"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


Requiem for My Parents

Requiem for My Parents

I feel like I buried Dad twice. The first time was when I brought him to a nursing home. 

“Now you should take care of your mother,” Dad said while I drove.

“Why don’t you answer me?” He asked after a pause.

I was choked with tears; I could not even hug him. I just took his hand in mine and kept steering the wheel with the other hand until the next turn. 

***

Dad had a quadruple bypass two years ago. Then he got stomach cancer, and it was surgically removed. Dad got stronger and even started walking outside. We felt relieved. Then he lost his appetite. At first, it seemed like a whim: Dad always liked to eat. Mom cooked anything he asked for, and yet he ate less and less. Then he agreed only to liquid food. Then he refused to eat at all. Doctors shrugged. 

Mom and I screamed at him, hoping he would pick up his will to overcome the disease. Mom was desperate; she fed him like a baby: “Take another spoon, yet another spoon; do it for me!” Sometimes my daughter managed to convince him to eat a little. She was the last one who could make him smile.

Dad got weaker and weaker; he slept almost all the time. At some point, he could not stand up anymore. I would go to my parents at night to bring Dad to the bathroom before putting him to bed. He hid his face in my chest when I lifted him from the toilet. Once he kissed my hand. I did not scream at him after that. When he developed incontinence, Mom could not take care of him anymore; she was eighty at the time. 

***

Dad spent five weeks in the nursing home before he died. Mom said she wanted to lie beside him one day, and I bought two plots in a Jewish cemetery. On the funeral day, a few of our relatives and my parents’ neighbors gathered in a funeral home. The rabbi said some nice things about Dad that I had told him a day earlier. Then we drove to the cemetery.

The rabbi said a short prayer. Then the cemetery workers put the casket into the grave. 

“Papa, that’s all?” my sobbing daughter asked.

I hugged her and stone-faced Mom, and we went home.

My son was born a few months later. From behind, his onion-shaped head looked exactly like Dad’s. I have few regrets in my life. One of them is that Dad died before he could see his grandson. 

2017

My Mom turns ninety-five soon. 

“I don’t believe I’m so old,” she tells me. “I think I’m ninety-two.” 

Alas, she is not ninety-two anymore. Three years ago, she was informing me about what was happening in the world every time I called her. Then she lost interest to anything but classical music; then she stopped listening to music; she just spent days in a recliner consumed by her thoughts. One day I found that Mom could not get up off the recliner anymore. Then I brought her to a nursing home. 

Mom’s memory has shrunk into several disconnected islands. One of them is inhabited by my family. 

“How is your daughter? How is your son?” She always asks when I visit her. 

“How is your wife? She never visits me. What’s her name?” At least she remembers that I’m married. 

“How is your family life?” She continues to inquire. 

“Everything is fine.” I haven’t told her that we had separated: she would be very upset. 

“Good,” she says, “it’s important to have a strong family.” 

“Marina sends you her regards.” I tell her.

“Who is Marina?” Mom asks.

“She is your niece, your brother’s daughter.”

“I don’t remember,” she says sadly. “Where does she live?”

“In Moscow.”

“I remember Moscow,” Mom smiles. “I was young; I had a boyfriend in high school; I started early.” She giggles; then glances at me. “It’s not what you think. We were just walking hand in hand and kissing good night.” 

  “She doesn’t remember her niece,” it comes to my mind, “but still remembers her high school sweetheart.”

“Well, he later broke up with me,” she sighs. “He wanted to pursue diplomatic career, but I was, you know, the daughter of an enemy of the people.”

I kiss Mom on the forehead.

***

Mom was born in Germany and came in the USSR in her early teens. My grandpa was smart enough to flee with his family from Germany soon after Nazis came to power. Alas, he had chosen the wrong direction… My grandparents at first were treated as political refugees. But soon grandpa was arrested and convicted of “suspicion in espionage for Germany.” There was such an article in the Soviet criminal code: suspicion was enough to send anyone to Gulag for many years. Grandpa did not survive Gulag: he was not even fifty when he died. 

All Soviet high school students were expected to become members of the communist youth organization. At pompous meetings, children of “enemies of the people” had to publicly denounce their parents. 

“I won’t do this; my father is an honest, innocent man,” Mom said to the school youth leader.

“Don’t come to school the day of the meeting,” he advised. 

Decent people helped my family survive political terror and even preserve some dignity. Yet living in fear during her teenage years forever influenced Mom: she was always suspicious of postmen, building superintendents, curious neighbors, just anyone who might turn out to be a snitch. 

My uncle, Mom’s brother, had become a youth boxing champion while growing up on tough Moscow streets. 

“I’ve got great practice while fighting everyone who mocked my German accent.” He grinned. 

He was mobilized to the Red Army right after the school prom. Germans invaded a month later. After some training, my uncle with a group of paratroopers disguised in German uniform sneaked across the front line. They were blowing up trains, rail roads, bridges - anything that helped Nazis to move forward. 

“First, we had to take out the guards. It was my job: I spoke native German and could approach them without causing suspicions. And we had to be quiet, so we mostly used bayonets,” my uncle recalled his bloody war experience. 

By the war end, my uncle achieved the rank of captain. After returning to Moscow, he put on his uniform with all his medals and went to the Chief Prosecutor’s office. Soon Grandpa was posthumously exonerated.

***

“Your father was a good man,” Mom returns to the recent past. “We had such a beautiful life.” 

“She does not remember anything.” I sigh. 

Dad was born in Latvia. He managed to flee to Russia when Nazis invaded but all Jews in a small town where his parents used to live were killed. Germans didn’t have to bother with executions: there were volunteers among the neighbors. They received houses and other belongings of their victims.

At the end of the war, Dad served in engineering troops. He met Mom in Moscow while repairing the building damaged by bombing where she used to live. They married and moved to Riga after Dad was demobilized.

Dad was absolutely devoted to the family: he did shopping, he washed dishes, he helped Mom to buy new clothes. But he was paranoid about KGB for the last twenty years of his life. Not only did they watched him, they also reminded him of this at every opportunity. If, for example, my parents talked about a neighbor and then Dad saw that neighbor on the street, this was a sign that KGB listened to the parents’ conversation and ordered the neighbor to confront Dad… Nothing changed when my parents moved to the USA: they were everywhere. We asked him to go to a doctor. He refused: they controlled doctors, too… Mom carried that burden until his death; she could not imagine living without him.

***

“Why did you come without jacket?” Mom asks.

“It’s spring, mama; it’s warm outside.” I tell her.

“Is it spring already?” She exclaims.

I kiss her again.

“Don’t get upset when I’m gone,” Mom returns me the kiss. “It’s not life anymore.”

***

She will die two weeks later.


Alec Schmidt is a research scientist and adjunct prof. He has published three professional monographs and self-published a memoir (all can be found on Amazon). He was born and studied physics in Latvia.

Cover photo by Alexandro David on Pexels

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