Twenty-four years ago, on May 9, 1999, my defiant mother left me. I miss you dearly.
Mama, you choose Victory Day, the most momentous day in Soviet history, to depart this world. How fascinating. You could have gone a week prior, but in rebelliousness, you lingered for another week. Mama, even in your death, you played by your own rules. I followed these rules to become the person I am today.
When people met you for the first time, they saw a petite, fragile woman who could hardly reach five feet on days she wore heels. Mama, everything about you screamed, “Look at me. I am vulnerable. Please, fold me into your arms and hold me there until the danger is gone.” That is how most people saw you, but I knew you better than anyone else.
Mama, you were a woman of courage, strength, and perseverance. Your wrath had no fury when you fought to protect your children. You became a larger-than-life fierce warrior if one of us was in immediate danger.
I remember the day you ran out of the house during the bitter winter morning in Northern Kazakhstan wearing only a dress and valenki, snow boots made out of boiled wool, to save your four-year-old son from drowning.
Mama, you starved during the hunger years in the Soviet Union in 1948 to provide food for my older sister, your newborn so that she could survive.
In 1954 when I was born, you loved me from the start, even though my birth was not pre-planned, and getting rid of me inside your womb failed. Later, you cared for me and provided what I needed on the meager earnings you and Papa made. You were the best Mama a child could ask for. I was fortunate.
Your unconditional love sustained me in the darkest hours of my life, and I never regretted being born into your family. We overcame many obstacles together, including the death of your beloved husband and my dear Papa.
His departure left a long-lasting void in your heart, but it did not stop you from doing your best for your children. Depression or not, Mama, you knew we needed you. We became your number one priority. You found the strength to nurture us during these challenging times. Most likely, these were the worst times you lived through because Papa was your only love.
You still talked about him the last time I saw you in the hospital. On your deathbed, you could not make peace with God for taking your beloved away from you at forty-eight.
That night in the hospital, when we checked you in, your dehydrated body still had enough spark to shoo the angels away. I saw them standing by your right side and watched you waving your right arm in a gesture that told them you were not ready to go yet. Mama, I am unsure if you saw them too, but it seemed to me you were aware of their presence.
The following morning when we could not find you in your room, the nurses told us that you, of all people, became violent during the night, and they had to restrain you. I could not understand how an emaciated body like yours, as big as an eight-year-old, could still put up a fight.
When I came from Florida to Brooklyn, New York, I was shocked by your appearance. You seemed lost in your full-size bed.
“Mama, I am calling 911.”
“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” you said.
“You are going. End of discussion.” I said.
Reluctantly, you let me dress you and were ready when the ambulance arrived. The EMTs brought a stretcher, but you refused to use it.
“Take it away. I will walk,” you said.
You tried but could not do it.
“I am not going on a stretcher. Get me a wheelchair!”
One of the men had to return to the van to fetch it for you. Only after that you agreed to be taken out of your apartment.
I often wondered where you found the strength to fight during the night when they had to restrain you by tying your arms and legs to the bed. What dreams brought this behavior on? Which demons chased you? I will never know.
Afterward, they moved you into another room and placed you in a bed beside an old Italian lady with Alzheimer’s. Her memory stuck on the ‘Holy Mary full of grace…’ prayer, which she recited repeatedly.
You became annoyed each time she mentioned Jesus’ name.
“Jesus, Jesus. Can’t she shut up? I can’t take it anymore,” you said.
“Mama, don’t be upset. This lady means no harm. She is praying to God, and this is a good thing. You must make peace with God also.” I said.
“There is no God. If he could take my love away and leave me alone to raise three children, I do not believe he exists,” you said.
“Well, Mama, if you don’t make peace with God, you will have difficulty crossing over.”
That night, when the angels came again, you no longer waved them away. It was a sign that you listened and made peace with the Creator. For me, it meant you were ready. We spent the remaining days at the hospital reminiscing, reliving many funny moments of our journey together.
During the week I was with you, Mama, I silently said my final goodbye to a woman of a small stature who gave birth to me. I felt good when I left because, Mama, I knew you would go to your grave knowing how much I loved you.
For the rest of my life, I will carry the image of you lying in that hospital bed wearing the plain hospital gown that looked enormous on your shrunken body, smiling and laughing.
Mama, you died a week later, on May 9, 1999, the day the entire country celebrated their mothers. Oh, Mother, you could not have picked a better date. Your timing was perfect.
Etya Vasserman Krichmar was born in 1954 in Kazakhstan, the republic of the former Soviet Union. In 1977, her husband, two-year-old daughter, and she claimed religious discrimination. On Thanksgiving day, inside the American Embassy in Moscow, they received exit visas and left USSR. After a three months stopover in Rome, Italy, they landed at International JFK airport on March 7, 1978, to start a life free of fear. Now a mother to two children and grandmother of three, Etya is retired and lives in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, with her husband and two miniature dachshunds. The local TC Palm newspaper, The Turning Points Anthology, White Rose, The Write Launch magazines, Unleash Creatives and MasticadoresUSA published her work.