Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the category “Kindness”

True Love

IMG_4657Sometimes when I watch movies or read novels or remember people I have known or even just observe people around me, I wonder if any couple ever experiences true love. I don’t mean young love, lust love, friendship love, family love, or any other kind of love that may or may not endure. No, I mean the kind of lasting love that truly embodies for better or for worse, the kind of love that elicits a smile whenever the beloved appears, the kind of love that makes one want to please the beloved and take away his or her pain, the kind of love that makes days away from the beloved achingly empty, the kind of love where one cherishes the very essence of the beloved no matter what time or misfortune or illness may have done to transform them. That kind of love. True love.

My aunt and uncle, Billy and Al Nikitovitch-Winer, are the only persons I know who share true love.  (If you know other couples who do, please tell me about them. Perhaps we can start a #truelove chain to dissolve some of the hate that surrounds us.)  Even though Billy and Al are in their early nineties, and Al has dementia, they seem to float on a sacred river of past and present love. When I visited them in July, after Billy had been hospitalized for a sudden collapse, what I observed made me marvel that love, even at the end of one’s days, can be so powerful.

Because he has always been a kind and gentle man, Uncle Al’s dementia elicits no anger or agitation in him, just a befuddled sweetness and apologetic forgetfulness touched by humor. And because Billy truly loves him, and has for more than 65 years, she treats him with the same respect and genuine solicitude she always has, whether or not he responds, understands or remembers.

When I first arrived in Lexington, Kentucky, frustrated after hours lost in a maze of dark, unfamiliar streets, they were waiting for me together, smiling and happy despite their recent ordeal. I left my heavy suitcase in the hall, and Billy told Al to please not carry it upstairs alone lest he hurt his back. But after she went to bed, he came into the kitchen where I was relaxing with a cup of tea and whispered, “I brought up your suitcase, dear.” When I protested, he said, “Don’t worry about me! It’s good for my muscles!” He flexed his skinny biceps and smiled that shy, ever-so-gentle smile I love so much.

In the morning, I accompanied Uncle Al on a short walk around the neighborhood while Billy slept and recuperated. It was easy to forget he had dementia of any sort as he chatted about this children and grandchildren, how many marathons he had run, how much he had loved teaching bio-chemistry at the University of Kentucky, and, most of all, how very remarkable his wife was. He stumbled a bit, and as I steadied him, he laughed and said, “Don’t worry, dear. If I fall down, just leave me there. They’ll pick me up with the trash!” He laughed, and I laughed along with him. That touch of black humor is what gives his dementia a spark of welcome awareness, one impossible not to notice and treasure.

Uncle Al’s dementia is not typical in many ways. He displays no anger, no restless despair, no extreme moodiness, just a constant smile, a cheerful countenance and a generosity of gesture rarely seen in anyone these days. We were resting on a bench in front of the house under the shade of an oak tree, savoring a bit of respite from the summer heat, when I mentioned their recent ordeal. He had slept on a cot next to Billy in the Intensive Care Unit and stayed with her until she was released the next afternoon after almost two days in the hospital. He didn’t remember any of it. “Really?” he asked. “I hope she’s okay. I better go in and check on her.” I realized in that instant that Uncle Al had answered all my questions and prompts with appropriate responses, whether or not he knew what to say or understood the context. It was as though every molecule in his body was designed for one purpose: to please.

Most mornings, after our little walks, Al would go to the kitchen and start to pour himself a bowl of Special K. I would remind him that we had had breakfast together earlier, and he would laugh softly. “Well, all right then!” His lingering smile held a sly acknowledgement of his memory loss. “So what,” he seemed to be saying. “I’m still here. I’m still smiling. Thank you for smiling with me.”

When he wasn’t talking, Al hummed to himself constantly, not a hum with a tune, just a “mm, mm” up and then a “mm, mm” down. Two hums up, two hums down, up and down, up and down, just under his breath. It soothed him in some way. Not being a saint on any level, I found it irritating at times, then felt disappointed with myself for being so easily irked by something so benign. How dare I let myself be irritated by someone I loved, someone who personified kindness?

Is being happy and kind with little memory of the past the same as living in the moment? The past is not completely erased for Al, just blurred around the edges. When he can’t remember something, he turns to Billy. “Memory is overrated,” he says. “Besides, I don’t need to remember everything. I have Billy for that.”

What cannot be erased is the love Al feels for Billy.  He loves his wife with every look, every word and every gesture. He can no longer make her breakfast or dole out her vitamins or do much around the house to help her.  He could not remember that she had been ill just days before and that they had been in the hospital together.  But when we went for drives, he remembered to open the car door for her and help her reach her seat belt. And when we walked together in the park, he remembered to cradle her arm in his or hold her hand as if she were the most precious of women.

Every morning, according to Billy, if she has woken up as early as Al has, he has looked into her green eyes as if she were a goddess and said, “Good morning, lovely. You look so beautiful today!”

Uncle Al may sometimes forget my name when he sees me, but he never forgets to greet me with a smile and a kiss. He calls me “dear one” and tells me how “marvelous” I look.  His essence as a gentleman and the kindest of souls has survived the ravages of his disease.

Billy is not irritated by Al’s humming or anything else he does or doesn’t do. She is sweet, patient, laughing, kidding, but never visibly annoyed. He may go out three times to get the mail. He may forget to turn off the garden hose until a small stream cascades down the driveway. He may disappear inexplicably right before dinner, leave five pairs of shoes by the door, wear the same torn Honolulu marathon t-shirt three days in a row, and hide things he finds in the most random places, yet she never raises her voice, speaks to him with condescension or expresses the slightest exasperation.

In reality, although she rarely shows it, Billy feels a deep sadness as the facets of Al’s intellect and personality disappear one by one. Who knows the extent of her sorrow or the heaviness of her burden caring for a man slowly reverting to childlike dependence?  Physically, she is the weaker one, the one in constant pain from arthritis and the cumulative effects of severe scoliosis, but one would never know it. She watches him fade away, bit by bit, until I imagine all that will be left of him are a small smile and a huge heart beating for his beloved.

Although Billy is not afraid of dying, she is afraid of dying first and leaving Al alone. Who will love him and care for him the way she does? She is his everything, his touchstone, his reason for living. But if she dies first, who will be there to love and cherish and admire and respect her the way every woman wishes someone would, in sickness and in health, until the final parting?  In this case, love has triumphed over dementia, untrammeled by memory loss, resplendent in its moment by moment renewal.

I can only hope that Billy and Al will die together the way they have lived together for so long: in true love.

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Stay Strong

Her name is Barbara, but she prefers to be called Bee. I see her at the gym, always with a smile on her face and a glow in her round chestnut eyes. She wears beige orthopedic shoes, black weight-lifting gloves, and matching polyester outfits in bright solid colors. When she sees someone working out on a machine or with weights, she ambles over, raises a tiny fist and says, “Stay strong!”

Bee is a cheerleader for anyone who needs cheering, including me. Most people she greets smile back and say thank you. A very few look embarrassed or annoyed. Who is this old lady smiling and talking as if she knew them? Is she crazy or senile?

No, Bee is neither crazy nor senile. More likely, she’s an angel of some sort, put on this earth to bring joy to others. I talk to her whenever I can, just to feel her goodness streaming toward me. Maybe it will penetrate somehow, and raise my own positive energy. Maybe I can absorb some of her simple essence and become a kinder person.

I believe in miracles.

Bee has translucent rosy skin with nary a wrinkle, and white hair in flat waves circling her small round head. She may not have a halo, but she looks like an angel to me.

When I haven’t seen her for a while, I get panicky. Angels can’t die! I need my angels! I have my dream angels, my mom, my dad, my brother, my grandparents, but Bee is right in front of me, alive with love. My spirits lift and my heart warms when I see her. She is like a happy pill, a gratitude pill, a determination pill, an excitement pill, and she doesn’t even know it. If I told her, she would laugh.

“Oh,” she’ll remark. “I’m glad you’re wearing blue today. You look so lovely in colors.” Suddenly, I feel pretty again. My angel has touched me.

If I don’t feel like working out, which is often these days, I will sometimes go to the gym just in case Bee is there. I need her like a dose of sugary optimism, especially during the holidays. My father died right after Christmas two years ago; my mother died in January almost fourteen years ago; and my first marriage crumbled during a last holiday hurrah . Succumbing to the tension of loss and longing, of expectation and disappointment, I sometimes feel I haven’t done enough, given enough, pleased enough, accomplished enough. My life can seem like a long series of failures.

Then I see Bee, smiling and waving from across the room. Floating on her tiny feet, she approaches and says, “This gym is the best playground in town!” For me, right then, it is the best playground in the world. With her sweet joyous smile, Bee has banished doubt and despair and restored my gratitude for life, just by being her kind self.

Around her neck hangs a long chain with a fat gold ring, a ring she sometimes rubs gently as if summoning a genie. I finally got the nerve to ask her about it. It was her husband’s wedding ring, she told me, her husband who died a long time ago.

“Was he a good husband?”

She tilts her head and looks so directly into my eyes that I feel a beam of light entering me. “He was the very best husband in the world,” she says. “The very best man.” The love in those words makes everything around us seem to pulsate.

Perhaps if we looked more closely, spoke more warmly, opened our hearts more easily, we would see living angels all around us, angels who might wake us from our dull sleep and show us the love that is always present for the giving and taking. I’m lucky I have had Bee to remind me that it is how we leave others feeling that matters most. Maybe some day that knowledge will become my constant star even without her shining example.

Soon the days will get longer and spring will revive us with its sudden bounty of life and beauty. But for now, with the holidays upon us and the world in seeming chaos, I can only borrow Bee’s words and hope their blessing works for you.

Stay strong!

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.

 

 

 

 

The Ripple of Random Kindness: A Story About my Father, Pavlé Nikitovich

The Ripple of Random Kindness: A Story About my Father, Pavlé Nikitovich.

The Ripple of Random Kindness: A Story About my Father, Pavlé Nikitovich

 

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Many years ago, Pavlé Nikitovich, my father, saved four Frenchman he had never met before from a Russian death squad. It was a random act of kindness, perhaps a foolhardy act of heroism, but an act that rippled down through time and saved generations of unborn children.

 

As World War II drew to a close, the Soviets invaded Yugoslavia, which had already endured three years of brutal German occupation. After a two-day battle, the Soviets took Belgrade and soon drafted all able-bodied Yugoslav men into the Communist army. Just nineteen, my father walked the docks of Belgrade’s port on the Danube with the other recruits and watched as the Soviets forced the Germans, now prisoners-of-war, to unload Russian ships arriving from the Black Sea.

 

Sometimes the Soviet soldiers would pass around a bottle of vodka and play a macabre little game. They would force the German prisoners to walk up the plank to one of the ships while they took turns shooting. The officers cheered when one of them managed to hit a German in the head on his first try. As the body hit the water, the soldiers would laugh and toast the winner with another shot of vodka.

 

When a new batch of prisoners arrived, the Russian Communists would select the prisoners who had been there the longest and send them off to the firing squad in order to make room for their replacements.

 

My father had already witnessed what happened to German prisoners-of-war. On the day the Soviets marched into Belgrade, he watched from the window of his family’s apartment as more than 300 vanquished Germans walked up to a table where a Soviet soldier armed with a Kalashnikov stood above them and shot them one-by-one through the head. When the pile of dead bodies grew too big, the Russians would move the table. The Communist soldiers, wearing red armbands, then ordered a dozen young local men, including my father, to pick up the dead bodies and throw them into trenches in front of the church. In groups of four, they lifted the cadavers by the arms and legs and dumped them into the trenches, ignoring the brains spilling from shattered skulls and the blood gushing onto their hands and shoes.

 

But what my father remembered most clearly were the pictures and letters sliding from the left-side pockets of the dead soldiers’ uniforms when the bodies bounced and shifted, mementos placed on their hearts to remind them of love and give them courage as they bravely walked to their deaths. My father understood then that the German soldiers were just young men like him, obeying the orders of one dictator only to be murdered by the orders of another. There were no longer good guys and bad guys in those confusing post-war days, merely one horror following another.

 

It was before a scheduled execution day in October of 1944 that a young man in a German uniform approached my father and asked him if he spoke French. Why he asked Pavlé and not one of the other Yugoslav guards is a mystery. Perhaps he had tried others only to receive a blank stare in response. In any case, this was his lucky day. My father spoke fluent French.

 

Pavlé listened as the man, Pierre Ambiehl, explained that he and his three buddies were French, not German, and had been drafted into the German army after the Nazis occupied and annexed the French province of Alsace. Taken prisoners by the Soviets, they ended up on the docks of Belgrade awaiting death by firing squad. Since none of them spoke Russian, they had no way of telling the Soviets they were French, and thus allies, not enemies. They were scheduled to die the very next day, and Pierre pleaded for Pavlé to help them.

 

Vowing to try, my father went to a Russian soldier he had befriended and told him about the Frenchmen’s plight. The Russian said that since the four had fought with the Germans against his countrymen, they deserved to die. But Pavlé somehow managed to persuade him to ask his Soviet superiors to delay their execution by a few days.

 

Then he did what only the young, the fearless and arguably the foolish would do. He snuck out of the military zone with the French identity cards of all four men and walked to the French embassy, where General Charles de Gaulle had established a delegation.

 

The next morning, two French officials came to the port with all the necessary documents to free the Frenchmen. Right before they left, one of the embassy envoys had the foresight to take a photo of the four liberated friends flanking their hero, my father, a handsome young man with a dark mustache and a hesitant smile.

 

Pierre Ambiehl kept that photo for sixty-five years, knowing only the name of the young man in the middle, Pavlé Nikitovich. Now 84, Pierre asked his son André if he would help him fulfill his dream: to find the hero who had saved his life so he could thank him.

 

As serendipity would have it, André had worked at the Peugeot factory in Alsace for many years alongside his Serbian friend, Stanko Yotsitch, who subsequently moved back to Serbia. He asked Yotsitch to help him in his search. Yotstich told the story to journalist Mirko Prelevitch, who then wrote about it in Belgrade’s “Novosti” newspaper, asking readers to contact him if they knew what had happened to Pavlé Nikitovich, the man in the photograph.

 

Meanwhile, a few months after the Frenchmen were freed, my father and his sister managed to obtain fake documents and escape, first to Italy, then to France, and eventually to the United States. After a few false leads, and a little help from Google, Prelevitch finally found a Paul Nikitovich living in Englewood, Colorado. When my father received Prelevitch’s call and heard the story, he was stunned. While Pierre Ambiehl had lived with the memory his whole life, my father had forgotten the incident until that moment. His brave and generous gesture had truly been a random act of kindness, the kind that changes lives forever, even though at the time it had not registered as heroism to a young man who was merely following his human instinct to help those in need.

 

The story doesn’t end there. André Ambiehl invited my father to come visit the family in Alsace. He flew to France, and on October 27, 2010, attended a special ceremony for World War II veterans in Ensisiem, Alsace. Pavlé Nikitovich and Pierre Ambiehl were the guests of honor, two men whose destinies had crossed decades before and sent ripples into a future that would not have been possible otherwise.

 

My father recently celebrated his 89th birthday. André and his wife have visited him in Colorado several times, and he speaks to them and Pierre often. By choosing to help a stranger, Pavlé Nikitovich left a legacy of life, love, respect and gratitude. And he did it neither for personal gain nor to show off nor to curry favor with his captors. He did it because he is just that kind of man.

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Natalie Breuer

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mfourlbyhfourepoetry

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