Anyone who went through a powerful earthquake knows that the real after-tremors stay in our hearts for days, months, for years after the earthquake stops.
The tremors in my heart were not so much because I feared another earthquake, but because I feared my mother’s death. As she was getting weaker, I understood how much I depended on her. She was always there, even when I hated her, even when I performed acts of defiance just because she existed. What if she died? The doctors said she had a good chance, they had clean margins, but that’s what they said to most patients, and then they died!
After a year, she started to complain of chest pain and she was hospitalized for tests. The tests showed she was just fine. The doctor treating her, took me aside and after I put in a corner of his office the customary Kent cigarettes and whiskey, which he pretended to not observe, he assured me my mother was fine. It was all in her head! Fear! Psychological! Just fear, no real pain! It seemed strange, I said, my mother was a life-long sufferer of migraine headaches and a medical doctor herself… She knew pain when she had pain…
He looked at his watch and without a word, guided me, pushed me out of his office. My time was up, didn’t I get it? The bribes bought me five minutes with the doctor who assured me Mom was fine, just a little crazy, imagining pain! I should been grateful, others didn’t have this chance! The capitalists from the Embassy gave me the chance to even speak with the doctor by buying things for me to bribe him. The more I knew ” the capitalists” the more onfusion grew vaguely but steadily in my heart … What was the truth? Where they nice or where they bad, as I had learned for years in school? But at the time, in all honesty, the thought of truth and capitalists didn’t linger long in my mind. It was just a seed at the time, in the back of my mind. For the moment, what mattered was that they were helping me keep my mother alive. Perhaps, somewhere, there were the bad ones described in our social studies books, but I didn’t know them personally. My capitalist friends were good and cared and they showed it by their deeds!
The following day after the doctor assured me my mother was crazy and she had no real pain, as soon as I arrived at the Embassy, the Hospital called.
“Come at the hospital immediately,” a voice who didn’t identify herself shouted in the phone. “She paralized overnight and we are moving her to a different hospital, now that the disease clearly progressed she doesn’t belong in our hospital!”
“No, you must be wrong, could you please check, just yesterday her doctor told me…”
She hang up!
I took a cab and arrived at the hospital in time to see my mother on a stretcher being placed into an Ambulance. I asked for the doctor, I demanded an explanation. I was indignant! He told me she was fine, it was in her head, and now it’s in her bones! She wasn’t crazy, he was negligent or incompetent!
Nobody paid attention to me, so I screamed for a while until a nurse asked:
“We are ready to transfer her, are you going in the Ambulance?”
Where were they taking us, her? What hospital? The driver told me she needed to be transfered quickly because if she died in their hospital the statistics looked bad for the hospital, too many dead people.. that’s why they rushed to transfer her, so she’d die somewhere else. He said, the other hospital would want to get rid of her too and send her home. No hospital wanted to have too many dead people on their books! It looked bad.
Dead? She wasn’t dead? She was going to be fine? The driver was an idiot!
We took her back to the Cancer Hospital, the only which would accept her in that advanced stage. I felt a little calmer. They were the specialists, they knew better.
The driver left the ambulance and went inside the Cancer Hospital with some papers that needed to be signed.
He turned off the engine and it was cold in that early February morning, so cold that there was still snow on the ground.
“Lady, you got to get out of my ambulance. I have another job.” The driver said upon return with the signed papers. His job was officially done.
” How am I going to move my mother? She is on a stretcher, she needs to be inside, it’s cold…”
He shrug his shoulders:
“Miss, I need to go, got to move her out somehow! I can’t help you, that’s not my job.”
I ran inside the hospital and tried to articulate the problem but no one seem to care:
“We have no one to carry the stretcher inside at the moment, you’ll have to wait!”
But she is paralized, it is cold, she will freeze…
I had a surreal feeling that I was on a scene, I was the actress delivering a monologue… but only I paid attention to it, no one else cared! The people running around were just puppets with no real feelings, no souls! Why was I even speaking to them?
I went outside. The driver somehow managed to move my mother from the stretcher, which belonged to his ambulance, and placed her on a bench. She was covered with a thin, grey blanket and her face disappeared in the greyness of the blanket.
The Ambulance left and I touched my mom’s frozen hands. They felt stiff. She felt stiff, but I knew she wasn’t because going down her cheeks, were big, warm tears. Dead people don’t dry!
A few yards away from the bench I saw two workers moving snow.
“Hei, you, would you like to make some money?”
They looked at each other, dropped their tools and walked towards me slowly.
“What do you have to do? How much?”
One of them spit to the left and made the sign of the cross, to chase away any possible evil spirits.
“Just take my mother inside the waiting room of the hospital, she is sick, she’ll die of cold.”
The other worker came closer and examined her:
“She is not dead already, is she? If she is dead we’ll charge more because we don’t want to touch dead bodies, you know, it’s bad luck!”
No, no, she was just frozen, I assured them, and pointed to her tears.
I paid them what they wanted and they made the sign of the cross a few more times to protect themselves in case she was dead. At last they carried her inside.
The warmth of the waiting room enveloped us and I asked the workers to propt my mom in a large chair.
“How did you get her in? We didn’t have professionals available to carry her in.” The receptionist said, still filing her nails.
“The two workers did. “I said.
She lifted her eyes and stopped filing her nails:
“Well, this is illegal! We must take her outside until we can bring her in…”
“Illegal? What is illegal? That you let dying people freeze outside, that’s illegal! YOU are illegal and with no soul…”
“What’s going on?”
A man in a white coat showed up. He must have been important. She explained and I shouted and threatened. Other patients got involved and the chaos grew.
Well, she was in, he concluded, we’ll admit her ow.
My mother was in that hospital for a short time and just as the ambulance driver predicted, when nothing could be done and it had become clear she was going to die, they wanted to discharge her.
We hired a woman to stay with her around the clock. The arrangement was that after mom’s death, in addition to what I was paying her weekly she’ll get everything of my mother’s: clothes, furniture, everything. It was a good deal for all of us.
Maria took good care of my mother, and she made me stop smoking, but didn’t know it. Maria didn’t know how to read or write but she was smart and had a heart of gold. As stress mounted in my life, as almost all Romanians in those years, I started to smoke to disipate the stress. I was smoking and coughing, and smoking again, stubbrnly denying I was making myself sick and spending money to kill myself. It was in the mist of this coughs when Maria said:
“Miss Rodica, you cough so ugly, like a gipsey!”
“Oh, how dare she say that… the nerve to compare me to a gipsey! She who couldn’t even read or write! In Romania gipseys had the reputation of puting spells on people, stealing. No I definitely did not want to be a gipsey! Beside, even a simple woman, like Maria was smarter than me! I didn’t want to be judged by someone who couldn’t write or be like a gipsey! It was definitely the social status I aspired for my life!
I stopped smoking!
My mother had good days and bad days, and very bad days when she was in so much pain she wanted it to be all over. Then, the spirit in her fought again and she wanted to live. It was a roller coaster of wishes of life and death and I was on it, right there, holding my mother.
In one of the fewer and fewer lucid moments she asked to be cremated and since she didn’t believe in God, she asked for no religious services. After a few months, mom when into a coma.
I knew the end was near and started having second thoughts on the religious services… what if she went to Hell? What if there was a God and a Heaven and a Hell? May be mom didn’t really know it all, she was just angry. May be for once I should save her soul and just in case there was a God, a Heaven and Hell… just in case, I asked an Orthodox Priest to come and absolve her of her sins. Not that she had any particular sins, but that was the custom, someone dying had to be absolved of their sins by a Priest.
There weren’t many priests in communist Romania and rumors had it the few allowed to practice religion were also cooperating with the Romanian security. I found a Priest in the small church across my parents apartment. I loved that church because when someone died their families served everyone coliva, a special food given in the memory of the souls of the deceased people. As a child, I ate a lot of coliva, and my mother didn’t even know it. Yes, I was going to make one for her soul which will be in Heaven, I thought.
The Priest was tall and bearded. He was clothed in a black outfit, including the special tubular hat. First he told me the price for the religious service he was going to perform for my mother. I handed him the money first and he went into her room.
The chantes, the smell of “tamiie” the ritual of absolving her of all her earthy sins.
All throughout the ritual my mother remained unconscious. Her eyes closed, her breathing heavy…she was in a coma. People don’t recover from comas, they die…
As the Priest was chanting felt lighter, peaceful. I knew I did the right thing disobeying her for once! I saved her soul.
The ritual lasted about ten minutes and then, the The Priest left in a rush to save another soul.
I went back and sat next to my mother, on the edge of her bed. I took her limp hand into mine and tried to warm it up.
So much silence… but suddenly, I heard my mother’s strong voice like a thounder :
“Why did you bring a Priest in MY house? I told you not to! He took your money didn’t he? It’s all about money, it’s a business. There is no God. They give idiots like you hope!”
Then, exhausted, her head collapsed back on her pillow and her big, brown eyes looked streight at me one more time:
“Don’t you understand? There is NO God. If it were, my life would have been different!”
It was over. She was dead, true to her belief until her last breath. Nothing scarred my mother, pain, cancer, beatings, alcoholism. She remained true to her scientific principles: There is Nothing after death! Gone! No souls, no Hell, no Heaven, just dirt.
I thought this alternative was sad. I didn’t want it to be true, but she was right, it was a business…the business of hope!
I wish her passing and the last statement she made, so passionate, so convincing so powerful made me believe there was no God, but it didn’t.
As I go through life, crushed under the load of senseless tragedies and witnessing violence, hunger, hatred, I keep asking myself, where is GOD?
God must be somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet!