Almost four years ago now, my godfather passed away. It feels like the longest time since I was told. Of all the people that made up my childhood, I always felt that he was one that genuinely loved my brother, sister and me. My father and mother both certainly loved him. Over the years, we drifted apart. My family was busy, he was busy, and our get-togethers became rare. Our lives sort of ran in parallel. Meeting never felt like a necessity, because he would always be there, and so would we. Our family had not seen him in quite some time. He and I reconnected briefly the summer before he passed away – he took me sailing like we always used to do, but it didn’t feel the same. I thought it might just be because I was older at first. He seemed distracted. He wasn’t patient and thoughtful like I remembered -- he was on edge. He was three hours late to pick me up and unapologetic when he finally showed up – something that struck me as very unlike him. He kept telling me how proud he was of me, like he’d always done, but it felt frantic. His movements were unusual to me and I felt scared sailing with him, though he had always been the best sailor I knew. I went home that day and told my dad that something seemed wrong. He’d become concerned about him in recent months too. We knew he was struggling.
When I first heard, I remember feeling overwhelmed by this image of Zarko alone. That he’d been driven to this because he was so isolated. I looked through his Facebook and Instagram. I saw that he’d posted nothing for weeks. I felt he must have been so lonely – like we’d abandoned him -- like we were too absorbed in our own lives to notice or care. My mother felt the same. She hadn’t spoken with him in months. His death affected her tremendously. The news of his passing left us upset and broken, but also overwhelmed by a sense of guilt. I felt intensely guilty that I hadn’t done more when I saw him on that day in the summer when I knew something was wrong.
The truth is Zarko always had people who loved him – he was never alone. He had a wonderful family and he had an overwhelmingly large network of friends who cared deeply about him. They loved him and he knew they loved him. We loved him and I think he always knew that too. Slowly, I began to understand the true depth of his illness. It became clear in the aftermath of his death that he had been struggling for a long, long time. I understood then how hard he worked to be happy. I had always known him as cheery and sunny, but that wasn’t all of Zarko. It was difficult for me to accept that he wasn’t my happy and humorous godfather all the time. He had a part of him that my parents knew only slightly and I didn’t know existed. It was a part of himself that he worked hard to hide from us and that he rarely shared. That part of him became too difficult to handle. It had a lot to do with the medication he was on and the particulars of his mental illness. A lot of people didn’t know he had clinical depression – it so directly contradicted his personality. Mental illness to me still feels so intangible and overwhelming – I think we often don’t address it when necessary, but I wish we did. I wish we talked openly about it. Though I was young, I wish I had known how he was struggling and I wish that my family and I had done more.
I mostly wish that I had spent more time with him. I miss him a lot. He will always be a defining part of my childhood. If he could see how much his death affected those who loved him, maybe he would understand how much we all cared about him. Seeing my whole family so dramatically devastated by his loss proves that much to me. Zarko would never have wanted to hurt anyone. This point demonstrates to me that this wasn’t Zarko in those last few months. He was overrun by depression – so much so that he would risk hurting his family and friends. The Zarko I grew up with was a caring and considerate person. I know he was there somewhere, but he was battling something really powerful. I wish I could have helped somehow. He was always loved – I don’t know if that is enough in the face of something as formidable as a serious mental illness, but I wish it was.
Written by Olivia Barnett