Children do not die

Matko Marusic, MD, PhD
University of Split, Croatia (Winter 2014)

Photography by S GLeisner

Josip was just one of the boys who lived in our street, but to me he was and still is especially important. It was through him that I, for the first time, encountered an incurable disease; he was the first person I wanted to help, and was unable to. Later in my life, I saw many more ill people, and children, but I never forgot Josip.

Josip was very ill, but you could not tell that just by looking; when he played with us, he seemed perfectly healthy, except that his legs looked as muscular as the legs of a grown-up soccer player. If you played with him for some time, you could see what the problem was: his leg muscles were not strong at all, quite the contrary—they were so weak he could not lift his feet while walking, but had to drag them, and if he squatted down, he could not get up without somebody’s help.

Still, Josip behaved like all of us children. He tried to take part in all the games, often showing more commitment and desire to play than his companions. He was particularly good and quick in games where one did not need to run and jump. But as running and jumping are the most important part of most games boys play, Josip was often left out. He was so weak and slow that he only got in our way. If he fell down he could not get up, and he cried and called his mother. Josip would never let us lift him, but waited for his mother who would come running, lift him up, cover his face with kisses, and carry him away. She was never angry with us for playing roughly with her son. Only Josip’s younger brother, Zvonko, silently clenched his teeth, ran faster, and kicked the ball harder. Josip would soon return with a piece of bread in his hand, consoled and happy, dragging his feet and propping himself against the walls for support.

Nobody ever spoke of Josip’s illness; children do not think about such things. Problems with Josip arose rarely; we played football on a playground that was too far for Josip to walk to. On the few occasions when he did go with us, his mother would come too, and she would not let him play. For me it all became serious only when I learnt that Josip was never going to get well, but would die as a child.

Terrible news was broken to me by my mother once when I asked her about Josip. She liked to talk about illnesses and she told me Josip was going to die, although she did not know the name of the disease, its cause, or how it was treated. It was the first time I encountered a serious illness and became aware that death could not be avoided. It troubled me so much that every night I prayed to God to do something to help Josip, or to at least not to let him die as a child.

And God did hear my prayers. Josip did not die in childhood. He died later, as a young man, in his bed, in his mother’s arms. His quiet brother, Zvonko, told me that many years later. My mother told me about Josip’s mother embracing him while he was dying. She always knew what was going on in our street, and she still does, although we moved away years ago.

I am sorry that Josip died so young. I am sorry that he died so young. He was only getting a mustache (so my mother told me, who, after all, seems to be in the habit of talking rather inconsiderately about sad things). It particularly hurts me that Josip did not play enough soccer; that was the thing he wanted most. Still, one thing consoles me: once he played a real and a serious soccer match, and he scored the decisive goal. We played together, and I saw just how much Josip enjoyed it. Now that I think of it, he did not seem to miss soccer so much afterwards. Here is how it happened.

On that day we decided to play soccer in the courtyard of the house where Josip lived. We were usually not allowed to play there—too many windows. But, on that particular day, Josip had a ball, and his mother asked us to play with him. Boys did not like to play with Josip because players from Josip’s opposing team could not play “seriously,” and anyway, no one would take their victory seriously if they won. However, we felt it was a special occasion. It was not every day that a parent would give us a ball to play soccer in the courtyard without any consideration for expensive windowpanes and white laundry drying on the ropes. So, my best friend, Vjeko, and I took Josip into our team and challenged three other boys to a match that would conclude when one team scored six goals.

It turned out that Vjeko and I played alone against the three boys from the other team. We put Josip to play in the offensive, while Vjeko guarded our goal, and I tirelessly ran from the defense to the offence and vice versa. I tried to cooperate with Josip and help Vjeko at the same time. Our defense was very good, but in the offensive we performed poorly. Whenever I ran forward with the ball, Josip called: “Pass it to me! Over here! Over here!” And I would pass the ball to him. It was no good: as the ball past him he tried to lift his foot, but he was too slow and his kick too weak—there was no way he could hit the ball.

“Stand by the goal and don’t move,”I kept telling him. “Just stand there, and shoot the moment I pass you the ball. Be ready!”

And I passed the ball over and over again, but it was all in vain, because Josip’s leg was too slow to receive and kick, regardless of how precisely and gently I passed the ball. It turned out that the only way to score was for Vjeko to abandon our goal and join me in the offense. This left our goal unguarded much of the time and we received goals. Little by little we came up to 5:5. Both teams needed a single goal for victory. It was so exciting that everyone forgot about Josip and the fact that we were playing to entertain him. We fought like little cocks. Josip was knocked down twice, but he did not cry. He only nervously hurried his mother to lift him up to his feet again. She watched him with tenderness and concern (she had dark eyes and a white tan, and she was small, like Zvonko). Still, she did not want to ruin his pleasure and so she just wrung her hands and cheered for us.

Then Josip scored. Vjeko and I had made double passes all over the playground. When we came to the goal, Vjeko neither passed the ball to Josip nor shot at the goal; he aimed at Josip, cried “Kick,” and kicked with all his might.

The ball hit Josip on the knee and bounced off into the goal. It was 6:5, our victory, and Josip had scored the winning goal. We were beside ourselves with joy, particularly Josip and his mother. We jumped and hugged like real soccer players do when they score a winning goal.

While I was hugging Josip he started to fall. Vjeko and I tried to hold him up, but we could not. Then I realized why he only let his mother lift him: he was somehow both soft and terribly heavy at the same time. Instantly his mother grew serious and quiet. She lifted him up, took him in her arms, and carried him away.

But I know that Josip not die then. He died much, much later. His brother Zvonko told me so, and my mother confirmed it and elaborated his story. He had the mustache when he died, believe me. Children do not die.


MATKO MARUSIC, MD, PhD, served for many years as a professor of physiology and immunology in Zagreb University School of Medicine and in 2008 transferred to University of Split School of Medicine.He has published six fiction books. This essay, translated from Croatian, is a story from his childhood in city of Split, and his early writings. In 2006 he published the book Medicine from Inside (Medicina iznutra), a 630-page anthology of 31 humorous stories about medicine. The book is based on his experiences as a medical student at Zagreb University School of Medicine from 1965 to 1970. Zagreb, now the capital city of Croatia, was part of Yugoslavia at the time of Dr. Marusic’s studies. Croatia remained under Communist rule until 1990. The author’s hometown is Split, on the Adriatic coast, some 200 miles south of Zagreb. The long-time residence of his parents, Split remains Dr. Marusic’s home.