Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the category “death and dying”

The Last Light of Day

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A long time ago I read a short story in the New Yorker By Alice Elliott Dark called “In the Gloaming.” I have never forgotten it. It tells the story of Janet, a mother caring for her son, Laird, who is dying of AIDS, and the last evenings they spend together outside in the magical hour when dusk turns to dark. The gloaming is intimate and shadowy, a purple suspension between now and forever, a time when words touch what really matters and life stands, still and perfect, before it disappears forever.

My father was in his gloaming the year before he died. He wanted to talk and be heard. He wanted to know how each person in the family was doing. He wanted to see if we had become what his dream for us had been. In the summer evenings, after dinner, he would ask me to read something I had written, his eyes half closed, his head held to the side, resting on a blue-veined hand. I knew I had not fulfilled his dream for me, but he showed no disappointment, only love.

When my father died, all the words inside me disappeared.

Now I want to remember everything about him, but what I remember most clearly is how badly we treated him. He had become superfluous. He couldn’t hear well but refused to use a hearing aid. Instead of politely raising our voices, some of us would shout, while others just ignored his soft-voiced attempts to be part of the conversation. He couldn’t walk well but refused to use a cane. Everyone berated him, especially since he had had several bad falls. When I asked why he wouldn’t at least try, he cocked his head, gave me that small crooked smile I loved, and said, “That would be humiliating.” I never suggested it again.

My father was a proud man despite the many humiliations he endured in his last years. He treated everyone he met with politeness, curiosity and dignity. He cared. When he died, the church was packed with people I had never met: his plumber, his pharmacist, his grocer, his nurses, his doctor, his home workers, and all the parishioners he had helped in some way. “Your father was such a good man,” they told me. In his last years, he had reached out with more and more love as if giving thanks for his long life. He knew how to listen, and he knew how to make people feel valued. They never forgot him.

He would call his grandchildren, one by one, into the dining room he had turned into a messy office. The glass table was piled with mail, papers, books, magazines, photographs and newspaper clippings, the jumbled remnants of his passions and memories. Each child had a special folder where he kept cards, letters, articles and mementos. He would ask them what they were studying, what they wanted in life, speaking in the quiet voice that, without the cacophony of a noisy dinner, was perfectly clear. And he heard every word they said.

Why do we so often treat the old, the sick, the dying, with dismissive impatience instead of love and understanding? When Janet talks with her AIDS-stricken son in the shadowy twilight, she is happy, connected to him by the spark of eternal love. Their conversations are a parting gift, not a chore to be endured. But Martin, her husband, avoids Laird. Fear deprives him of truly knowing his son.

So many times I could have lingered a few moments more, listened a little more closely. Instead, oblivious to my father’s imminent departure, I hid inside a book or watched insipid television. Anything to blunt the reality of death.

The beautiful, mystical, ineffable gloaming is so brief that we often fail to see it. Instead of embracing its magic and meaning, I fled.

And then he was gone forever.

 

 

 

 

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Requiem for My Brother George

George

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I look out at these gentle French hills,
The silver greens you thought so lovely,
The cloudless blue sky framed by waves of vine,
The dark dense patches of trees
In patterns of repose,
So still this morning,
As you are in your coffin, George,
My beloved brother.

No longer will you see the streams and rivers
That enlivened you, nor feel the sacred space
Where you and sky and water joined,
Where you found peace in a heart
Agitated by ancient loss, a heart
Capable of selfless love
Only for the trees and rivers and oceans
You fought hard to protect.

I see you standing by a Colorado stream,
Fishing rod in hand, casting
As if in prayer,
Casting for joy, casting for freedom,
Casting for the stillness that came
With the roar of water rushing over rocks,
Rocks you collected
Like tokens of eternity.

The trees soothed your soul
As you strode thigh-deep into streams and rivers,
From Russia to Canada,
From New York to California,
And here, in Gironde, where once upon a time,
The grandfather you loved, who loved you as his one true son,
Placed a bamboo pole in your small hand,
And taught you how to fish.

Side by side you stood in silence
On the muddy banks of the Garonne,
Until your pole wobbled and you raised it
In triumph, a small silver fish dangling in the air.
How powerful you must have felt,
How complete, how proud,
When your Papi
Smiled and hugged and praised you.

You never forgot that joy.
It was the one true thing that gave meaning to your life,
That led you and sustained you.
But the rest, oh, the rest, how sad you were,
Beneath those water-green eyes,
Eyes the color of the Garonne
When the sun slants across
Its wide, sullen surface.

That river frightened me,
But not you.
It was as though you had risen from it,
Born from its restless tides,
Sometimes silent, sometimes agitated,
Sometimes as angry as its currents when storms
Ruffled its surface,
Like the surface of your life.

We saw only the surface.
What lay beneath? What depths of sorrow,
What pools of unrequited love
Hiding from the violence of currents
You could not control?
Your eyes, once full of emotion,
Grew dull as your mind dissolved
Into the murky present.

Emptied of your essence, wounded by disease,
You saw only terror,
The terror of reality slipping away,
Thought by broken thought,
The terror of pain and confusion and helplessness,
The terror of memory battered
As if flung into a raging river,
Engulfed by useless anger.

In the end, your eyes saw nothing at all.
They closed, and you slept,
Without pain or desire,
Accepting the abyss until, finally,
Death set you free.
And all that remained were your ravaged bones,
Your skin stretched paper-thin over wasted flesh.
Today, we will burn you.

Once your face was plump
With the excess of your desires,
For food, for drink, for money, for clothes,
For possessions so numerous that you collapsed under the weight,
Lost like a little boy in the rubble of an unkempt life,
With a measureless need for love that no one and nothing could fill,
An emptiness you felt but never understood,
And never tried to heal.

I will remember another you,
The man of rivers and forests,
The lover of beauty in all of its guises,
The young soul who laughed and danced,
Who loved art and music and books,
Who spoke four languages with ease,
The man who cherished cats and children,
The brother who loved me.

You wanted chocolate, always chocolate.
In the end, your sister Vesna fed you piece by piece,
Watching you smile as chocolate melted in your mouth.
Chocolate was the vestige of your senses, the final pleasure,
The last rite offered by someone who loved you,
Because we did love you, my lost, lonely brother.
We will always love you,
Our beloved brother George.

Living Life in the Moment, Through Chocolate-Tinted Glasses

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February 19th is my brother George’s birthday. I can see him in the group room of his home in France. He is numb, clueless, forever waiting for nothing. His Alzheimer’s disease has made me question the supposed virtue of living in the moment, as George now lives, day after day, instant after instant. Tomorrow is his 64th birthday, and what is his greatest pleasure? Chocolate.

He does not know that on February 18th, his son had a baby boy. George probably doesn’t remember that he has a son. He doesn’t remember me. But he most definitely remembers chocolate.

Every other week or so, my sister, Vesna, goes to visit him in the memory-care home he now lives in, a facility in Southwest France that we were lucky to find given the outrageous cost of homes in the United States. And every time she visits, she brings him chocolate.

George remembers no one and nothing, but his eyes light up and he smiles when Vesna offers him chocolate.  For him, pleasure has narrowed its focus to what he can hear and what he can taste. He loves any kind of music, and he loves chocolate.

You may have indulged in chocolate, maybe on Valentine’s Day, maybe today or every day, savoring its intensity and its gift of subtle satisfaction. After all, very few people dislike chocolate. It dates back to Mesoamerica, but it was Cortez who brought it back to Spain, and it was the Europeans who sweetened it and made it a fashionable drink in the 17th century. The Mayans and Aztecs, on the other hand, thought the cacao bean was sacred, maybe even divine. They used it in many of their rituals of birth, marriage and death.

We use chocolate to make ourselves feel happier. Some say it has great health properties. Researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego even found that it contains substances that have similar effects on the brain as marijuana. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I do know that chocolate addiction is common in both men and women. A high is a high is a high. And what’s wrong with that?

Because when nothing is left, no memory, no dignity, no independence, no freedom, no nothing, chocolate is still there. Chocolate brings joy to George as nothing else does. Maybe even more than Madonna and Lady Gaga do. Yet the true sadness remains: if he could only remember, he would rejoice that his first grandson was born just a day before his own birthday.

Who knows what similarities the little boy will have with his grandfather. Will he love to fish? Will he have a talent for languages? And who knows if he will ever know his larger family, or who his grandfather or great-grandfather were, or that those connected to him would love a chance to hold him and love him. Because that is what family is about: unconditional love. Who knows if that will ever happen for him?

My sister, Vesna, is a talented painter and a kind, kind person. In her latest portrait of George, she captures the emptiness, the layers of pain, and the simple joy of being alive in the moment despite the terror of nothingness. She captures the little smile he must proffer when he is given chocolate.  No, our brother is no longer the brother we knew. But he is still there, still breathing, still smiling.

 Vesna brings George chocolate, and he smiles. He had a pretty good life, all in all, and we all wish he could still be the person he was. But he can’t.  If he knew he was a grandfather, he would rejoice. Maybe he wouldn’t be the greatest grandfather, but he would love his grandson, just as his grandfathers loved him, just the way he loved and praised his daughter, just the way he loved and praised his estranged son, the son he tried so hard to bond with, yet never could.  George never learned how to show his love, but he did love.

And George always loved chocolate. In his last semi-independent days in Westchester County, New York, I would find chocolate and candies stashed everywhere in his apartment. I never called him on it, even though he has diabetes. After all, doesn’t everyone have the right to one last pleasure, one last addiction?

Maybe the Aztecs were right to view chocolate as a rite of passage, as a communion with eternity, be it life or death. George doesn’t have much life left in him, but chocolate still makes him smile. And that is enough for my sister.  And that is enough for me. But it is so sad that he will never know that he has a grandson, and never be able to rejoice in that milestone of life. That is the curse of Alzheimer’s.

I wish I could be there tomorrow and see the joy in George’s face as he tastes each morsel of bar or candy or cookie on his birthday. I wish I could be there sharing the pleasure with him.  In my depressed moments, I wonder why he is still alive. But in my up phase, I think how grateful I am for my beautiful, compassionate sister and her unconditional love for our brother George, my sister, who can see his essence and his soul while feeding him chocolate. And I must admit, I feel guilty not to be with the brother I love so much, through thick and thin, through ill and crazy, after so many years of trying. The distance is devastating, the guilt, immense.

A few weeks ago, my sister painted her latest picture of our brother George. He is smiling a tiny bit, maybe because she has just brought him chocolate. I can only imagine the big smile he would have if he knew he had a grandson. Even if he remembered it just for a moment.

SNOW, FAITH & CHRISTMAS

ImageThe first memory I have of snow is on Christmas Eve. I am sitting at the window of our Madison, New Jersey, flat, my face pressed against the cold glass as I watch the white flakes descend helter-skelter from the sky.  Outside, a faint street light illuminates their dance, some flakes flying back upwards, others suspended like tiny pillows in the breeze, still others rushing downwards like bombs on a mission. I cannot see where they land, only how they flutter or hesitate or careen in the golden glow. After what feels like an eternity in which time and space no longer exist, I hear my brother’s voice behind me.

“Did you see him?”

“Who?”

“Santa Claus,” George says, only we are speaking in French since we have not yet learned English, so what he says is “Le Père Noël.” Father Christmas.

I stare intently, but all I see are white crystals falling from a dark sky, briefly lit by light, then disappearing to the ground. I want to see Santa Claus.

“I saw him,” he says, pressing his face next to mine. “He’s there. He has a shiny sled and it’s filled with presents. He passes by quickly so you have to stare really hard.”

We are in the living room by the tree, which is decorated with just a few shiny balls and big colored lights. My parents don’t have much money, but they are determined to give their children an American Christmas.

It’s getting late. From the kitchen, I hear our mother calling that it’s time to go to bed or Santa won’t come. He only comes when little children are asleep.

“If you don’t see him,” whispers my brother, “It means you don’t believe. And if you don’t believe, Santa doesn’t come.”

I believe everything my big brother tells me. Our sister is already asleep, and I know Mom will shoo us to bed if we don’t go soon. I squint. I pray. I feel tears filling my eyes. I do believe! So why can’t I see Santa? There must be something wrong with me.

“Keep looking,” George says. “Just stare and stare. I swear he’s out there.”

My brother goes to bed and leaves me by the cold window, staring and staring. I don’t budge. My small heart is brimming with love and faith. I cannot fail to see Santa Claus! If I don’t see him, I will ruin everyone’s Christmas. None of us will get presents! I know if I wait long enough and try hard enough, I will see him. I beg my mother to let me stay up just a little longer.

After a while, all the colors of the rainbow pass through my tear-stained lashes. I strain to keep my eyes open, my tiny hands clasped in prayer. And then, like the most miraculous gift I can imagine, he is there: Le Père Noël. His clothes, his sled, his reindeer are all golden as he flashes above the street lamp, then circles back and dashes across the sky again.  The figures twinkle like stars, tiny on the immense black-and-white canvas of this snowy night. I run to the bedroom and say, “I saw him! George! I saw him!” But George is sound asleep.

Today I am in Westchester, New York, just a few miles from where George lived before I had to take him to a memory-care home in France. Outside my motel this quiet morning, what were at first fat snowflakes are shrinking and flying faster, sticking to the ground as the temperature drops. I haven’t seen a snowfall in quite a while, and I am mesmerized, sitting alone by the window and remembering that long-ago night when I saw Santa Claus, and I believed.

George himself remembers nothing and no one. I imagine him sitting in a chair in the group room with his eyes closed, his head drooping to the side, his mind empty. I long to be by him, to hold his hand, even if he doesn’t know who I am.

And then I remember a snowy day the winter before last, just before Christmas. I had come to take care of him for a week, but when I went up to his apartment, he had disappeared. It was snowing. He had a serious infection in his hand, and no idea how he got it.  The doctors had told me I needed to come because he was forgetting to go in for his antibiotic infusions and they would have no choice but to hospitalize him for his own safety. His car had been impounded, and he was wandering around at all hours, often forgetting where he was going or why. I drove slowly up and down the streets of Mt. Kisco in the dark, looking for him. I went to every CVS and stopped at every little restaurant he liked. No George.

I was about to give up when I glimpsed what looked like a homeless old man trudging through the snow on Kisco Avenue, a black beanie pulled over his ears, big rubber boots on his feet, and white plastic bags clutched in each gloved hand. I stopped and rolled down the window.

 “George? Is that you?” A pair of blank green eyes under snow-covered brows stared back at me. “It’s Maia, your sister.”

“Maia,” he said. “My sister! You didn’t tell me you were coming!” I saw a hint of the old George in his smile. Of course I had told him I was coming, over and over again. But I no longer felt a need to correct him, to try to force him to remember when he really could not.

I took him to Eduardo’s for his favorite Clams Casino and crème brulée. I let him drink wine, even though he wasn’t supposed to. He laughed and flirted with the waitress, happy at least for a little while.

Not even Clams Casino would rouse George today or bring him back to a semi-conscious state. Like a beautiful snowflake briefly illuminated in the cold, cold night, his life flutters downwards in a slow swirl of mistakes made and dreams unfulfilled, sometimes lifted by moments of joy or moments of awe, but destined sooner or later to fall, then melt and disappear. If I squint my eyes really hard through my tears, I feel the little boy he once was standing behind me and whispering in my ear: “If you really believe, you will see him.”  My heart soars with gratitude because I still believe that if I try as hard as I did that night so many years ago, if I have the pure faith and will of a child, the golden light of love and hope will surely flash by me again.  And perhaps I will see George above me in the night sky, sitting next to Father Christmas, waving good-bye.

Chaslav Nikitovich: Serb, Yugoslav, Loving Grandfather

Scan 15Chaslav Nikitovich, my grandfather, loved words. He loved to speak them, in English, in French, but especially in Serbian. He loved to sing them; he loved to write them; and he loved to read them. I learned from my Deda the solitary joy of books: their dry smell, their weight blunting the present, their intense drama so much richer than life in Roselle, New Jersey. In the humid summers we sat together in front of his beloved air conditioner and read, while my grandmother cooked and crocheted and watered her tomatoes.

Deda loved books on politics and history, especially anything about World War II. He loved plays, magazines, Serbian poetry, the New York Times, obscure newspapers printed in Cyrillic, which arrived in tight, foreign-smelling wrappers, and an occasional novel, if it was by a Yugoslav or about one. With his astonishing memory, he could recite his favorite poems and passages by heart and remember dates and facts it would take me hours to memorize (and just a few days to forget). He might interrupt my reading and declaim, with the voice of a fine orator trained by years of political speech making, the Serbian version of Cyrano de Bergerac’s famous nose soliloquy. He would then repeat it in the original French, stop with a dramatic pause, and say, “You can hear how great the Serbian language is. In French it is beautiful, but in Serbian it sings.”

In the small house my grandfather managed to buy and pay for before he died, books were the focal point. They filled an entire wall in the red-carpeted living room, an eclectic collection that included the Encyclopedia Britannica, the works of Nobel Prize winners, and the latest Reader’s Digest condensed books (for me), but was unique in its emphasis on Yugoslav history. There were obscure, carelessly bound French treatises on the Balkans, all sorts of books about Yugoslavia, including his own, Yugoslavia in Crisis, 1934-1941, published by Columbia University Press in 1962, and books by American and British historians, even several by “that traitor Churchill,” who, according to Deda, had blithely sacrificed Yugoslavia to the Communists.

Sometimes it bothered Deda that his English was not always accurate. To improve his vocabulary, he bought himself a huge Webster’s dictionary, which rested like an icon on a pedestal in his study. “Someday,” he would say, “when you become a writer, this dictionary will be yours.” Deda believed that books, unlike other things, survived.

Dr. Nikitovich, as his many admirers addressed him, was a man who looked tall despite his stooped shoulders, the legacy of childhood scoliosis. He had thick, brilliant white hair combed straight back from a high forehead, prominent blue eyes and a somewhat bulbous nose. His smile was quick and sweet, almost naive-looking, but his voice was commanding. He loved to sing, loudly, old Macedonian folk songs or heart-wrenching Serbian laments: “Tamo daleko…there, far away, far at the end of the sea, there lies my simple farm, there lies my Serbia.”

Deda was also a great storyteller. He regaled us with elaborate tales of the wicked Turks, who ruled the Balkans for centuries, and the noble Serbian rebels, especially the legendary Karageorge (Black George), who helped overthrew the invaders. While my classmates heard the tales of Winnie the Pooh or Peter Rabbit, I listened in spellbound horror to the story of Cela Kula, Head Tower, erected by the Turks in 1809 with the heads of one thousand Serbs who chose to die rather than surrender. “It stands to this day,” Deda would say with unfeigned pride, “to remind us how much we were willing to sacrifice for freedom. Something our people have forgotten under Tito.”

In my childhood universe Tito and Communism were the arch-villains. It was they who had somehow stripped my grandparents of a rich, exotic life Scan 14in a land I could only imagine. Deda had been Yugoslavia’s Minister of Agriculture and before that, a representative to Parliament from Skopje, Macedonia, who campaigned from village to village in a chauffeur-driven car. My grandmother, Mara Miletich, had been a science teacher before she married, although I could never imagine her as anything but a grandmother. She became a socially prominent politician’s wife, ready at all hours of the night to serve Deda and his coterie of friends a late supper, which might have included stuffed cabbage, slow-cooked pork, roasted pepper salad, tomatoes and onions in oil, hunks of thick bread with kajmak, a cross between cheese and sour cream, and for dessert, sweet Turkish coffee perhaps accompanied by slices of her ten-layer cake filled with chocolate butter cream and topped with crackling caramel.

Baba and Deda had lived in Belgrade and Skopje during what must have been the halcyon days, when Yugoslavia had become a union of disparate Slavic states. Deda was part of an exciting era, the making of a nation, and it was only later that I learned how fraught with intrigue, argument, and even assassination this “good” period of Yugoslav history had been.

When civil war between the Communists and the Chetniks, supporters of the old parliamentary government under Prince Paul, broke out as the German occupation ended, my grandfather managed to escape to Paris, where he had studied law at the Sorbonne. My grandmother stayed on, clinging to her home even after my father, Pavlé, and my aunt, Biljana, escaped to Italy. Finally, Communists ransacked the house and took everything but the paintings and a few sculptures, which Deda’s Albanian chauffeur managed to smuggle out. Defeated, my grandmother made her way by train toward the Italian border, then walked for three days and nights through the mountains to the safety of Trieste, losing her toenails on the way. When she told her story, I always stared at her feet and recalled those nails, which had grown back very thick and tough, like wounded soldiers.

The scheming of loyal friends eventually helped bring the paintings and sculptures to New Jersey, where they transformed the square rooms of a squat house into jumbled shrines. Hanging on the living-room walls were pictures of the wide Serbian sky above the dark Danube river, of the sad faces of peasants and gypsies, of Deda as a thin-faced young man and Baba as a wily young woman, and of the old country home in Cacak, with my father and his sister perched on a white porch railing, smiling. Two black iron busts, one of a heavier Deda, looking serious and successful, one of his stern, mustachioed father, sat on cheap coffee tables stacked with newspapers and balls of yarn. On the dining-room buffet was a lovely reclining nymph whose nude body seemed to hover over the table, while across from her, in a dark corner, a carved wooden saint, ancient, serene, and missing half a nose, raised his hand in blessing beneath a hanging votive candle that glowed a mysterious red.

Whenever I could, I walked the three blocks from my tumultuous home to that of my grandparents’ and entered a Byzantine world where life was lived passionately yet in orderly rhythms. Deda had a roaring temper, which receded easily and without grudge. “Mara, why must you nag me about one little whiskey? I’m still a young man but your nagging makes me old.” Half an hour later, after a feast of stuffed peppers and a salad of cucumbers and raw green onions (which he urged us to eat to improve our weak American memories), Deda would grab Baba’s hand, kiss it and say, “That was the best meal I ever had. Thank God I found you!” Baba would smile, and Deda would launch us into discussions that we were expected to participate in fully and only in Serbian. “Speak Serbian that the whole world might understand you,” he would proclaim. We thought that was very funny. But to Deda it was a childhood saying with the emotional truth of his whole heritage, a Slavic declaration of pride and self-importance and the reckless individualistic denial that has always dumbfounded and irritated Europeans.

On Saturdays we attended Serbian Orthodox Church Sunday school, where we learned to dance the kolo, to read Cyrillic, and to recite endless poems, usually about battles and feats of Serbian bravery. Deda coached us after dinner until our declamatcia was perfect. Yet on opening night in the church hall, my sister Vesna would clam up, I would recite much too fast, and little Paul would make everyone laugh. Big brother George, with his perfect accent, excelled, which earned him the reputation as best linguist.

According to Deda, we were all the best at something, simply because we were Nikitoviches. He lavished praise and encouragement on his grandchildren and proudly introduced us to the endless stream of guests, visitors and newly arrived immigrants who flocked to him for help, advice, good talk and Baba’s great food. “This is Maia, our brilliant little poet,” he would say, as I stood, mortified, fearing he would recite my latest ode to a robin. “And Vesna, our Vesna is already a great ballerina.” After Deda died, I realized that no one would ever believe in me quite so completely again.

Going to church with Baba and Deda was a five-hour ordeal. First there was the service: pungent incense, jeweled icons, deep harmonious singing, the opening and closing of gold-painted doors, which signified a baffling series of sitting, standing and crossing ourselves, and, finally, the sermon, usually having more to do with history or politics than pious living. We would then emerge, giddy with ritual, into the run-down world of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and endure at least an hour of kissing, patting and affectionate ear-pulling from a parade of bright-lipped women with thick, lustrous hair, and big-boned men who all seemed to smoke, sport dark mustaches, and wear pointy black shoes. Deda, elegant and well groomed in his navy suit and maroon tie, reigned like a godfather over this horde of sometimes vulgar but always high-spirited Serbs.

After the mingling and endless gossiping came great feasts prepared by the women in a church basement dominated by a full bar, where the accordions and balalaikas almost drowned out the loud voices and laughter. We children would weave in and out of long lines of dancers, who would sing and stomp their feet and pause only long enough for another drink or one more bite of baklava.

It never occurred to me that my grandparents lived a hard life or lacked money. After all, Deda had so many books, and he seemed so important. What I didn’t know until I was almost a teenager was that during the day Deda held a mediocre job as a lower-level manager in a small company. I remember being shocked that the office girls called him “Charlie.” But Deda didn’t mind. They were simple and sweet, he told me, and if it made them happy, why should he mind? Baba worked in New York City crocheting $250 silk dresses for, at the most, $2 an hour, dresses she once showed me in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue. Yet on Friday nights, before boarding the bus home, she would often spend her meager salary on caviar, bread, salty black olives and a bottle of good vodka. Meals were always celebrations at my grandparents’ house, and no matter who showed up, food was somehow plentiful.

Sometimes Baba would complain about all she had lost, but Deda never did. He was too busy writing articles, making speeches, and corresponding with professors, politicians and old associates. An outspoken Republican, he was a grateful supporter of an American system that had allowed him to buy a house, gather his family, and create a miniature Serbian kingdom free of his old country’s Communist strictures. To him it was a great improvement over making woven leather shoes in Paris, a temporary trade that had left both of my grandparents with gnarled fingertips.

In one of his frequent philosophical asides, Deda warned me not to lust after things. “It will only bring you discontent, and when you lose those things, as I did, you’ll realize how much time you wasted getting them.” He would tap a bent yet elegantly long finger to his forehead and say, “Concentrate on what you can take with you, up here.” How prophetic those words turned out to be.

When I decided to attend New College, a small alternative school in Florida that my father disapproved of, Deda did not criticize or object. “If you’re not a radical at twenty,” he reasoned, ”you’re probably dull. If you’re still a radical at thirty, you’re surely a fool.” He wrote to me every week, long letters full of advice in Cyrillic, letters it would take me hours to decipher. After I finally begged him to write in the more familiar Latin alphabet, he never wrote to me in Cyrillic again.

After a too-early marriage, I settled in San Francisco, and Deda was ecstatic. “You’ve picked the best city in America!” He knew Serbs everywhere, it seemed, and when he visited, he went to the Serbian Orthodox Church on, of all places, Turk Street.

During one of Deda’s visits, Dr. Dravskovic, an old friend who was now the head of archives at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, invited him for a private tour. I went with him to Palo Alto to view a special display of rare documents. Deda was in his glory, surrounded by books and papers, hosted by a man who was, in a sense, an official guardian of history, and a Serb to boot. The display, in a lofty room decorated with rare icons and portraits of Russian royalty, was magnificent: a draft of Czar Alexander’s abdication, Russian prison-release forms, tiny “spy” notebooks, President Hoover’s report on the Russian famine, pictures of Mao Tse-tung taken by Edgar Snow’s first wife, and much more that to my untrained eye seemed unfathomably mysterious. Deda examined and read each paper, talked with the enthusiastic young archivist who had prepared the collection, and seemed, more than ever, a man shaped by a Slavic past from a place he had never truly left.

Both Columbia University and Stanford has asked Deda to leave them his papers and books. He had also been writing his memoirs. As we left the Hoover Institute, he said, “I’m leaving everything to Stanford for sure.”

For some reason, I felt compelled to visit Deda in October of 1978. He met me at the airport, jauntily dressed in jeans, which I had never seen him wear before, but his gait was slow and his manner dreamy. He was nearing 80, and his heart had begun to give him problems. Like most Serbs, he had relished food and drink and had never exercised, but now he watched his diet obsessively and read strange medical books. I brought along my one-year-old son, whom he insisted on calling Ivan, even though his name is Evan. “In Serbian, he is Ivan,” Deda said, and that was that. He asked me to translate a presentation he was supposed to make that weekend, and while I worked, I heard him singing to Evan and teaching him Serbian. “Say Deda,” he repeated. “Deda,” Evan parroted. “Say, ‘Volim Deda.’” Evan repeated an approximation of “I love Deda.” “This child is a genius,” Deda roared. “A true Nikitovich! He’ll speak better Serbian than his mother.”

My Serbian had grown progressively weaker, to Deda’s dismay. We had a mini-lesson the next day, and Deda, pointing to the massive Webster’s, said, to rouse me, “English has so many words because it’s not a precise language. We have better, more specific words, and we have declensions. Serbian is logical, like Latin, not confusing like English. If you studied for just one month, you would master it.” I had heard this so many times, yet I had never bothered to practice, let alone take a class.

During the next few days we drove to my childhood haunts, past our first one-bedroom apartment above a bar in Westfield, which seven of us managed to share for a full year. We went to our old favorite park and sat by the lake. The air smelled of lightning, and the trees shone with the first light gold of autumn.

That night, Deda did not read. He fell asleep in front of the television. The next morning he drove us to Manhattan, singing the whole way, dodging taxis with insouciant good humor. It was the last time I saw him well. The following day he suffered a heart attack.

Deda asked me to bring his Old Spice deodorant to the hospital. He didn’t want to smell bad for the nurses, he said. What frightened me was that he smelled of nothing at all. When my aunt arrived from Kentucky, he introduced her to everyone. “This is my daughter, Dr. Nikitovich-Winer, chair of the anatomy department at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.” He introduced all of us in turn, exaggerating our merits as only he could. “I guess you must be important,” a nurse said. “Well, at least to some people,” Deda laughed.

When we were alone, he grabbed my arm to remind me of his unfinished memoirs. Then he slept and slept. At dinner he couldn’t eat. “I’ve lost my appetite for the first time,” he said. “I can’t taste anything. It’s a terrible thing.” He closed his eyes and smiled, his lips dry and apologetic. At noon the next day, October 14th, he died.

After a service in Elizabeth, with many eulogies and much sobbing in front of an open casket, we buried Deda in the cemetery of St. Sava Monastery in Libertyville, Illinois. My grandmother, lulled by Valium, went to live with my aunt in Kentucky. The house was sold, the paintings hastily divided. There had been no will because, like a true Serb, Deda was superstitious. So the books, the papers, the photos, the half-written memoirs, were all packed and sent half to Lexington and half to Denver. The memoirs are in Cyrillic, and no one has had either the time or the knowledge to translate them. The papers are not at Stanford but in my father’s study, waiting.

I didn’t have the nerve to ask for the dictionary. The last time I saw it at my aunt’s house, it was still open on its pedestal, standing expectantly near the guest bedroom. Deda’s magnifying glass rested on a smooth white page, enlarging the tiny words for no one.

Scan 18

What is Happiness to You?

ScanA friend recently asked me why I never write about happy things. I wonder too. So I started to think about my memories of perfect happiness. And surprise, surprise, they were all quiet moments of reflection when a scene, a feeling, a thought or an experience was suddenly stamped into my consciousness, never to be forgotten.

The first imprint on my mind seems cosmic and invented, but to me it has always felt real: a man with a beard and kind eyes turning his palms up to me. They have holes in them, and he says, “Don’t worry. They don’t hurt at all.” He smiles, and I feel safe and loved.

Another is waking up as a tiny child on the sofa in my grandparents’ New Jersey apartment under a multi-colored patchwork blanket my Baba has crocheted. It’s a small apartment, a poor apartment, and they are refugees from Yugoslavia, but it is warm, and I can smell something sweet and yeasty baking in the kitchen. My Baba makes me eggs scrambled in brown butter, my Deda tells me a story in Serbo-Croatian, and I feel safe and loved.

I am ten years old, spending a year away from my parents and siblings to stay in France with my mother’s parents. They have a country house in Barie, a tiny village in the Gironde, and going there on weekends is what I love most about France. It is June. The sun is setting over the flat cornfields and beyond, over the Garonne river. I am sweeping the narrow back deck and stairs while the sky slowly turns orange and purple. I am sweeping and sweeping, sweeping myself into the future, as only a young romantic girl can, sweeping myself into the arms of my prince charming, into an imagined world of perfect love. I feel the ecstasy of being alive, safe and sure that great love awaits me just over the horizon.

Then I am on a train with my brand-new all-American, now ex-husband, speeding from Paris to Bordeaux and deep into the countryside to introduce him to my French grandparents. He is asleep on my shoulder. My nose presses against the window, and when I see the colors start to mellow into soft silvery greens, I feel an overwhelming gratefulness and happiness. I am bringing my beloved into my past so he can be a part of me. In this intimate union, I feel safe and loved.

It is July in Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains. My oldest son is almost seven, my daughter is almost five, and my newborn son is a month old. I am walking with my mother in a field of wild flowers. The baby is bundled against my chest, his small sweet-smelling head warm under my hand, and the two eldest are running and laughing and picking flowers. My daughter comes to me with a bouquet, and my son presents another to my mother. They are smiling, their faces glowing in the light of the summer sun, so beautiful, so young, so sweet. I think: this has to be a moment of perfect happiness. And I thank God for keeping us safe and loved.

Buying our first house and sitting on the front steps in the gloaming of an August day, thinking, this is really happening, as we hold hands and smile at each other, is as memorable as anything I have lived. Perhaps not feeling safe, but surely feeling loved.

Hiking all the way down Vail Mountain in Colorado with my ex-husband is an unforgettable memory of joy. Jumping across streams and bounding across fields of wildflowers and through groves of shimmering Aspens, and finally, finally, getting all the way down the mountain, then drinking the best beer in the world at an outdoor table, looking up at our conquest, delirious with fatigue yet as happy as children.

And then there was the first day I ever went camping with my new boyfriend and woke up in Utah under the most brilliant blue sky I had ever seen, with the scent of sweet pines and rich loam filling the air. It was a moment of pure ecstasy, a moment when the beauty of nature suddenly saturated me with love.

But for me, the one highest defining moment of happiness, the one space where nothing comes between me and the infinite joy of being, is lying next to someone I love and who loves me, encircled by warm arms, soothed by gentle hands, feeling beautiful and appreciated. For me, that is the ultimate happiness, the ultimate feeling of being safe and loved. And yet, sadly, those moments are always too few.

As I get older, I don’t take as much time to appreciate the life around me or feel thankful for moments of grace. I get too busy working and caring for others and rarely pause to register moments of happiness. Thank you, my friend, for nudging me to remember what makes me happy instead of dwelling on life’s inevitable suffering and disappointments.

When I think of those poor parents who lost their children in such a senseless school massacre, in a place where feeling safe and loved should be, and used to be, taken for granted, I wonder if the pain will erase their happy memories or if their happy memories will deepen the pain. I pray instead that the memories of the short time they were blessed to be with their children will sustain and comfort them as they grieve.

For in the end, memories are all we have, yet even those can be snatched away by trauma or disease. Treasure your happy memories this holiday season and pause, often, to appreciate the moments that give life meaning. Those are truly the gifts worth sharing.

Scan 3

Who Decides When It’s Time to Die?

 

Lily was 17, a lovely black-and-white American pit bull, wiser and gentler than any dog I have ever known. My son had owned Lily since he was a teenager, but as his drug problem had escalated, his sense of responsibility had evaporated.  He had been smart enough, however, to realize that Lily needed better care than he could give, and he had let his girlfriend take her. Now clean after ten long years, he was driving to his ex’s house to tell Lily he loved her before the vet sent her off to eternal sleep.

Kept in prime shape with a raw food diet and regular exercise, Lily had outlasted her breed’s average life span. Although it seemed she would live forever, despite her arthritis and her hearing loss, despite her cloudy eyes and her mottled fur, she finally succumbed to a kidney infection. Incontinent and unresponsive, she lay on the bed with her eyes closed and her tail limp. It was finally time to say good-bye.

When he arrived, my son cradled Lily’s head in his arms.  She opened her eyes and licked his hand. Her tail came up and thumped lightly against his leg. He picked her up like a baby and pressed his nose to hers. She licked him again.

The scent and touch of her first owner seemed to bring Lily back to life.  My son placed her gently on the floor, and she took a few wobbly steps. The vet was called and cancelled.

Lily was no longer ready to die. Today, she is still getting by, slowly, sometimes painfully, but clinging to life, wagging her tail and enjoying every caress that comes her way. Lily will die sometime soon, of course, but not yet, not quite yet. She still has love to give and people who love her, no matter how frail and old she is.

Ten years ago, the doctors told me my mother was going to die. When I got to the intensive care unit, they had stuck a tube down her throat and tied her tiny hands to the bed. Weak and shrunken to barely 80 pounds, she had still summoned the strength to try to break free from the tubes and lines that bound her. When she saw me, her sea-green eyes filled with tears and her face crumpled into a look of frantic pain, as if she were begging me to release her from torture.

The nurse gave her more morphine.

A team of social workers and nurses escorted my brother and me to a windowless conference room. “Your mother cannot survive,” they told us. “Her lungs and heart are shutting down.” They asked if we wanted them to keep her alive no matter what or refrain from resuscitating her should she start to fail.

We went out to the hall, a depressing dull beige hospital hallway, and wept.

Long ago, my mother had asked me to help her die when she could no longer take care of herself. I had promised, but I later realized that I could never actually “pull the plug.” Now she had been ill for at least three years due to a pulmonary embolism, leashed to an oxygen tank, in and out of hospitals — where, being French and a picky gourmet, she refused to touch their nasty food or sip their cloying Ensure or even drink their water, which she had always hated. To please her, we would smuggle in red wine, oysters and strawberries. No, my mother would not have wanted to be revived, would not have wanted to be a burden, would not have wanted to have us suffer because of her.

So my brother and I signed the “do not resuscitate” order. They removed all her tubes, unhooked the clicking and buzzing monitors, and wheeled her out of Intensive Care. They put her in a little room with a big red dot above the door, a dot that meant “let this patient die.”

But she didn’t die. She woke up, saw us standing by her bed and smiled a big happy smile. She reached for our hands. We kissed her and smoothed back her blonde hair. She called us by name. My mother wasn’t ready to die!

We went out into that hall again and wept under the big red dot.

Every day that I went through that door, the red dot seemed to glare at me. Meanwhile, my mother continued to improve. The nurses and doctors called her “our miracle girl.”

One day, as I was painting my mother’s toenails a brilliant blue and laughing at how silly they looked poking out from the sheets, a nurse walked in. My mother looked up at her with a smile and said, “You see, I’m so much better now that my daughter came.” She gripped my hand and looked up at me with the sweetest look of love and gratitude.

She was giving me credit for her recovery when in truth I had signed her death warrant.

My mother lived another two years, slipping slowly away yet always eager to see her loved ones. She said knowing what her children and grandchildren were doing kept her wanting to live. At the end, we moved her to a hospice, where she received the most loving care.

The last day I saw my mother alive, she told me I was beautiful even though she could hardly speak.  But soon her breathing grew ragged and her translucent green eyes were fixed on a faraway place, a place I couldn’t see. I held her hand and I kissed her and I whispered how much we loved her and what a great mother she had been.  When she was finally ready to die, she did.

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