next to those stupid dinosaur rubber boots that all the rich kids have. You enter this new apartment as quietly as you left ours back then, when you slipped out of your pregnant wife’s bed during the night. You packed no bag and left no note, and yet Mama immediately knew what was going on when she woke up and the picture frame on the bedside table that had held Aylin’s photo was empty.
Now: A note from your wife on the living room table. “There’s manti in the microwave and yogurt in the fridge.” Be honest, Murat, she can’t cook, can she? Of course not, you wouldn’t love a woman who feels fulfilled by being in the kitchen. She would remind you too much of your mother, make you feel too much like your father, the general who also wanted to make you into a general. And because your wife can’t cook, you scarfed down a şiş kebab at your old revolutionary pal Serkan Amca’s place. He’s back too, right?
So you walk past the manti in the microwave; you see a light is still on in the bedroom; you loosen your tie, plant a kiss on your wife’s green creamed-up forehead, maybe quickly exchange words: “Don’t wake him.” “Don’t worry.” Then back into the hallway, the wood floor groaning under your feet. (Black socks. After the slammer the first thing you did was buy enough to fill an entire drawer. That’s the first step to an orderly life.) You crack open the door at the end of the hallway. A beam of light falls over a black wavy-haired head at the end of the bed, underneath the window. You take a step onto the rug, one with streets and parks and whatnot. Be careful you don’t slip on a car in the dark and break your neck, Murat. You sit down on the edge of your youngest son’s bed, put one hand on the bedspread that’s pulled up to his shoulder and with the other stroke his fingers. You imagine he can sense it in his sleep: You are there. Even if another military coup took place tonight, even if they came tomorrow to bring you in, even if at this very moment a friend of the soldier who you killed busted in through the child’s window to get revenge for his friend. You are there. And while you’re thinking this, you hear him breathing softly. Outside are minarets behind the treetops that rustle in the wind. Moon, stars, everything there.
This image stays fixed in my mind for a moment, as if it were the last page of a children’s book. But do you know what happens next, Murat? Your gaze moves from the night sky back to the closed almond eyes of your son, his narrow mouth, his child’s nose, and very briefly, just for a millisecond, you think about us.
Suddenly two silhouettes are standing in the room, two shadow children who are looking at you – silently, barefoot; Aylin, at my side, has wrapped her arm around my shoulders. You don’t recognize our faces because you don’t know what we looked like at that age. But you know that we have been watching you the whole time. You stand up, walk past us, lie down next to your second wife. “Everything okay, sweetie?” – ” Yes, just tired.” You turn out the light, and when your son wakes up in the morning, he’ll notice that I parked all the cars in new places on the rug during the night.
Murat, I wouldn’t even think of writing this now if I believed that you were the kind of asshole father who would beat my little brothers every day. I have to admit, I do sometimes also imagine that: How you slam the door behind you to find your worn-out wife fighting with the kids, how the first thing you do is give them all a bitch slap so that things quiet down for just a moment. I often saw your comrade Serkan Amca doing exactly this in his home. You sit down, annoyed, on the couch or collapse onto a table covered in bills, and while the rest of the family is scared silent or screams at each other or cries, you ask yourself how the hell you managed to end up in this situation a second time. And then you lift your head, and once again I’m there. I’m sitting on the couch, channel surfing, while you lose it.
And there’s also a third scenario that I sometimes imagine: You’re dead. No idea why. Maybe because an Islamist climbed into your world through the window and bumped you off out of revenge; maybe because your frustrated second wife watched you, smoking all the while, as you slowly choked on an olive during breakfast; maybe also because you simply surrendered in your last days, drooling and demented. (Come to think of it, how old are you now?) At any rate, you’ve died and I attend your funeral, which takes place in a solemnly decorated banquet hall. I cross the room in, let’s say, a white linen suit, stand in front of your coffin, bouquet in hand, and note with relief that you don’t have any baldness you could have passed on to me. The others in the hall begin to whisper: “Who the devil is that young man?” Only one or two comrades from bygone days – Serkan Amca is also here – realize: “Shit, it’s him!” I would stride over to the lectern and talk to your pale face. What about? Who could possibly know, Murat? I would definitely not ask why you left us; nothing interests me less than launching into a Papa-where-were-you number. But the reasons why you couldn’t stand it in Germany anymore – that I would want to know. Why you went back to Turkey of your own volition, even though you knew they would greet you at the airport with handcuffs and immediately lock you up for eighteen years. I would ask you if you really killed multiple people. If you remember their faces, their names, their fear. How you managed to set your pistol on the forehead of a man made to kneel in front of you in the street, his red military cap in his shaking hands, crying as he begged you in the name of his newborn daughter not to pull the trigger, and how you nevertheless did it and left the body lying in front of you before jumping into the car of other terrorist fathers and beating it. I ask myself what your voice sounded like as you told him “Get on your knees.” And whether you hesitated for an instant. I would ask you whether you’re haunted by the souls of the people you killed or whether you’re hugging each other now that you’re dead too. I would want to know whether I am the son of a convinced assassin, a revolutionary, freedom fighter, putschist, terrorist. (What did you all call yourselves?) Or whether you sort of just fell into things and at some point were in too deep to extract yourself. Whether you were a leftist, but nevertheless nationalist asshole whose bedside table held not only a photo of your daughter but also one of Mustafa Kemal. I mean, I don’t know, Murat, maybe we would also chat about soccer or women or how you hooked up with my mother while she was translating your indictment into German for your asylum case. There would be one critical factor in the whole scene: Because you are dead, you have no choice but to remain silent. And that also means: You could no longer intentionally decide not to tell me anything.
If you’re dead, there’s no chance that I’ll pick up the phone and just call you – both the easiest and most impossible thing in the world – and no chance that you’ll hang up as soon as you know whose voice you’re hearing at the other end of the line. And even if you didn’t hang up, Murat, and we actually set a date to meet – let’s say in a kahvehane, in other words, on neutral territory – you still might sit down in the chair in front of me, two glasses of cay between us, and answer all my questions, at times hemming and hawing, at times searching for words, but you would answer, because you would know that after twenty-five years I have the right to know. Only once I’m through with all my questions, you still might not ask me anything in return. Absolutely nothing. In the worst-case scenario, you would simply wait until the cay between us gets cold, and then you would say goodbye and leave. Do you get what I mean? Fuck your honest answers or your lies. What would be much worse is if you didn’t want to know anything about me when it was your turn. But the dead are mute and cannot refuse to speak to you. You couldn’t ignore me. I would be forced to talk about myself because it wouldn’t make sense anymore to wait for you to prompt me.
And now it’s the other way around. You don’t die, Murat, I do. I’m lying in a bed in the intensive care unit. Organ failure. My liver decided not to play along anymore. It’s not a metaphor in a coming-of-age novel for immigrant lowlifes or something. It’s much simpler: Cables rise from my neck, connecting my heart to a whirring machine, which is why I can barely turn my head without feeling pain that shoots all the way down my spine. Only when I need to go to the bathroom am I allowed to carefully undo the clips. My right arm is covered in blue spots, puncture points, as many as Mama has moles on her back. They are the stamps of my daily blood-taking; each point means a new blood analysis, bringing with it the news of whether I still have a few days to live. The analysis printouts lie next to me on the windowsill, the pile growing bigger week by week. Every night I painstakingly transfer them into tables on my laptop: GGT, GOT, GPT … The abbreviations here in the hospital are more complicated than anything I had to deal with at the Foreigners’ Office. I try to document my death and in the evening, when fear keeps me from sleeping, I look at the colorful graphs and imagine I understand what it all is leading to. On the little table next to my bed lies a notepad, every page filled with the same sentence: “My name is Arda Yilmaz, and I am doing well.” The doctors tell me I should write down the same sentence every day. It’s supposedly possible to tell from my handwriting how extensive the deposits of toxic substances in my brain are, the ones my liver would normally filter, and whether the damage is permanent. Personally, I can’t see any difference in the blue letters except that sentence by sentence and day by day, I try less, and hope disappears from my sentences.
Some mornings, a whole brigade of lab-coat-wearing pricks barges in: senior physicians, attending physicians, chief physicians, assisting physicians, student interns. The most senior pricks gesture to me as if they were weighing some nuts in their hands, while the less important pricks nod and take notes. They don’t explain anything to me. They don’t even speak to me. This also reminds me of the Foreigners’ Office, where the civil servant with the beer belly never spoke to me or Aylin but instead referred to us in the third person. He would say, in Germany, every person needs this or that document, and we were allowed to subsume ourselves in this category, as they so nicely put it. A similar monologue is delivered here, this one about the future trajectory of your existence. Amidst all this, the most they do is ask me questions: whether I can still say my name, what year we’re in, when my birthday is. A couple of times I acted as if I didn’t know in order to see their reaction. There wasn’t any. The lab coats once raised their eyebrows in acknowledgement after I first told them my birthday and then went on to explain that all the information in my passport was entirely meaningless. As for why – that didn’t interest them. But the fact that my brain was still able to communicate this – definitely. Despite all that, I would still give each of them a smooch if one were able to keep me from leaving the hospital feet first.
But the most absurd part of the situation, Murat, plays out at the foot of my bed. Aylin and Mama are sitting there. After ten years of not exchanging a single word with each other, they’re sitting there, and neither of them is reaching for a syringe to stab in the other one’s neck. They spent the whole day here, and they’ll be here again tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and who knows how many days after that. The only thing they know is that soon they will be each other’s only family – that is, unless someone with a matching liver and my blood type who is also a registered organ donor has a fatal car accident very nearby that happens to leave their internal organs unscathed. In other words: Our time is running out, Murat, with every line.
Have you also ever imagined that I am dead? You don’t know, of course, that I’m lying here right now. Just in case next year, contrary to expectations, you get the idea to pick up the phone or appear before my door to only then learn that you are unfortunately too late, I’ll write it down for you here. You should know who I was. So you never get the chance that I have secretly dreamed of so often: Getting the silent treatment from the dead. I want to forever deny you the opportunity to not know who I was. You should find out how things went for your family in Germany, what the last summer of my youth was like before nearly all my friends were deported or landed in rehab clinics or, like you, had to go to prison, not for instigating a putsch but for wanting to survive. You should know how much it was raining on the day Aylin ran away from home, how she whispered “I’m sorry” in my ear, closed the front door and never came back. You should know how your ghost also constantly watched me here, when your old friends patted me on the back and said I would one day be like you: the hero of a failed revolution.
I will write down this story for you and my little brother, who is currently sitting unsuspectingly on his car rug. So he can know whose father his father was, so that he learns to treasure all the time and love he got from you.
It’s nearly as impossible for me to use “I” here as it is for me to suddenly start saying “Papa.” The word “Papa” sounds wrong after it is spoken aloud; trying to say “I” makes me stumble, triggers a cavernous pain, makes my tongue cramp. “I” was never I, “I” was always someone else, especially now. So I’m going to act as if this weren’t my story. I will constantly lie, Murat, nothing is right, but every word is true.
In the only photo I have of you, you’re wearing a pair of thick gold glasses. You’ve got a moustache and under your left eye, between your beard and the arm of your glasses, you have a mole. You’re reclining on a leather couch, a cigarette stub in your mouth and Aylin in your lap. She is laughing, tickling you, as you try to play elli bir with the bald Serkan Amca, who sits across from you. Mama isn’t in the photo. She probably stood up, hauled her round belly into a corner of the room and took the photo. Unlike Serkan Amca, who smiles lightheartedly, you ignore the camera. Or at least you act like you do. Despite the thick glasses, you hold the cards directly in front of your nose. You didn’t want anyone to be able to recognize your face, am I right? You already knew that you would be gone by the time the film was developed and didn’t know what expression to leave behind for me. Just like I won’t leave you a photo now. So instead I’ll describe myself: Your son had thick black curls, just like his mother and his sister. He used to have a tall, smooth forehead, but since starting the cortisone treatment, it’s become covered in a pus-filled rash that extends over the nape of his neck and across his back. When he hid his slender face from the world in his girlfriend’s blond curls, she would always say she could hear his brain mechanically rattling away behind his forehead. He had imposing eyebrows that looked a little like the Nike swoosh, and underneath them the eyes of his mother, but darker, almost black, deep-set. Your son had your narrow mouth, the thin lips. And he had, like you, a black mole under his left eye. His father’s mark. Sometimes a mischievous smile would flash across his face. Whenever he and his girlfriend had a serious fight, she would always call it his best argument.
While speaking these sentences in front of the bathroom mirror, practice for writing them out, he covers his father’s mark with his index finger. He asks himself what his face would look like without it. When he removes his finger from his skin, the mark is no longer there. It’s stuck to his fingertip. Arda takes a breath, closes his eyes and blows it away.
Necati Öziri, Morgen wache ich auf und dann beginnt das Leben. 2021. Published by permission of Ullstein Verlag.,