Tag Archives: Ukraine

Curses and Choices

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Now that both my parents have passed on, I find myself drawn to the histories they left behind. I am learning that what I thought was my story represents a small part of a much bigger family narrative, which I am compelled to document in order to understand. I recently heard that I may have the opportunity to visit my place of birth for the first time this spring via a service trip through the school where I work. If there are connections to make, I must uncover them now and share my parents’ stories so that they do not die with me.

* * * * *

My mother defected from her native Ukraine to Uganda in 1971. She was 31. She and my sister, then almost four, moved in with my sister’s father, N. Together, the small common law family relocated to an outlying town near Arusha, Tanzania, in December of that year. While N (whom my mother refers to strictly by last name in her journals) began to carouse and spend increasingly more time away from home, my mother befriended the neighbors and sought solace from her loneliness among their company.

The friendship initially bolstered my mother’s spirits. She writes in her journal of joyful early encounters with her neighbors, a married couple also new to the area. But soon, there are hints of unwelcome advances that she cannot bring herself to elaborate upon even in her own writing. It was the wife, not the husband, who tried to seduce my mother: first with words (“You like your body, don’t you? I like mine too”); then with “no good pictures” and movies (margin notes, scribbled over and crossed through, say “porno”); finally, physically locking herself and my mother in the neighbors’ bedroom at night. To my mother, the daughter of an Eastern Orthodox upbringing, the insinuation of sexual impropriety, especially with someone of her own sex, must have scandalized her. “I must confess I never even thought about love [emphasis hers] with another woman. For me she was just a very good friend and I was very devoted to her and her husband as well.”

When my mother resisted the woman’s sexual overtures, the woman, whom I’ll call W, threatened her with dark magic (such as mind control and the ability to “spiritually perform abortion”). My mother notes a strange abdominal pain, cured by the recommended insertion of an egg-shaped sac filled with something like “decaying grass.” She confronts W, at the time her best friend, standing outside a bathroom doorway, manually rewinding a cassette tape backwards, as if, according to Mom, conducting some sort of psychological manipulation. My mother began to behave strangely in W’s company. “I did not give a thought that time, that it was actually somebody’s wish to make me a fool and crazy like in people’s eyes,” she writes. “I did not suspect that somebody was watching me and actually I was already possessed by that time.” Mom’s journals document mental ‘conversations’ with W, and dissociative lapses where she felt that someone was using her body and speaking through her. “I was not in my mind, was obeying them in everything like a small child, whatever they wanted me to eat or to drink.”

Mom later speculates that W drugged or hypnotized her, but, regardless, my mother fell into a cycle of self-fulfilling despair over life’s disappointments that would plague her until her death. “When she said, ‘If you don’t love me, you will be in trouble… and it might be for the rest of your life,’ she knew what she was talking about. And her promise became true.”

My mother left Africa convinced that she’d been cursed by her best friend and next door neighbor.

*

Misfortune followed when Mom met my father in 1975. They dated and moved in together after a brief courtship, and I was born soon after. Dad “became completely another man” before my arrival. “It was like a devil changed him completely.” In this part of Mom’s journal, W transforms into a witch, bent on keeping my mother miserable. “I had to lose not only Jon [my father], but my own motherland, my family and friends, and everything I’ve achieved in my life, just because of revenge of one crazy woman-witch… for her own skin and security she put me into this butchery… to lose everything, as she told me that I will.”

Mom walked out of the maternity home, a single woman with a howling, red-faced infant swaddled in wool and a sullen ten-year-old daughter whose father had forsaken her for a new family of his own.

*

Letters exchanged between my father and his parents reveal they were very unhappy with the choice, however temporary, he’d made in Mom. They looked at her and saw – not incorrectly – a deeply troubled woman. My grandmother especially disliked Mom. (She likened her to a parasite.) And yet my grandparents rallied to sponsor us all – my mother, my sister, and me – until we became American citizens, paying hefty application fees to international welfare organizations in the process of relocating us to the States. My father was, according to various letters and journal entries, hands-off in my early childhood; it was his parents who invested in our future, despite their disgrace over their son’s unwedded pursuits. They also cared for me while Mom worked and became my beloved surrogate parents.

Moving across the Atlantic to Boise, Idaho, mitigated Mom’s compulsion somewhat, though my mother continued to hear W’s voice in her head. At my mother’s first job in the States: “When I got my first salary, here [W] started to demand from me to buy gifts for her, it was like she was inside me, looking by my own eyes, watching me, knowing everything what I was doing, talking with me…” Mom held (and was soon fired from) a number of bank jobs in the Boise area, where we lived in my grandparents’ fourplex. (My mother bitterly notes that she had to pay rent to Dad’s family for this ‘privilege’.)

Several factors informed my mother’s experience as a single parent and immigrant. She did not drive, which, in 1980s Boise, was social suicide. (Mom writes how it embarrassed her to be seen walking everywhere.) She had a limited grasp of spoken English, despite a written aptitude. One can imagine there was not a huge community of Ukrainian immigrants to befriend. Nearing her 40s, she had never used a computer and often notes her frustration with learning new technologies. She also felt demeaned by her co-workers and struggled to conceal her emotions. Despite a laundry list of hurdles, she continued to attribute her experiences to W’s ‘control’. “My head was always spinning around like in… a magic hellish circle; I felt it every minute, something was holding me alone by myself, somebody did not want me to get friendly with people around… Sometimes I was even saying some things that I never wanted to say… it was like somebody talking by my mouth.”

*

My paternal grandparents lived and worked in East Africa for most of their adult lives, serving in various capacities for the Lutheran Mission. My grandfather, a practicing physician, documented in his memoirs his continued exasperation with the patients he encountered who believed, despite all appearances otherwise, that they’d been cursed. My dad and grandfather both address the prevalence of bewitching and magic – uchawi – they observed around them at the time. My grandparents did not believe in curses. They believed in God. So, naturally, when confronted with my mother’s conviction that a curse had ruined her life, they questioned the stability of Mom’s mental state.

They tried to help her anyway. They brought her to church services, where she received counsel and prayed for God’s mercy. In a letter from my grandfather: “She decided to go to communion on her own… in so doing she made a public confession of her faith and there was no lack of evidence that she received joy in this fellowship. It meant something special to her and it will bring continued release from her past burdens as she continues on.” By 1980, even my grandmother had softened a bit: “When one has been wounded many times by many different people the healing takes time, and patience, and she is one of these… After these months with us we have healed many smaller wounds, but the mind is still without peace… it needs to come soon, or her mind will crack.” I hope that eventually Mom saw my grandparents as benefactors, rather than participants in her affliction.

At times, my sister and I perpetuated the curse. “Last night was awful, my eyes never hurt more. I woke up at 1:30 a.m. and couldn’t sleep till almost 5 a.m. I slept for a couple hours and at 7 Julia woke me up asking for breakfast.” (I was five.) Mom developed insomnia in Boise. It would allow her three to four hours of sleep per night for the remaining 32 years of her life, less still as my sister and I became adolescents and tested our own boundaries. Growing up, I remember thinking that adult-onset insomnia was Mom’s real curse, the actual reason she never felt right, though I never dared tell her that.

I cannot confirm or deny my mother’s beliefs beyond her written legacy. The perceived curse was simply part of who Mom was – the foundation of our story, a dark, lurid fixture in the imagination – as was the woman who issued it. It’s impossible to approximate the extent that this belief affected the choices Mom made or the interpretation of the consequences that followed them. The human mind is powerful. I know she believed the curse was real, and used it as a lens through which she construed all things. It is clear from my mother’s journals that she believed the curse would end with her; that she alone was chosen to suffer the sustained abuse of an aging woman halfway across the world. Whatever it was – curse, choice, or something complicated in-between – I hope that Mom is finally free from her torment.

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© 2015 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Angels Among Us

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My students and I recently finished reading Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. The book’s narrator, Misha, is a young boy of indeterminate age – probably 8 or younger, we decided – who has been living on the streets and thieving for so long that he has no recollection of his past otherwise. His innocence provides moments of humor but also confounds us. How could a child lack memories? How could a young boy exist without knowledge of birthday cakes, baths, and medicines?

Intrigued, I asked the students about their earliest memories. I was surprised that many of them cited memories from age two and three in some detail, while others, like me, were older when their first memories formalized. They recalled sensory details: the fur of a brother’s Halloween costume; hiding in the back of a closet, skin brushed by low-hanging clothes, dark shadows around them. I made my best case for memory’s lack of specificity; they returned with the observation that one person’s memory rarely matches another’s, so an individual’s memory is specific to him- or herself. I suggested that sometimes the stories families tell create a mental image that then supports a family-centered reality. Some agreed; some didn’t. The discussion made me wonder if and how the acquisition of knowledge nudges certain memories to the periphery while other memories remain static and dependable.

*

My first memory dates back to age five. Like my students, the details dwell in the senses. I lay in my bed at the house on King Street, tucked under a Holly Hobbie blanket. It was night, and a small column of hallway light fell across my bed. My grandmother, who at the time was undergoing treatment for a cancer she didn’t conquer, sat at the edge of the bed, stroking my forehead. Her sapphire eyes shone in the dark. She wore a velvet robe and turban to match her eyes. Before I fell asleep, I imagined that all angels must look like my grandmother.

*

Misha gives significant thought to the presence of angels. He polls others: do they believe in angels? Some do; others scoff at him. A kind doctor convinces Misha that angels exist, and Misha eventually comes to think that we each have an angel who lives within us.

In the book, Misha is something of an angel himself. He begins life with no one to guide him, yet he intuitively senses right from wrong. He pilfers food wherever he can, but he shares it with those he cares for. He doesn’t have to share any of it – the book is set in the Warsaw ghetto, and everyone is sick with starvation – but he does anyway. I have read Milkweed several times, for pleasure and in preparation for discussion, and Misha is one of the unforgettables: the characters we adopt as real, for whom we root, worry, cry, and laugh as if they were one of our own. Misha made me reconsider the nature of angels.

*

Misha has no recollection of his life before orphanhood. When the book’s big brother-figure, Uri, bestows him with an elaborate personal “history,” Misha’s response is nothing short of jubilation. He loves his story and recounts it to anyone who will listen. His memories evolve over time, altered by oral embellishments.

I identify with Misha in this regard. I never knew my mother’s parents or the details surrounding so much of what made up her story. I have only her journals as a window to her past. Instead, I embraced my grandparents’ rich history growing up. My grandfather completed his autobiography shortly before he passed away. I love to share his stories: finding thieves searching his bedroom in pre-WWII China; coming face to face with water buffalo on a hunting expedition in Tanzania; developing a hospital built on education for those afflicted with leprosy. My pride in their legacy of accomplishments is an integral part of who I am. Like Misha, too, I’ll tell my story to anyone who will listen.

*

A couple weeks ago, my father gave me a collection of china that belonged to my grandmother, noting that it was one of her three “most prized possessions.” She carried it everywhere she lived during her missionary career. The set contains twelve of everything – plates, salad plates, teacups, saucers, bowls, soup bowls, and a pitcher, serving bowl, and cream and sugar set – a simple bamboo design in immaculate condition, despite many years of traveling abroad.

I had no idea this collection existed, much less that my grandmother treasured it. Dad supplied these details. I have few recollections of my grandmother; she died right around the time of my first clear memory. Sometimes I speculate whether she might have been an actual angel.

I know from what my grandfather has written that she was instrumental in sponsoring my mother’s passage into the States. If not for her, I might be one of thousands of Julias scrapping for money and success in the Ukraine. My grandmother’s drive made my life as it exists today possible. I held back tears when my father, eyes sparkling and mustache twitching, said, “She would have been delighted for you to have them.”

Dad left as suddenly as he came, and I attended to the collection, hand washing every piece, holding very tightly, and then towel drying each one. In an hour and a half, I had built neat stacks, each dish separated by a paper towel buffer. My palms tingled, as they do whenever I feel excited. This was a treasure I never anticipated, but will cherish. It represents something much larger – a tangible connection to the lives my grandparents led in service to the Lutheran Church, and to a woman I remember, if only a little, adoring. If Misha were with me, I would have told him that often angels live within us, but sometimes they like to travel.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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Forgetting

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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.

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Words for Goodbye

Life isn't fair. Death is even less so.

Valentina

The NY1 headline on February 12, 2010, read: “Snow Plow Hits, Injures Woman.”  By the next day, the New York Post amended the headline to “Plow Tragedy.”  Both articles reported the seventy-year-old pedestrian who was struck in the head by a snowplow that had been clearing express bus stops along 23rd Street after a major snowstorm.  No one knew the woman’s name.  Her name was Valentina and she was my mother.

Recent coverage of Hurricane Irene reminded me of the power of these weighty strings of words called headlines.  Though I left New York in 1995, I have many friends who live in the city, and friends and family sprinkled all along the eastern coastline.  If mom still lived, she would have been among those I prayed for as I obsessively monitored Irene’s advance up the seaboard.  I wouldn’t relive those long, awful days that preceded mom’s death for anything.  But, just sometimes, I am thankful that mom isn’t alive to see what’s happening in the world.  Mom watched the news incessantly; her television blared news programming even when she wasn’t actively watching it.  She took news matters seriously, sometimes sickened herself with sadness and concern for those suffering, sniffling through tears or screaming at the images on the screen: You idiots!  How could you do this?  Is everyone crazy?

Here are some of the headlines that I am so thankful mom didn’t live to see:  Madman in Norway!  Earthquake, Tsunami Strike Japan!  Famine in East Africa!  Hurricane Irene on Path to Pummel NYC!

Stefan

Once upon a time, there was a retired Ukrainian repairman named Stefan who loved a retired Ukrainian administrative assistant named Valentina.  Stefan and Valentina shared a ‘friendship’ that Valentina refused to define.  They went for walks together along the streets of New York in the spring and the fall; when it was too hot or too cold outside, they met each other for meals, either in their separate apartments or in restaurants and diners in between.  They shared a fondness for McDonald’s coffee.  They loved to dance together at the senior center and they were both skillful dancers.  Sometimes Stefan grew overly possessive of Valentina and she declared, “He’s a pain in a neck!”  But, after a couple of days, Valentina’s temper waned and she began to miss dapper little Stefan with his tailored suits and full white mustache.  She’d see him again.  He held her hand like she was the princess of his magical Ukrainian kingdom.  In life, Stefan had already lost his wife of many years.  He’d also lost an adult son.  Stefan wailed loudly at Valentina’s funeral, spilled thick tears onto his dark grey suit.  He needed help standing at her gravesite, weeping.  He didn’t want to toss his handful of dirt onto her casket or relinquish the funeral’s last flower.  Stefan died shortly after Valentina.

 

Amberly

Amberly and I worked together at the local gourmet coffee shop while we attended college at Utah State University.  Am was tall and lean, with long yellow-blond hair, full lips, perfect straight teeth, and twinkling blue eyes.  I liked her instantly.

Am and I kept in touch throughout the years, living our lives on parallel tracks in neighboring towns.  Am’s last pregnancy coincided with my last pregnancy; she desperately wanted a daughter to balance out her three sons, and I desperately wanted another son because I was terrified of having a daughter.  Neither of us got what we wanted, but got instead the children we didn’t realize we desperately needed.

When doctors diagnosed Am with stage four pancreatic cancer, she refused to accept its grim ramifications.  She adopted a diet of raw foods and took up a stricter exercise routine.  She contacted a homeopathic nurse (her “witch doctor”) and began a course of vitamins and supplements that, coupled with her optimism and positivity, extended her life far longer than the $20,000/month treatments that her doctors originally proposed.  Am and I both silently elected to ignore the inevitable finality of her illness – that one day much too soon her children would face their lives without her, that her death was not an if, but a when.

When came in early spring.

Dylan

Dylan won my heart when, in reference to my husband, he pulled me aside and said, “But you’re so nice.  How’d you end up with him?”  Sixteen years old, with an intense gaze and a handsome face half-concealed by a dark fanning of spiked hair, Dylan attended the school where my husband teaches.  He was one of my husband’s advisees, so he spent a significant amount of time at our house after school and on weekends: hanging out, playing video games, talking, laughing, and quickly becoming more like a son than a contractual obligation.  Once, as my children and I left the school’s dining hall, my then-three year old daughter clutched my hand, looked up at me with her bewitching golden eyes, and exclaimed, “I wish I had a hundwed dowwars so I could go shopping!”  Dylan, in passing, flashed a crooked smile and quipped: “They grow up so quickly.”  I couldn’t wait to see what Dylan would do as he grew into adulthood – his intellect and potential so white hot.

People leave Dylan endearing messages on his Facebook page all the time.  At least, they had been leaving him messages, as I had been before recently unfriending him.  I just couldn’t bear to see his funny face anymore – to feel the continual smack of realization that he was really gone.  I couldn’t bear reading those raw, heartfelt messages written to the dead.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that even the smartest kids make stupid mistakes; that life isn’t fair, and death is even less so.

 

Marlene

I am seven years old, sitting on a cold oak pew in a small, cold church in the Idaho mountains.  Marlene, who is my friend Cindy’s mom, stands at the front of the church facing our Sunday school group.  Marlene is old – mom old – and she is dressed in a maroon sweatshirt, dark blue jeans, and plain white tennis shoes, faintly scuffed on the sides.  She holds an emptied bottle of laundry bleach in her right hand.  “This is how you cut off and discard the bottle’s label,” she says, her cheeks dimpling as she smiles and illustrates.  “Then, you draw an outline for a hand-sized hole on the top part but not too close to its mouth,” she says, pointing to a good spot, “and you cut around the outline, like so.”  We raise our blunted scissors and Marlene approaches us individually to help us stab into the emptied, cleaned, and dried bleach bottles scattered on the table in front of us.  Marlene smells of soap and hair spray.  Her hands are warm when she takes my bottle, jabs an entry hole for my scissors, then hands the bottle and scissors back to me, still smiling.  Sunlight rises in the church’s windows, casting small beams of color and light through the decals of stained glass.  I am thinking about how much I like the colors blue and purple when Marlene resumes.  “You cut out a small part of the handle, where it meets the bottle on the bottom side,” she says, pointing to the correct spot for our clarification.  “And there you go!  You can hang these anywhere to hold stuff, like clothespins, empty bags, rubber bands, golf balls…” The air fills with the sound of markers squishing against plastic.  I decorate my bottle with flowers; some of the other children draw aliens, dinosaurs, wild scribbles and swirls.  We stand and sing “Jesus Loves Me” before Marlene dismisses our class and church begins.

Twenty-six years later, Marlene invites my family to a barbeque at her house.  My children, age five and three, play games in the grass with her grandchildren.  They eat otter pops together in the shade.  When I learn of Marlene’s death in January, I think of grass stains and clothespins, bleach bottles, popsicle sticks, markers, scissors, and craft glue.

 

Donna

Marlene’s sister, Donna, spoke with me about angels and visions at Marlene’s barbeque last summer.  Donna saw her dead mother in a vision.  Her mother’s ghost smiled at her and quieted her soul, she said.  “She gave me that last gift of a smile so that I could reach peace with her passing,” said Donna, wiping tears from the deep creases of her grey eyes.  I told her about my grandmother’s bedside visitation when I was five, how I thought she was most certainly an angel in a blue polyester gown and matching turban.

Doctors diagnosed Donna with brain cancer in April.  They removed a good portion of the tumor in her head, but they couldn’t remove it all.  Cindy, who lost her mother only months before, confided that her Aunt Donna’s mind was deteriorating rapidly.  When, in June, my father sent me an email cryptically titled Featherville, an all-too-familiar leaden feeling descended on me.  Donna and Mae had both died, within a day of each other.  I received my father’s email on the same day the USU Alumni magazine informed me of Amberly’s death.

Mae

Mae preached at the Little Church in the Wildwood.  In my memory, she was always trim and put together – button-down shirts in floral patterns, straight leg slacks, handsome leather sandals – though most of the congregants to whom she ministered at the small, one-room church wore threadbare denim and plaid flannel.  She placed importance on decorum: powdering her face before services, spraying her short auburn bouffant tidily into place.  She refused to be seen without a swipe of bright pink lipstick on her thin lips, and she emanated a traveling cloud of Chanel No. 5 wherever she went.  These outward details helped to amplify her sermons, highlighting her natural eloquence and affirming her love for her work and her celestial employer.

I sat on her lap as a child.  When I grew up and fell in love, Mae eagerly offered to officiate my wedding.  She was the first to hug me as I left the church.

Perhaps I am being cynical to think it cruelly ironic that Mae, ever the one to put herself together, spent her last years tormented by acute dementia.  Long-term dementia just doesn’t seem an even-handed fate for a person who dedicated her life to the ministry of a compassionate, forgiving God.  Did Mae’s faith buoy her as her thoughts untethered themselves from reality?  Did she understand that she was dying when the moment came?  What frazzled threads unraveled the final seams of the tapestry of her life?

Valentina and Paulette, Susan and Julia

About halfway through my mom’s weeklong descent into death, my best friend, Susan, took me to a restaurant to make sure I was eating.  She sat across from me as I cried into my plate.  Her small children played in the kid’s corner.  Nothing made sense.  Mothers, daughters, life, death, ventilators, blood, and gauze bandages coalesced into one terrible seething mass that somehow affixed itself deep inside, waiting to grow fat on a diet of grief.

Last week, Susan and I traded places.

The message light beeps on my phone.  I know something is wrong when I hear Susan’s voice.  I don’t want to know what I worry she might say, but I call her back immediately, tasting metal.  Susan cries hoarsely into the phone.  “My mom died,” she says, her voice in a tremor.  “Daddy can’t stop sobbing… He keeps saying, ‘I want to die too!’  Jules, I don’t know what I’m gonna do if Daddy dies of a broken heart!”

My mind backpedals to the Bellevue SICU, where mom died.  She was the first death.  Susan’s mother, Paulette, is the eleventh to die in the last 18 months.  I have learned the vocabulary of incomprehensible grief from the previous ten.

“Don’t worry about Andrew and the kids,” I say to Susan, almost placidly, though my pulse is racing and Paulette is in my head, sitting sideways and cross-legged in her narrow kitchen, intently monitoring an everything bagel that is toasting in the oven.

I say: “Kids are resilient, and Andrew will be fine.”  My ears are ringing.  I sense the inception of Susan’s pain, so new and uninvited, coating the landscape of her life with its thick, sulfurous resin.

This year I have taken an exhausting deep immersion crash course in the language of loss.  Will it ever feel “normal” to be so conversant in it?

“You need to focus on you,” I say to her, while thinking of the numerous trips my sister and I made to the Goodwill on 23rd Street to dispose of mom’s belongings, each time treading over the exact location where her life began its conclusion.  I couldn’t focus on anything but the yellow police tape.

“Do what you need to do to survive this, and don’t be afraid to let your grief show.”  I’m like a death coach now: all bravado and empowerment. But I can’t forget lying down on my mother’s bed, weeping, staring out the window grates to see the clouds eclipsing the February sun.

“Go to your dad, be with your family.  Now is not the time you want to be alone…” I know the language but it doesn’t sever the associated images: My husband coming to my office at work, standing in the doorway, saying, “Honey, you need to come home now.  Your mother’s been in an accident.”  I never felt so alone as I did in the nine days that followed.

My best friend sobs into the telephone two thousand miles away.

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