Pismo mom malom bratu
- By Jim Hicks
On this side of the pond, it’s Veteran’s Day, so I decided to write you a letter. Since we last talked, I’ve been planning to follow up, and since the main issue is surely not ours alone, I’ve decided to make it an open letter. Perhaps a few others might find some sense in what I have to say. Frankly, I’d be surprised if there weren’t more than a few veterans who have made decisions like yours, for similar reasons. So I suppose, at least indirectly, I’m writing to them all.
As you know, I deeply respect your decision to fight for your country. In fact, I’m somewhat in awe of what you did in those years when the barbarians were in the hills all around Sarajevo. At the time, you were still just a kid yourself, really—and a little squirt at that. Yet you chose to defend your city, and your country. You fought through some of the war’s darkest moments, including that year when the Bosnian army fragmented, and former allies began fighting each other. I respect even more your decision, when push came to shove, to challenge your commanding officer and go to prison, rather than serve in conditions that were unworthy and unjust. No one who has ever met you has ever doubted your courage, or your stubbornness.
During those years, you worked for citizens of my country as well, though perhaps we should call them citizens of the world, the Bosnian War International—a 90s equivalent of our Lincoln Brigade. That’s how you met my sister, after all.
When we two first met, it was a sad occasion. You’d come to Massachusetts for a funeral, and you stayed at our place after spending a few days in Cambridge, at the home of a future US Ambassador to the United Nations. During that short stay, we did a lot together and talked incessantly; we’ve never really stopped, though in recent years we don’t manage it quite as often. You know what I remember most vividly from that first visit? Going through store after store at the mall, looking for just the right pair of Timberland boots—black, of course—and then finding out that, in order to get a good fit, you needed to try on boy’s sizes.
No one gets to choose the shoes they’re born into, and in your case circumstances were such that you never went to university. If you had, I’m certain you would have studied philosophy: like me, you’ve always been curious about everything and you’ve never stopped wanting to get to the bottom of it all. “The world sits on the back of an enormous elephant? So what is the elephant standing on?” “A turtle.” “So what’s under that?” “From there, it’s turtles, all the way down.”
Instead, by trade, you’re a craftsman, an artisan like your father. You learned his trade, then taught it to the next generation. There can be few visitors to Sarajevo who haven’t seen your work, because nearly all of them will have had at least one dinner of sausages and beer at the brewery. There, they’re not only surrounded by your work, they’re sitting on it. Upholstery is a lost art in my neck of the woods; its days are no doubt numbered in Bosnia-Herzegovina as well, but you’ve made your mark, and it will outlast you.
The years since the war, for you and your country, have been a constant struggle, and lately it’s only been getting harder. During that last call, I learned that you’d finally sold the family shop—one more sign, as if any were needed, that an era has ended. During all this time, though, you’ve never tired: you’ve explored one option after another in order to provide for your family, and to make certain that your boys will have opportunities that you never did. In the postwar years, when it was still possible, you learned Dutch and spent enough time in the Netherlands to earn EU citizenship. And since your move to Luxembourg, you’ve learned yet another language or two, and worked in one menial job after another, because you know that the life of an immigrant gets paid forward into the future. I could never have done half of what you have; I would have given up and quit a thousand times.
But what I need to say concerns your life now. Though you’re a decade younger than me, you’re certainly no spring chicken, and your health isn’t good. From what I hear, you have been taking care of yourself, but diabetes is a slow-motion killer, and your eyesight has been failing for years. On the phone you mentioned that, in order to qualify for a state pension, you need to work for seven more years. After what you told me, though, I wonder if you’ll be alive even a month from now. That’s why I’m writing this letter. I don’t know if I can make you change your mind—anyone who reads this will have understood that you’re as hard-headed as they come—but I could never forgive myself if I didn’t try.
In our conversation, I told you about my friend, a musician who just a few weeks ago lost one of his band members and oldest friends to COVID. We’ve spoken since, and I learned what I suspected—what anyone would suspect—was indeed true. The musician who died wasn’t vaccinated, and he didn’t get vaccinated—although he could have, since we’re privileged here and everyone can get any vaccine they want, for free—because he bought into the bullshit disinformation that has been circulating online. My friend, of course, simply can’t accept this loss: he can’t believe it’s happened; he can’t imagine how it could have happened. He feels, wrongly but understandably, that somehow he’s at fault, that he let it happen.
So, it’s selfish, really: I’m writing you now because I never want to feel like he does. Like you, and like every Muslim immigrant in these United States, that musician had every reason not to trust authorities: on one occasion, the US Customs officials at the airport in New York confiscated his entire collection of flutes, as if he was importing illegal agricultural produce. A sizeable portion of the anti-vaxxers worldwide, I imagine, have lived histories where authorities have cheated, lied, and discriminated against them. Skepticism, and a critical, questioning nature isn’t just a good thing, for far too many people, it’s been a survival skill. As it was for you: without your critical eye, and your stubborn spirit, you would have died in the war.
Here, however, I have to appeal instead to your philosopher’s mind. In this plague year, we all have to make choices, and getting vaccinated is the right choice, for rational, for social, and for moral reasons. Vaccination is rational, because it’s science, not corporations or politicians, that has developed these life-saving measures. Moreover, the research was also largely the work of struggling immigrants like you: the groundwork was done at Penn by a Hungarian researcher, and the BioNTech vaccine was developed by Turkish-German immigrants. Vaccination is social, because it saves other people’s lives, not just your own. I remember your descriptions of how, before the war, the streets of Sarajevo would get cleared of snow because everyone in every neighborhood shoveled them by hand, working together, and I remember your regret that postwar Sarajevo had lost its community spirit. The world doesn’t have enough of that prewar spirit now, we’re not working together, and the direct result is that far too many of us are dying needlessly and alone. And vaccination is moral, because protecting yourself will not only protect those you love, it will keep us from enduring the suffering that would come if you die needlessly, and if we survive you. What if one of your boys gets sick and gives the bug to you? With your diabetes, this time even all your stubbornness may not be enough to keep you alive. In Luxembourg, neither of them is old enough to get the jab, but do you think, if this tragedy does occur, they will feel any less guilty?
In the end, though, I simply can’t see, given the life you’ve led, given the struggles you’ve endured, and given the home you’ve created for your family, how or why you would continue to risk it all now. As you’ve said, one way or another you need to keep working for at least seven more years. I truly hope you have many more than that, and I hope that someday soon you’ll have time to enjoy the life you’ve made. Maybe you’ll even live to a ripe old age, like your father, if COVID—and stubbornness—doesn’t kill you first.
Čuvaj se, mali brat. And get the damned shot.