It is the 23rd anniversary of my Mom’s passing today. Hard to believe it’s been so long that we've been separated. According to a Russian tradition, I made blini (Russian for ‘crepes’) this morning to honor my mother and her legacy. I have been digesting what happened to me on that overwhelmingly painful day, - March 26th for the most of my life. Trying to make sense of it and make peace with it. Today I’d like to share that journey with you.
March 26th 1992. Ulan-Ude, Siberia, Russia. The weather was nice I guess.
I was standing at the foot of my mother’s deathbed in a sun lit living room, watching her mumbling something unconsciously in agony. There was a smell of excrement mixed with medicine in the air. I didn’t know what was happening. My aunt was running around, panicking. The energy was heavy with despair. It felt as if the whole world was crumbling under my feet: “My mom is very sick and I feel helpless” were the words running through my mind. My mother, Clara, had tubes sticking out of her stomach, one for food to nourish her, the other one on the bottom to relieve her of waste. After four surgeries, the tumor which was almost a quarter of her belly was removed, but not fully. She could barely walk more than few steps at a time. Throughout her ordeal she was not taking any painkillers, still hoping to survive for her dear children – my brother Pasha and me. Clara was so brave and strong. During her last days she would be speaking to me or my aunt then pause for several minutes to endure a painful spasm – the cancer was eating her alive, cell by cell. Minute after minute. There was nothing that could stop the damn disease from taking the most precious thing I had in my life.
Somebody had called 911 – I looked over and saw the doctor preparing a shot of morphine. My mother gathered all her might to fight the shot to say that she does not want painkillers….the words were not coming out clearly. She had minutes to live, life was quickly leaving her body. I stood there frozen, seeing what was left of my smart, caring, beautiful, funny, and full-of-life mother. There was a lot of commotion around me, yet I didn’t not hear anything. There was silence and void and confusion as if somebody just punched me in my face. Everything was muffled.
Somebody noticed me by my mother’s bedside. They took me away to my friend’s house. The house was quiet. I sat by the window trying to see what was going on outside of our building. I couldn’t see much. Back then at my mom’s bedside I formed one of the strong suits of my character – anger: “This is not fair. How could this be happening to My Mom? She didn’t deserve it!” I was tormented by anguish that my mom was sick, but back then I could not even remotely relate to what it was like for her to go through all that agony and excruciating pain.
A couple of hours later, when they brought me back to our apartment, my mother’s spirit had left her body. A small rolled up towel was holding her lower jaw closed. My aunt was on the phone giving the dreadful news to her sister. I was in total shock. This time it was a knock down. I could not believe what was happening. The adults knew that her death was imminent, they were somewhat prepared for it. But me – I wasn’t. A part of me died with Clara, a huge one. Come to think of it, I died inside right there with her.
My other aunt Lyuba arrived – she was the closest to my mother. She hurried into the living room, threw herself onto my mom’s lifeless body, and started bawling, “Sister, my sister!” letting the loudest moans out, gasping for air and bawling again. I will never forget that desperate loud mourning and crying, that agony and heartache.
Clara was my Everything. I was conceived in not so perfect circumstances. My Mom fell in love with the biggest womanizer in town and accidentally got pregnant. Small town like Ulan-Ude didn’t boast many successful good-looking men. Men that weren’t already taken were either alcohol or drug addicts or plain losers. My biological father, Victor, did not want any children so he gave my mom an ultimatum: “It’s either me or the baby.” She chose the baby. She was 33 at the time and knew that having a baby would be an obvious choice. In Russia you are considered an old wife after 25 years of age. They broke up. He allegedly tried to hit my mom with a car and threw stones at her from a roof of a building to cause a miscarriage.
Clara was a single mother raising two children – my older brother Pasha from a different father. Pasha’s father was drinking heavily. My mom could not tolerate that. They got divorced before Pasha turned seven. Clara was a pretty free spirited woman for the time and place. She knew that she deserved better.
Mom was an ENT doctor mainly and picked up some shifts as an ER doctor performing surgeries at night for extra money. My grandmother, Shura, taught my mom to make fur hats, - something Shura taught herself and it became a family business. My mother worked a lot, but that didn’t mean Pasha and I were neglected. She would take me skiing in the winter or ice-skating. To this day, skiing is my favorite pastime. Clara did aerobics and volleyball training, and I would accompany her everywhere she went. My mother was a multi-talented lady. She participated in tournaments representing the hospital where she worked, playing volleyball, badminton, skiing, and running. She was good at all of those sports, too. Clara knew how to play piano and guitar, and sang so beautifully. She had the best sense of humor. Always smiling, she could make fun of any situation. Mom was a very kind, open, loving person who was adored by all my cousins and family. She was eager and passionate about helping people. That’s why she decided to become a doctor. My grandmother and mom even thought that I, too, would become a doctor sometime. Clara asked me to give her a shot in her butt cheek once but I could not do it no matter how hard I tried. I realized then there is no way I could be a doctor.
Mom barely ever punished us. I only remember one occasion where she raised her voice at me, making me eat farina before heading out on a long distance trip “Eat the farina now!” she said. I was just sitting there staring in the bowl and at my mom with my arms crossed. The farina had clumps in it and every time I’d happen to get one in my mouth I had a gag reflex. I just didn’t feel like eating that cereal!
If there was a need to punish me I just had to have a time out in the corner. The rest of the time my mom would just talk to us like human beings and explain things. Clara was very affectionate – we would always cuddle before I went to bed. She would warm up my icy feet between her thighs, hold me so tight in her embrace, and kiss my head gently. No monsters could scare me then. We were great friends. I was so happy as a child when I had her. She taught me so many things in life. I, too, became strong willed, goal oriented, funny, multi-talented as if an almost exact copy of my mom. My grandmother would say to me that I inherited her character. My mother was her favorite child out of five. Shura judged her kids by the way they worked – if one does the task quickly and the quality of it is good, then you are considered the best. Clara was her favorite. I can only imagine how hard it was for Shura to bury her precious daughter. After my mother passed away, my grandmother got streaks of grey locks in her pitch- black, thick, gorgeous hair. A reminder to all of us of her ordeal. The year after my mom’s death my grandfather didn’t wake up from a nap adding more grey streaks to her hair and life.
I spent the next two years in denial, pretending that my mother was still in a hospital getting help. I refused to believe I didn’t have mom anymore. I stopped believing in God and held grudges against him. I held on to that pain. I pushed it so very deep inside of me. I thought if I let go of it I was going to betray my mother, as if I’m not mourning enough, as if I’m not showing her how much I really loved and cared about her. That led me to cut my roots. I would never be able to deal with that kind of pain again. I was not grounded anymore like a tree ripped out mercilessly of the soil. I developed a deep fear of losing a loved one.
I found myself terminating one relationship after another without understanding why I was ending them. There was a certain threshold that I could not cross. Every time the relationship would mature or be ready for the next step I would break it off. I would sit my boyfriend down and say “it’s not working anymore. I’m sorry.”
1. A twenty seven year old Dima, he was a security guard at the university I studied at
2. A guy I met at work when I was an interpreter at an Aviation Plant
3. A smothering guy that would cuddle me to death every time he saw me
4. A crazy Spanish-Italian American guy I met on Jersey Shore during my US work and travel program
5. A Pilipino guy Robert – my American ex-husband
and many more. I was judged a lot in our small town and labeled a 'man eater'.
I’ve left a long trail of broken hearts only to have one help me open up mine and deal with the wreckage… Eighteen years later.
I met Martin in Montreal, Canada on a hot summer day after an exhausting 8-hour drive from New York to Montreal. Martin is a very spiritual soul. He had to be. He was severely traumatized when he was a kid. Martin was the one that challenged me to look inside and do a ‘general cleaning’, start letting go of the pain, and open up my heart.
It was a middle of the winter then. The first thing I did was I Googled “how to let go of pain”. There it was - a four step solution:
1. paint your pain
2. paint the intention of letting go
3. bury the paintings
4. and go on with your life
I put a piece of large white paper on my knees, laid out oil paint on a wooden coffee table and started painting my pain. Naturally my hand would reach into dark colors like black and dark grey ones. The smell of the paint resembling safflower oil was enveloping me like a cloud. The tears of black paint were dripping all over the canvas and I burst into tears myself. Those black and grey colored condensed years of crying were slowly dripping from my heart onto the paper. Tear after tear. There were dark streaks of sadness here and there but mostly, there were tears. When I was done I put the paper on top of the wooden piano to dry.
It was time to paint the second painting – my intention of letting go. I reached for brighter colors this time, I painted something akin mountains with orange colors, added some green steaks. I didn’t need a Bob Ross tutorial to paint this one. It looked cheerful and full of hope with few bright colors scattered all over the canvas. This was my intention to let go of my pain.
Martin and I went into the woods and I decided to burn the paintings instead of burying them. It just was a lot more fun to do. Martin demonstrated his boy scout skills in making a fire on the thawed snow. I put the first painting into the flames then the second one. It felt liberating to see them burn.
When we were walking back, I had the strangest of feelings: It felt as if I had a huge hole in the middle of my body and I could put my hand right through it. It felt that something I was holding onto for so long had finally left me. All I had now was a void. A void that I could fill with anything I wanted. The emotions of everyday life became more vivid – I could feel things again! Even if those things were anger. It felt promising, - but those were just baby steps. It occurred to me that for the last eighteen years of my life I was completely dead inside. My open heart and happiness had vanished with my mom. For eighteen years of my life I was living in the past with my mother or in the future that did not even exist. “I’m going to graduate, get a good job, and then I’ll be happy.” – I kept saying to myself. I was blind to the fact that I was never living in the NOW. But every cherished moment all I had was NOW. And all I was creating for myself in that Now was suffering. Ever since I was eight to the age of twenty-six I was mourning for my mother’s death. I felt pity for myself every month of my life! OK. Maybe sometimes it was PMS, but I was feeling deep sorrow and sadness and I was bawling – I was bawling a lot. Each. And. Every. Month. Up until the time I decided not to be a victim of circumstances, when I decided to open up my heart, to be vulnerable, to let go of fear, to live out of love, to be capable of loving in the fist place. That called for a new painting – an open flower one to symbolize my open heart. Because that was what my mom would want me to be. Pure Love, Joy and Happiness. It wasn’t the easiest of journeys, but I’m glad I’ve found the strength to let go of the baggage that didn’t serve me. Realize that I deserve to be loved and be utterly happy just like other kids that have loving parents. Realize that I am what I create in this moment and it can be anything. I choose love instead.