I remember very little from that time. Perhaps the years that have passed placed a fog over my earlier life, or maybe forgetting is my own way of granting myself some semblance of protection. I close my eyes and I think of the rose carved in stone.
Victoria, my wife, doesn’t know much about my younger years. Our ten-year-old son, Donovan, knows even less. I stare at the thin plastic cup in my hand, mindlessly swirling around the half-melted ice cubes before placing it on the tray table attached to the seat in front of me. I’m still unsure if I’m really prepared to go back there, but at thirty-thousand feet, I have little recourse. So I sit and I wait, a flood of old emotions rushing toward me like a wave. I pray the rip current doesn’t drag me down and stifle me completely.
It’s a nine-and-a-half-hour flight from Boston to Bucharest and I’m stuck here alone with my thoughts and faded memories. Victoria offered to accompany me, but I couldn’t put her through that. Part of me wanted to protect her, while another part still wanted to hide the horrible details from her. It’s one thing to hear the story in a general sense. It’s quite another to see it first hand. Of course, I contemplated skipping it completely and just cowering in my own protective bubble—the safe life I have created for myself in Boston. I felt like I had to face that part of my life, however. I needed some sort of closure. I thought it could perhaps make the nightmares stop. I just hope it doesn’t make them worse.
I was known as Stefan Dragavei then. The name sounds so foreign to me now. It was a time when Communist Romania was under the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu, before the revolution. He believed that an increase in the population would somehow help the failing economy, so he enacted regulations, many directed toward the women of Romania. Of course, I learned all of this many years later, after I was safe in the secure arms of Lady Liberty. I was merely eight years old when I left Romania and was largely unaware of the political climate.
I was part of the population referred to as decreței, a word derived from “decree.” We were children forced to be born under Ceaușescu’s Decree 770, which outlawed both contraception and abortion for women under forty who had less than four children. Much of Romania was very poor at that time and families had no way of affording four children, but that was the law. You may wonder why families didn’t simply adopt a plan of abstinence if they couldn’t afford to feed their children. Well, Ceaușescu had an answer for that too—he levied a tax on families with fewer than four children, leaving poor parents with very little choice.
There was not much work available in our village and our home was a deteriorated shack with no electricity or plumbing. I remember bathing in dirty brown water, carried in buckets from a nearby stream. My father was a potato farmer and worked from sunup to sundown. When he came home, he smelled of sweat and earth. My mother kept up the house and did her best to keep us alive.
I was the youngest of four children, with Geofri a year older than I. My sisters, Irini and Miriana were two and four years older, respectively. Irini and Miriana picked up work here and there—cleaning vegetables, sweeping floors—whatever they could scrape together. Geofri and I often resorted to begging in the Bucharest streets—looking for a soft spot in some tourist’s heart. I remember images, but not much detail during those years. I recall squatting in the street, my back pressed up against the hot plaster of a lavish hotel and a cup in my hand. I can feel the weight of a few bani in the cup before being chased off by a hotel manager. I assume the memories will become more vivid once I land, but I’m not sure that’s what I really want.
I doze off for a while, the hum of the jet engine lulling me into a jagged sleep. I dream of cramped, filthy rooms and blood trickling down my eye. I can hear the thud-thud-thud of the fists across my face, only to awake to find the noise actually reverberating from the wheels of the plane as they rumble down the runway. The cabin lights illuminate as I wipe perspiration from my palms onto the legs of my khaki pants.
I know from years of research conducted from the safe confines of a Boston library that some of the Communist-era orphanages have been rehabilitated while others were left for ruin. I was unable to find information on the particular building where I stayed from the ages of five to eight, so I’m not quite sure what to expect. Many families abandoned their children when they failed to be able to care for them. My parents vowed to stay with us until the end, no matter what. Unfortunately, that end came sooner than they anticipated.
I glance at my folded map as I wander through Western Romania. The land is so much cleaner and purer than I remember. The buildings seem magnificent and even beautiful. It is not the Romania that I knew. Perhaps things are simply better now. Perhaps I just never witnessed the beauty of the country myself when I was here, forced instead to face the mean underbelly of the land.
I recognize the orphanage by the three levels of barred windows and large entrance way in the middle. The arch looks like a mouth ready to devour me whole, its tiny windows teeth prepared to bite down if I get too close. The cement is crumpled and broken, large sections of the building fallen and overgrown with weeds and trees. This is not one of the lucky orphanages that the country decided it could salvage.
I ascend the decrepit staircase, unsure if it will support my body weight, but somehow it does. I remember that Geofri and I were together on the third floor, so that’s where I go. There is a large room to the right. The beds are now gone, but the ghosts of the boys remain. There were thirty of us in that room, crammed as close together as we could. In a flash, I can see my first day there at five years old. We were told to nap, but I wasn’t tired. I failed to realize that the slumber was not optional, but the caretaker’s closed fist quickly informed me of the rule. I can feel my head pounding all over again, as if it were happening now. Geofri tried to stop him, but was met with a kick to the stomach. After that, we were both tied to our beds for what felt like days, forced to urinate and defecate where we lay. I can remember it now, although I really wish I couldn’t. I can even smell the stench of lying in my own filth. It’s eternally etched into my soul. I think coming here was a mistake.
There’s a smaller room down the hall—a nurse’s station of sorts. This is where they shaved our heads. I assume it was done partly to prevent lice and partly to humiliate us. I remember that it made us all look the same and I had a hard time finding Geofri in a crowd. Now that I think about it, anonymity was probably another reason for the shaved heads. If we were just one of the group rather than individual people with names and histories, it made it more palatable to beat us.
Maybe the caretakers got bored and wanted some entertainment because they often pitted us boys against each other. If we didn’t hit back, we were taunted and spit at and called names. I trace my index finger over a scar buried deep inside my left eyebrow—a permanent reminder of the time I refused to fight Geofri. Can you imagine how sick you have to be to force brother to fight brother? Neither of us threw a punch that day, but we both ended up in the infirmary for a week, beaten with sticks and rocks. Two years later, we were torn from each other and sent to different orphanages. At seven years old, that was the last time I ever saw Georgi, at least until today. That’s why I’m here, after all.
My next stop is our old shack where my mother fought to keep us alive and fed and where my father returned to each night, aching and sore. I stand where I estimate the house to be, but it is now just barren land. Dry dirt blows over my shoes, the soil too desolate to harber any life. Maybe it's for the better. I’m not sure I could handle stepping through the fallen threshold of that two-room building.
Next to our home was one very similar to it, occupied by another starving family. My mother befriended the woman who lived there, Silviana. She approached my mother tentatively saying things like, “Such a shame the way things are these days” or “My cousin has such a happy life in Hungary.” She was fishing to see how my mother would react. Saying these sorts of things to the wrong people could get you killed.
My mother often ignored such comments, not wanting to place her children in danger. One day, as my mother later informed us, she simply responded, “Hungary sounds lovely.” That was the only opening Silviana needed. Soon, my parents were meeting with a secret organization set on bringing real change to the country. They organized protests and acts of civil disobedience. This was shortly before the revolution officially started. For the most part, my parents just listened, silently wanting to fight for their freedom from an oppressive government, but too timid to risk their safety or that of their children.
As I stand on the patch of dirt that was once our home, I remember a hot summer afternoon when military trucks rolled through our streets. Armed soldiers dragged Silviana out of her home and beat her. I recall trembling as Geofri gripped my hand tightly. Irini and Miriana embraced each other, just hoping the soldiers would move on quickly. Out of sheer instinct, my mother ran after Silviana as she lay bleeding in the street. One of the soldiers turned his weapon toward my mother and my eyes grew wide. My breathing stopped and I could hear my heart pounding in my throat. I wanted to run toward her, but I was frozen. I clasped Geofri’s hand so tightly that I thought we would both lose circulation. It must have happened in a fraction of a second, but in my mind it replays in horrifying slow motion. The soldier clasped his finger around the trigger of his gun and squeezed tightly. My mother’s body dropped to the ground, blood cascading down her forehead and into the street. He then turned the weapon on Silviana and shot her too. I began to scream in protest, but Geofri slapped his hand against my mouth to silence me.
I wasn’t in the potato field when the soldiers sought out my father, but when we were dragged from our home later that night, we were told that he was also killed for his involvement in anti-government activity. Geofri and I were sent to one orphanage, while Irini and Miriana were sent to another. We were not allowed to attend our parents’ funeral service, but I snuck out to the graveyard weeks later. I remember the tombstone that stood in front of their graves, a beautiful rose etched into the granite. I recall tracing the outline of the rose with my fingertips, the rough surface tickling my skin. I wonder if that stone is still standing. Perhaps today I’ll find out.
After the revolution, the secret of the Communist treatment of orphans was broadcast to the whole world and many took pity. An American family came to Romania and chose me out of the group of malnourished, sickly boys. I pleaded with them to take Geofri as well, but I didn’t know where he was and the country’s records were not well-kept. So, I left him and my country behind. Years later, I searched for my sisters. Like many unwanted children of Communist Romania, they were left to fend for themselves in the streets. Irini died of a drug overdose when she was fifteen, and Miriana succumbed to an infection that was left untreated. Geofri remained in Romania where he found a new family and worked the fields like our father before him. When I learned of Geofri’s death from pancreatic cancer, I knew I had to face these demons all over again.
His service feels foreign to me—filled with people I don’t know telling stories about my brother, who at this point is nothing more than a stranger. I meet his adoptive parents, who seem very kind and loving. I thank them for providing my brother with a happy life. Geofri never married. I suppose his ghosts were simply too overbearing. I wonder how things would have been different if he came to America with me, if we were never separated at the orphanage. Maybe we would have helped each other to forget, or perhaps the constant reminder of this life never would have allowed our memories to fade. I’ll never know.
I say a silent prayer at my brother’s grave, his headstone not yet carved. I request that they etch a rose into the stone, and Geofri’s adoptive parents agree. I don’t explain why I make such a request, and they don’t ask. Once the crowds disperse, I find my way to my parents’ grave, the stone rose still standing but aged noticeably. I trace my finger over their names and through the curves and crevices of the rose carved above them. I think about Geofri reuniting with my parents and sisters and I feel a small amount of peace. I’m not sure if it will stop the nightmares, but I look forward to being back home with Victoria in bed beside me. I yearn to hold Donovan in my arms again, although I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to let go.
My flight back to Boston is a quiet one. I close my eyes and I drift peacefully off to sleep. I don’t dream about the orphanage or watching my mother bleed out in the street in front of me. Instead, I dream of my parents together with Geofri, Irini, and Miriana. They smile at me, but say nothing. Slowly they turn hand-in-hand, and stroll toward the roses.