A violent flurry of words blows through my mind before finally, after several perplexing minutes, stilling on the word I want: kachun, the heart. Google Translate tells me that this is not the literal translation for ‘heart’ in Russian or Ukrainian, but it was the word my mother used when she cut vegetables down to their very cores, trimming away leaves, florets, and fibrous layers to reach that special center piece of certain lettuces, cauliflowers, and broccoli. I’ve eaten plenty of kachun in my day, but lately I’m finding it more difficult to recall the word.
* * *
I recently read The NeverEnding Story, a task that’s been on my bucket list since I first saw the movie in 1984. I was seven. My mother took me to see it at the cinema on Fairview Avenue in Boise: the burgundy velvet seat soft under my legs; the air redolent with the scent of buttered popcorn; that one splotch in the upper left corner of the screen that marred Noah Hathaway’s smooth, tan face. The movie made quite an impression on me. I’ve since watched it dozens of times, and am planning to host a theme party in which all my NES friends can geek out. My children are approaching the age where I can share the movie with them, an experience I eagerly anticipate. I don’t know if they’ll respond to the movie the way I did, but I hope they’ll at least enjoy some of the characters: Artax, maybe, or Morla or Falkor.
In the novel, which continues far beyond the movie’s scope (the movie ends roughly halfway through the book), Bastian enters the world of Fantastica (or Fantasia) and experiences many adventures alongside his good friends, Atreyu and Falkor. Bastian wears the AURYN, a necklace that grants him his every wish. Each wish he makes, however, costs him a price that is surreptitiously exacted: he loses a piece of his memory. He forgets his bearings – his life as a son in the human world, as a wimpy student frequently picked on by others. He begins to forget himself, even as he becomes stronger, more respected, and more essential to life in Fantastica.
If you forget something but don’t realize you’ve forgotten it, was it something actually worth remembering? This is what bothers me about kachun. If I lose the memory of this word that I heard my mother utter all my life, what else have I forgotten that I can’t remember? I still remember mom’s face: the prominent inverted black ‘v’s of her eyebrows; her almond-shaped brown green eyes, which, like mine, turned deep olive when she’d been crying; her pale lips and small, straight teeth; the white shock of her hair, sprayed into a pouf on top of her head. I remember her voice. She loved to sing. (So, too, do I.) I remember how much she enjoyed playing with my children. But I remember her most when I see my friends with – or talking about – their mothers. Oh right, I think, my mother is gone. And with her, the thousand little memories and details I no longer remember and can never retrieve.
* * *
Some memories beg to be forgotten, while others fester resolutely despite all efforts to be rid of them. Which of my memories have disappeared unawares? Am I better off without them? What was the last conversation I had with my mom? I can’t remember. Yet the image of her propped on a mattress in the Bellevue SICU – purple eyelids swollen shut, bandaged head, the hiss and suck of the ventilator – is seared into my memory like a cheap, ugly brand.
Worse still are the memories that don’t belong to me at all. I see my mom walking home from a Valentine’s Day Dance at the Ukrainian Senior Center in the Village, heading north by foot on Second Avenue. In her purse, she carries birdseed and a half-eaten sandwich. She starts down the crosswalk at 23rd Street: gray concrete sidewalks, shop windows caked with old sale signs. Cigarette smoke wafts from the teens standing, haphazardly and with vacant stares, on the corner. As she crosses the crosswalk, undoubtedly with clearance to “WALK,” the white pick-up truck with the blue plow attachment, fully raised from clearing snow at city bus stops, turns left. Mom screams before being stricken down, to the horror of onlookers.
I wasn’t there to see any of it, but I can’t un-know that mom saw her death coming.
* * *
I’m not sure if the man who killed my mom was released from his job at the organization that employed him. He was not charged with any crime, because the police determined that the incident lacked criminality. Two of the organization’s representatives visited mom as she lay in the hospital dying, though whether the driver was one of them is up to speculation. The organization, which I can not name for purposes of legality, placed a very low estimate on the value of my mother’s life because she was retired – therefore not “contributing” to the local economy – and because she didn’t have children young enough to be deemed “significantly bereft” of the loss of their mother.
Three years have elapsed since her death. My sister and I have yet to receive a single word of apology.
* * *
Several of my students questioned my sanity when they caught me, during structured reading time, absorbed in a book titled How Did They Die? It is a tightly composed collection recounting the deaths of celebrities and notable historical figures. Isn’t that a little macabre, Mrs. Hartley? Why are you reading that book?
Strange though it seems, reading about the deaths of others provides a measure of comfort. No one eludes death. Eventually we all experience it, even über humans, in gradual and sometimes tragic, sudden, crazy ways. We all occasionally face challenges that we must try to forget. The trick is to hold tight to memories that uplift us and bolster our spirits so that the world remains a tolerable place, so that hope remains. I will not give sorrow much room to grow, though sometimes its fierce will to survive incapacitates me. I hold on to joys, like my daughter’s incandescent smile and my son’s owlish compassion for others. As the anniversary of mom’s death approaches, I once more remember the strength I derive from within: kachun, kachun, kachun.