” I have breast cancer, I am going into the hospital for a mastectomy tomorrow.” My mother announced, as we still waived goodbye at the airport, to Cristian, who was going on a business trip to Japan.
There were engine noises mixed with the laughter and cries of happiness of the crowds on the airport. I must have imagined, I thought at first, I heard her wrong.
“What did you just say?”
“I have cancer. I didn’t want to tell you before Cristian left. I know how hard it was to get a Romanian passport and travel abroad. I didn’t want him to postpone his trip because of my surgery!”
I wasn’t imagining, she was telling me that she protected Cristian.
After my marriage and my moving out of my parents apartment, the situation worsened. A few years earlier, after one of his routine visits to the corner bar and imaginary fights with his enemies, my father, took a hot bath. Only that this time he never came out of it. He had a stroke while in the bath tub. My mother called an ambulance and he was taken to a hospital. He survived, but his brain was affected by the stroke. He became even more violent than before, more paranoid. My mother could not leave him alone any more as one time he went out in the stret completely naked. He believed everyone wanted to kill him and slept with a sharp knife under his pillow. My mother had no choice but to put him in a special nursing home, where he was supervised. This is where he was at the time my mother casually announced she had cancer.
“How long did you know?” I asked
“A few months, but the timing was wrong. Your father needed to be taken care of, and Cristian’s trip…”
Now, now that she and I were alone was the right time. I was speechless and swollowed my tears. I swollowed my anger too.
The following day I took her to the Oncological Institute, where the surgery was to take place. The doctors were all nice and I knew the few extra cartons of Kent cigarettes and Whiskey, available only in the prohibited for natives dollar store, helped the smiles to be more real, the care better. It was, after all a common practice to give the doctors personal “attentions” They were so poorly paid by the government and needed extra incentives to be nice. Depending on these “attention” your loved one was, or was not properly treated. I was lucky, my mother was, since I had access to these extras, through the capitalists for whom I worked. By then, after the Ludingtons departure, Dick had found me a job at the US Embassy. Yes, I was very lucky to be working for the imperialists and take advantage of their generosity! I figured, the ones we learned about in our social studies class, the exploiters of the working class must have been somewhere else, not in the U.S Embassy in Bucharest.
The Cancer Institute was located in a gray, large building which brought to my mind the word “depression” a citadel of pain, dispair and death. There was a specific smell everywhere in the hospital, of medicine, desinfectant and deteriorating human flesh, It was a smell so powerful that I continued to carry it in me for many years, as a curse, as a constant reminder of our own vulnerability.
I spend the evening before her surgery with her at the hospital. We didn’t talk much. I just looked at her trying to memorize her features, her smile the way she moved and talked. The word death was chased from my mind, but kept coming back. Then, the anger, why us? Why my mother?
I was the last visitor to leave the hospital. At home, only our dog, Perla, was waiting for me faithfully. Perla, a small black pekineze which was my first purchase as a married woman. She represented another act of rebellion against my childhood, when I wasn’t allowed pets. I remembered how my mother gave me money to buy a bed, but on the way to the store, we saw a drunken man and Perla. He was cursing at her, saying she belonged to his wife who had left him and Perla was to small to breed and he was going to kill her.
“How much is she? Would you sell her?”
The drunk was drunk but not drunk enough to not recoginse a good deal when he saw one, or a fool..
I was going to buy a bed, ” I said, money in my hand..
“What do you have there,” he asked.
“500 lei” I said.
“Well I was going to sell her for 600 but if that’s all you have..”
I handed him the money, and he handed me Perla.
We parted ways, and never saw each other again. Perla was shaking, as if expecting something bad to happen but after a few weeks she became calm and friendly.
“What kind of bed did you buy?” my mother asked.
“No bed, I saved a dog!”
“A dog? How much did you pay for the dog?”
“I got a deal, mom, she was 600 and I paid 500!”
“Oh, he fooled you! You are an idiot! And didn’t you know better, dogs have germs, now you will get sick!”
Mom didn’t offer money to buy a new bed and it took us a year of sleeping on the floor, with Perla, but I do not regret it. She brightened my life for many years and her germs didn’t kill me.
Perla, she was the only soul waiting for me in the empty apartment, that night after I left the hospital and I cuddled with her, imagining where was my husband? What would he have done if he know mom had cancer? I felt asleep holding her and dreaming it will all work out.
The following day, my mother’s surgery was early and in late afternoon, when she stabilized the doctors told me to go home and rest, but I was restless.
Instead, I met a friend from the Embassy and together we went to Scala, a famous bakery in center city. We ate our favorite cakes, two each, or at least I did.
“Let’s go to the theatre.” Olivia said.
We didn’t know what was playing at the Gradina Icoanei, not far from the Scala bakery, but who cared? I just didn’t want to be alone.
The play was something about an army and lots of soldiers marching on and off the stage while some actors shouted slogans.
In the middle of the play, as more soldiers marched on, the theatre started to shake…
“Do you feel your chair shaking?” Olivia asked.
“Relax,” I said. ” It’s the actors, marching!”
I didn’t get to finish my explanation, because lamps, decor, furniture started to pile up everywhere, on top of the actors, on us the spectators, blocking the entrance! No, it was not a special effect, it was real!
“Earthquake!” someone shouted.
We all crowded towards the entrance trying to get out. People stepped on people, some were punching others who dared try to go out ahead of them.
We finally made it out, on the loan in the Icoanei Park in front of Bulandra Theatre.
I heard a roaring, the sound of breaking loose mother nature. It got stronger and stronger, it enveloped us, it subdued us in an unfair fight in which we had no chance to win! We were helpless!
“Don’t panic, don’t panic, there is no reason to panic!” A voice shouted in the darkness.
It was calming to hear him, it was Florin Piersic, one of Romania’s most beloved actors.
Oh, but yes, we did panic, when we noticed the ground with huge cracks around us, and bricks falling off the buildings and people bleeding, and others faint. And then, there was the dust everywhere, suffocating me, I could taste its rough consistency, I could feel it going down my throat and could not spit it!
Olivia and I looked at each other: The dust, the roars, the screams, the cracks in the ground around us, it didn’t matter, we were ALIVE! Even our bruises felt good.
We sat on the grass, in the park, close to where a few days before a giptsy told me I was going to live a long life. I looked at the starry sky. It looked calm and indifferent. The Universe didn’t notice our tragedy. The sky was dark and calm, with beautiful stars flickering as if saying: we are beautiful, we are far, you are on your won! I envied the stars for being so far and so indifferent to our earthly sorrows.
I suddenly remembered my mother! How could I have forgotten? I rushed to a public phone at the corner, but all circuits were cut off.
The Embassy where we worked was a few blocks away from the theatre. They must have a phone working, I thought, and I could call the hospital.
We walked, then we ran faster and faster, on our way to the Embassy. We passed buildings in ruin, stepped on debris and heard people moaning from under the fallen bricks. There were people buried under the ruins. Alive people who didn’t make it like we did and we couldn’t help them, we were running, running away from this nightmare! Oh, was my mother alive? I had to find out! That was all I could think about!
How long was it since this happened? Hours, minutes? I lifted my eyes and saw a clock in a broken shop window. Its hands stopped at 9:25 P.M. the time of the earthquake…
We made it to the Embassy around 11:00 PM and joined a crowd of other co-workers and diplomats trying to find out what was happening. Experts told us to stay outside because of the danger of after-quake tremors.
There was no phone available and I decided to run to the Cancer Hospital, to run ten miles and find out what happened to my mother.
I ran down Balcescu Boulevard. The beauitful ” Little Paris of the Balkans,” as Bucharest was called, was now a thing of the past! All around me ruins, people screaming, dust, fires. This was how I imagined The Inferno! I was in it! Scala bakery, where we enjoyed the cakes before going to the theater had collapsed! Oh! it could have been us, still in the bakery! I thought. We could have been dead!
I kept running, until, at last, I saw in the distance the Cancer Hospital. The gray, unfriendly building of a few days ago had miraculosly turned into a castle of hope. The fact that it was standing, turned it from a shelter of despair, pain and death, into a citadel of hope and expectations.
The hospital guard let me in, a little surprised and gave me a candle. He lead the way to my mother’s intensive care unit.
“Mother? Are you okay? I whispered. She seemed asleep and looked peaceful.
She didn’t answer or moved…
What if she were dead, I thought. I touched her. She seemed cold. I touched her firmly and still no response. I shook her:
“Mom, mom, say something!”
She opened her eyes and her look was blank, no emotions, no fear, no love…nothing. Two dark holes staring at me.
“Why are you here?” “What time is it?”
“Mom, there was a terrible earthquake, they say a 7.5 on Richter scale, hundreds of people died, others are buried under ruins… I came to make sure you are all right…”
“What earthquake? There was no earthquake here, you should go home and go to sleep, go home!” She closed her eyes and went back to the beautiful dream I interrupted with the nightmare of an Earthquake!
I left, but instead of going home, I went back to the Embassy. By now we had permission to go inside the Embassy but few dared. I didn’t care, I wasn’t afraid, I only needed to get my dog, Perla. If they allowed Perla inside the Embassy I could stay there day and night, help, operate the international switchboard.
I went to my apartment to get Perla. I opened the door with difficulty. The door was blocked my fallen furniture. The walls were cracked , my grandmother’s crystals and porcelain plates, shattered allover. Almost nothing was left whole of our material accumulations of eight years of marriage. And now, what? I thought. We will start from the beginning to accumulate “things”? No, not me, I decided in that moment, looking at my devastated material world. The lesson which begun years before, on the New Year’s Eve of 1965 resonated in me… yes, for sure I have to carry my home in my heart, the only safe place.
The following ten days were hectic. I moved into the Embassy and Perla and I slept at night under my desk, on a blanket. People were calling from everywhere. Some from the United States. They wanted to know if their children, still in Romania, were alive… Sometimes they were, sometimes not. How do you tell a parent their child is dead? How do you?
And yet, in those moments of extrem stress and need for action we did thinks, we just did what was necessary to help others and survive. Later, some of us received an Award from President Ford for operating the international telephone lines between the United States and Romania under exceptional circumstances. He even visited Romania and shook our hand!
After two weeks of madness, things calmed down enough for me to wonder what happened to my husband in Japan. He never called, not once! Could it be the news of the 7.5 on Richter scale earthquake didn’t get to him? Was he unable to call? Everyone seemed to get through. The crisis was over.
About two weeks after the earthquake, the Embassy’s telephone rang and it was him, my husband! I burst into tears when I heard his voice and in between sobbs I told him about my mother’s surgery and cancer, about how we barely made it during the Earthquake, about those less fortunate, about our city in ruin and our apartment.
“But now everything is okay?” he said.
Okay? It was never going to be okay, what was he talking about?
“The cirsis is over, but we will never be the same,” I said. ” When are you coming home? Can you shorten your stay by a few days? I really, really feel lonely and scared, I need you!”
Silence. Were we disconnected…
“You said the danger is over… I was calling to let you know I will extend my trip by a week. You know, being in Japan is a unique opportunity. Who knows when or if I ever get here. I have some vacation days left, I will take them now and go sightseeing. You understand, right? There is nothing I could do to help you in Bucharest. ”
He wasn’t asking me, he was telling me.
I hang up. I couldn’t say yes, or no to the stranger calling from Japan. This person was not the man I married at eighteen, in secret.
Strangely, from that moment I no longer felt lonely, or needy, but strong and determined to never rely on someone else to complete me. I had learned in that moment that who helped me, who really completed me could only be myself. The rest was an illusion!
In that moment of extreme need, fear and pain I stood alone!
The March 4, 1977, 7.5 Earthquake on Richter scale, which shook Bucharest, shattered and buried under its ruins my first love. For me, it wasn’t a body that died in the earthquake, but my first love.