Friday, June 26, 2009

Basil, Part 1 of 2

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Last night, at last, I got to meet Demetrios’ old friend Vasilios (That’s Basilios, because the Greeks pronounce their “beta” as a “v”. And for short, it’s just Vasilis.) In English, it's Basil.

Vasilis is a friend from medical school, now a retired orthodpedist, and also a friend from the para-ecclesiastical movement Demetrios was so involved with, called Zoe. Chrysostomos had told him we were here, and he immediately got on the phone and wanted to see us. So did their other friend, Christos, who remembered Demetrios from Zoe. He says Demetrios also came to examine him after he’d had a little stroke some years ago. (The embarrassing thing about that is, Demetrios does not remember Christos at all, either from their youth or more recently.)

Vasilis, even in his youth, was a very large, very powerful fellow, and I’ve heard stories about his strength for as long as I’ve known Demetrios. The friends here still delight to tell about the time one of their classmates said, “I’m not sure I exist,” whereupon Vasilis knocked him to the ground and shouted, “Now what do you say? Do you exist or not?” (To me, the cool thing about this story is that if the other guy had answered, “I exist!” then a big thank-you to Vasilis would have been in order, while if the answer had been, “I don’t know!” then he also didn’t know who had been punched, and there would have been nobody to punch Vasilis back, not that anyone would have tried.) There was another time that is still talked about, when a certain student, who used to mock the other boys for being Christians, carried his taunts just too far for Vasilis to bear. Vasilis knocked him to the ground, then picked him up, lifting him horizontally to shoulder height, and then just dropped him. Well, not just dropped him, but kneed him, too, on the way down. There is always great hee-hawing when this story is recounted.

Vasilis became an orthopedist and married a pediatrician he had met in medical school, who turns out to be another long-lost friend of Demetrios’, Maria.

Last night, Christos picked us up in his car, recognizing Demetrios immediately and swearing he hadn’t changed a bit, and drove us to the home of Vasilis and Maria, up on the heights near Thessaloniki, a town called Panorama, for its spectular views of the city and the sea.

Vasilis and Maria have a house there, a single, detached dwelling with a grassy back yard and a vegetable garden.

Vasilis is still a large man, although somewhat reduced in size now from prostate cancer. He has been very ill, and was at once at the point of death, and another time was thinking of suicide, but now says he is growing daily better and better.

It wasn’t very long, of course, before I said, “Vasili, I have a problem I wanted to tell you, to get your advice.”

“Oh, yes? What is it?”

“I’m not sure I exist.”

Demetrios began laughing, but nobody else did. After a moment, Vasilis smiled. He doesn’t remember those stories with the same glee the others do. He remembers them with tears (literally) and repentance. He said, “When the teacher came to try to revive that boy, I thought I had killed him.” And he shakes his head, sadly.

We changed the subject quickly.

The conversation, besides including some religion and some politics (as conversations here always do), was mostly about the course of his illness, which began in September. It seems to have done him some good to tell the whole story.

Both Vasilis and Christos speak excellent English, and both have lived in America, so, since they are both such considerate gentlemen, I was able to be included in most of the conversation. Sometimes they’d get carried away in Greek, but as it was important to them, and as it was about medical matters, and since it was 4 old friends getting together again, I just sat happily and watched.

Once in a while, Vasilis would say, “Anastasia is tired; this is so boring for her,” and I’d reply, “I’m fine.” But eventually we caught on that this was his way of saying he was tired, so we got up to leave just after 10:00. Just before we departed, out on the front porch, they all sang one of the old Zoe songs, one of those songs almost militaristic in tone, that sounds like it belongs at a pep rally, the type of song young would-be Heroes of the Faith would be fond of singing, the kind that used to make our neighbor, Thomai, suspect that Demetrios and all his young friends were Protestants, in fact, probably Jehovah’s Witnesses. They sang it for old times' sake, with the vigor it required, but mock vigor now.

I learned something important from that visit. It’s something I already knew on account of my sister Barbara, yet needed to learn again. When I first heard that Vasilis was very sick with cancer, three or four weeks ago, I felt disappointed, and subconsciously, I thought, “Well, then, we won’t be seeing him.”

Why not? Was it not going to be enough “fun” to visit him if he were ill? Did I already consider him as good as dead? Did I imagine that if he were sick he was no longer one of the old gang? What? Please note, besides the hideous self-centeredness of such an attitude, what twaddle it is! Pure nonsense! Vasilis is not as good as dead; he’s as good as alive and well, because he IS alive and we hope getting well. He’s a wonderful person. He’s still very much part of us, part of everyone. And even if all that were not true, now would still not be the time to abandon him! Now is when he most needs his friends. And it clearly did him good to have them around.

We all hope to see one another again at the wedding on Saturday.


elizabeth said...

Lord have mercy on those who are ill.