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At a Loss to Move On With Life
One might say that Vitaly Kozyrev is a man who has lost everything.
But he has not. Forty days after his wife, daughter and son died in a hostage seizure at the school near his home in southern Russia, Kozyrev still has his memories.
Piled on a bed in his parents' house is a jumble of mementos -- photographs, a scuffed soccer ball, his wife's elegant high-heeled shoes, her half-used shampoo bottles -- that are something like his thoughts. Sweet. Cutting to his soul. Fading so fast he has to collect them in a pile so they won't disappear.
As hundreds of mourners marked the end of 40 days of bereavement for Beslan's victims Tuesday, 331 by official count, Kozyrev stayed inside the house, disinclined to wade into the streets with other weeping families.
Still, neighbors came to him, stubborn in their support, quietly demanding in the tradition of the Caucasus that grief be shared communally, like the tasks of building a brick wall, or caring for children whose parents have gone to Moscow, or, as has happened too often in the last month, lowering the coffin of a neighbor's child into the grave.
Neighbors knocked insistently on Kozyrev's door, and when he let them in, he showed them this bed, piled high with treasures from a life that somehow got away from him. The Barbie doll, the ribbons, a brush still tangled with dark hair.
"It's been 40 days now, and I can understand that life goes on. But I don't understand how I'm supposed to do this," Kozyrev says, sitting in the chilly room as a soft rain drizzles outside the window. "You tell me how I'm supposed to turn the page and move on. Because I simply don't understand how I'm supposed to do it."
A picture of Ala, 34, looking as she did when she graduated from the university, hangs over the center of the bed. On the left is a photo of Elona, 12, with white ribbons in her hair; and on the right, Timur, 9, attempting to look old and serious.
All three were at Beslan Middle School No. 1 for the first day of the term on Sept. 1 when nearly three dozen attackers seized more than 1,000 hostages and held them for three days, before an apparently accidental blast set off a fatal volley of gunfire and explosions. An estimated 800 people are believed to have survived the assault.
Ala was an elementary-grade teacher at the school, and her children shone. Timur won the math Olympics last year.
Elona had the role of the fox in the school play last year. She competed in chess, and both she and Timur joined the ballroom dancing club for the fun and glamour of it.
She always insisted on standing up and proposing a toast on family holidays -- Kozyrev would let her have half a glass of champagne for the occasion -- and she always had the same toast.
"To our family," she would say, and talk about them always being healthy and together.
She was caught, Kozyrev remembered, between being his tomboy daughter and what she would become. "I told her she needed to start behaving like a real young lady instead of climbing the trees and the fences. And she would say, 'You know, Papa, I'm still just a little kid.'
"And then she would come running to me and fling her arms around me and put her ear to my chest, and she would say, 'Your heart is beating like this' -- and she would make the sound of it with her lips...."
As he speaks, Kozyrev wipes a steady stream of tears with a neatly folded, plaid handkerchief. In a culture of Ossetian men known for their stern countenances and tough dispositions, he seems unashamed that his sentences often break into sobs. Each time his guests move to go, to leave him to his thoughts, he thinks of a new detail.
He had a job as an inspector at the gas company, he says, but when the family saved up enough money to buy a car not long ago, he started driving it nights as a taxi to put away money for the children's education. Still, he recalls, he'd try to come home early in the afternoons, and he'd never walk through the door without a Snickers bar or a bag of potato chips for each child in his pocket.
Ala caught him up on that not long ago.
"I'm your third child, Papa," she told him teasingly -- she always called him Papa after the kids were born -- and after that, Kozyrev would come home in the afternoon with three Snickers in his pocket.
What he remembers most about Ala is not what he gave her, but what she gave him. He never stirred his own tea, he says. Ala knew how many spoonfuls he wanted, and did it for him. "I would wake up every day and head for the shower, and as I passed the kitchen, I'd see that breakfast was already laid out on the table," he says.
Timur never left the house with his shirt unironed. Ala carefully pressed the ribbons before tying them into Elona's hair.
"She had such a generous heart, that I kept thanking God that she had picked me," Kozyrev says. "I can't even find the words to describe how happy I was."
When it is suggested that he was a lucky man for having had these last 12 years, Kozyrev looks blank. "Was," he says. "Was."
"There are millions of families in the world, and I do think ours was special. It was all woven in these little details, all of these things that, put together, made our family what it was. And it's impossible to forget these sweet, little details."
These days, Kozyrev says he spends a lot of time sleeping, hoping he will dream of his wife and son and daughter. "I just want to feel for one minute the way I felt before," he explains.
But although their images, lifeless, stare at him all day long in this room of mementos, their radiant smiles elude him in his sleep.