Published on June 19th, 2011 | by tomkolovos10
Today, in the courtyard of our building, a neighbor is hosting the wedding of a cousin. I just heard the applause and the hurrays from up in my office which faces the garden, so I imagine the ceremony is over, the groom and the bride kissed and danced to their first song together as husband and wife. Now I can hear laughter.
I’m quite sure everyone is happy because, if for no other reason, the courtyard is a rather tranquil and idyllic and in full view of my father’s home.
Tranquil and idyllic. I can’t say that about my view today, because my father is dying in his home, seven stories below mine.
And I don’t know what to do.
I don’t know what to do anymore, but that wasn’t always the case. When my mother was diagnosed with a rare liver cancer almost six years ago now, I knew what to do.
I was going to save her. I was going to save her from the cancer that patiently circled over her body like a vulture and then feasted on her liver for 15 months so patiently, patiently and enthusiastically, that it left me with a 65 pound carcass to bury.
Even at 1 am when she died and at 2 am when I returned from the Emergency Room where I had to sign papers certifying something or other and then at 11 am when I hurriedly ran off to the cemetery to pick out and buy adjoining plots in the 30 below windchill Chicago winter, even then I was going to save her.
I hadn’t thought much about what I would do once she had to be buried. So once I had to bury all that wasn’t left of her, it somehow occurred to that gaunt sliver of a son in that 30 below chill, that he could save her, really save her, this one last time.
It is warm today. It is warm today but it wasn’t if you were the mother of my Pilates instructor who just flew in from Dallas where it was 102. She was cold she said at the end of the class. Seventy five degrees was cold she said if you just flew in from Dallas.
I know it is warm today, despite what she thinks, because I don’t know what to do.
I don’t recognize my countenance anymore. The corners of my mouth have turned downward, as if I made a funny face and, as every mother has told every child of my generation, it just froze that way. I looked in the mirror today and I actually tried to make my face move back. Nothing.
My father came upstairs in the elevator this morning and he was almost in tears from the pain. He has lung cancer, bone cancer and colon cancer. Cancer, cancer, cancer. Except he won’t use that word. He doesn’t understand he said what’s wrong with him, why feels so weak, why he feels so much pain.
I understand what he means, this bully of a man, this tyrant that made my mother move 27 times over 3 continents over 45 years of marriage. My mother, when she was mad at him many, many years ago wrote down for herself all the times she had to move while they were married. I had forgotten she had done this until I was going through the things in her closet, barely a week after she died, only because of his insistence from the day we drove back home from her funeral that we get the dead woman’s things out of the house. I found this piece of notebook paper folded in one of her evening clutches.
She left me quite a lot when she died. We both knew what. Among those things were a father with lung cancer and colon cancer and a brother with Down Syndrome. We both knew that. The morning of her first surgery to remove the tumor in her bile duct she had to take off her wedding band. She gave it to me after my father and her best friend and her friend’s husband all left the room. She told me she loved me and she wanted me to know, she said, that if she died that day in the operating room, she would be leaving both of them behind for me to take care of. Not fair she said.
It occurred to me too but you can’t tell the mother you are quite sure you can save that. Nonsense, mom. I love you. I put her wedding band on my ring finger along with the one she had given me many years before.
It was her mother’s wedding band–my grandmother’s–and her sister back in Greece, my aunt Sophia, whose name means wisdom in Greek, wanted her to have it after my grandmother was exhumed. Yes, after she was exhumed. In Greece, the custom is to bury the dead for 7 years, exhume them on the 7th anniversary of their death and then, from the way I’ve heard it, someone removes everything but the bones, puts the bones in a box and puts the box with the bones…..somewhere safe, I guess.
This custom evolved from the need to bury the newly dead, in a country in which land is very scarce. Out with the old, in with the new. Opa.
My aunt Sophia gave my mother the wedding band after my grandmother put in her 7 years in the ground and had to be moved. My grandmother Eustathia, died of a stroke several days after my aunt Sophia told her that my brother, who my parents had reluctantly sent to Greece at age 4 to give themselves a break from dealing with the news that their son was a mongoloid–it was 1969 and that’s what they called it then–was a mongoloid, and not a bit slow on the uptake because he didn’t understand Greek.
Aunt Sophia was expressly told not to tell my grandmother, but you can’t tell Aunt Sophia anything, I found out as I grew older, so in all of her wisdom she told my grandmother and my grandmother, whose name means strength and stability, had a stroke and died.
This all happened just before my mother and I left Sydney, Australia, where she and my father met and married in 1962, and boarded an Italian cruise ship bound for Greece to bring my brother back with us.
My mother, by that point, also wanted to go back to Greece so she could see her family whom she had not seen since 1956 when she boarded a cruise ship in Pireus bound for the other side of the world.
It took us a month at sea and several stops along the world, mostly Africa, to get to Greece, that first time. I remember very little of that trip other than that I was taken to a hospital when the ship docked in Italy because I was so sick with something. I remember my mother being quite shaken by the whole experience. This was about a week before we docked in Pireus. The other thing I remember form this journey was how excited my mother was for me to meet my grandparents.
We docked in Pireus and I remember seeing all these strangers in dark clothes waiting for us. I was 5 and just got off of a ship after a month on the high seas, and black people everywhere– I had never seen black people in Sydney– not to mention an unscheduled stop in Italy. We boarded the ship in the summer but we docked in the winter, so not only were these people strangers to me, they were strange too, in all of these dark winter clothes.
All my clothes were bright and sunny just like Sydney. I remember being cold for the first time in my life.
So cold in fact, that when we got to someone’s home in Athens and the adults kept going in and out of one of the bedrooms, I was easily distracted by the stove in the kitchen near which I specifically remember my mother telling me not to go. By this time the adults were swirling around me in strange hushed tones that were hard to misinterpret in any language, but I wasn’t quite sure what was happening and I was a curious child.
Why were people whispering and where was my mom? And why did I think she was sad? I had never seen her look like this before, not like this, not that I could recollect.
And where I must have wondered are my grandparents? The ones she was so excited for me to meet. I remember somewhere along the way form the port to Athens one of the women in the dark clothes had introduced herself repeatedly as my aunt. Which one was she?
But I was cold and I went into the kitchen where this curious thing was, this stove I was told was a stove and to stay away from but there were no flames and I remember thinking where is all this good heat coming from. How could it be a stove? So I put my hand over the electric stove and back to the hospital I went, this time somewhere in Athens.
By the time we came back from the Emergency Room, I knew something was really wrong, something besides my hand all bandaged and burning still.
I don’t remember how or who told me what or even if it was that night. But I do remember the next morning my mother wearing dark clothes just like all the strangers and I had only seen her in a black skirt once before and I asked her why it was black and she said because she had to go with my dad to a funeral and people wear black to a funeral. I remember asking her if that’s true why are you wearing a white blouse and she told me that white goes with black and that for someone that isn’t a close member of your family you don’t have to wear all black. Black and white, I asked her, are the only two colors that go together? No, it goes with a lot of colors. Black goes with blue too.
I really liked blue. Most of my clothes, all of which were bought by my father, were blue somehow. Most of my brother’s clothes were tan or brown somehow. He was brown, I was blue.
I didn’t notice that my mothers eyes were blue until I was in my teens, in suburban Chicago.
So why was she wearing all black now? And why were her eyes red? And why did I have to wear an itchy coat. It wasn’t blue.
So that’s how I never met my grandmother, whose gold wedding band I’ve been wearing for nearly two decades now. Because my aunt Sophia, in one of her many trips to visit us in Chicago, gave it to my mother, after she had exhumed my grandmother in 1976.
Take then give back, give or take 7 years in the ground. That was wise of her.
As the years passed, one day it occurred to me to ask my mother if she would give me the band. I had heard so many great stories about the grandmother I had never met, many more about her than even about my grandfather Theodore, my mother’s father, whose name in Greek means gift from God.
My father would often remind my mother what a joke it was that her father was named Theodore, just like my brother, not because he wanted to be mean to my brother but because he wanted to make my mother feel responsible for bearing him a defective child, as if they hadn’t named him Theodore, as is the custom to name your second child after on of the wife’s parents, he wouldn’t have been born that way.
My grandfather Theodore was a decent and kind man, something my father never could appreciate because his parent were not. They were mean. Very mean to their mongoloid grandson and to their daughter in law for bearing him and to me because I was curious and they were old and mean, and by curious I mean I would ask them point blank why they were so mean. That’s when my grandfather grabbed me by the ear and dragged me across the room. My ear still hurts.
My mean grandmother Anastasia, whose name means Resurrection in Greek, suffered from Rheumatoid arthritis and and was already bed ridden for many years before I met her, 10 years before she died.
I remember her mangled, arthritic, accussatory fingers, as they cruelly only tried to point at me or at my brother. Sometimes she would try and point and she would almost succeed but that was only, I noticed, when she was really trying to point to my father and to my uncle in their youth for being such dreadful children. She was reflexive on those occasions and more at ease and grandmotherly, even.
It was nice to hear her tell stories about what rotten boys her sons were in their youth and what disappointments they turned out to be in their adulthood, first of all because she was telling me stories I had never heard before about my father, and second of all because she really liked telling them over and over when she was trying, in her own way, not to be mean to me.
And by then I was old enough to feel the same way about my father as she did about her children, so as long as she wasn’t trying to point to me, I would get close up to her bed as I ever would and she would lay on her back and not her side, like she did when she was trying to point at me, and she would look up at the ceiling mostly, but always look long enough my way to make sure I was still there and still listening, and her fingers would almost dance awkwardly, up in the air above her as she reminisced about her awful children fighting and conspiring against her when she wouldn’t give them sweets or love, I think you’d call it.
The only kind words I ever heard her speak were about her dead daughter, my aunt, who died before the first trip we made to Greece. I remember that she died because when I was maybe 4 years old my mother was bathing me in a wash basin when my father came in the door and she had to tell him that someone called and said that his sister was dead.
That’s the first time I saw my father cry, my father who would draw me seahorses in my notebook that started out as the letter K for his first name, Konstantinos, which in Greek means constant and steadfast, and which is same first name of the founder of Constantinople and the Greek Orthodox Church and of kings and prime ministers and presidents and my father, whom I adored because he would draw me seahorses in my notebook as soon as he would get home from work, which always started out as the letter K but always ended up as seahorses, something he learned to do in the army in Greece where he was given an office job because his penmanship was so good.
Once I understood what penmanship is, yes, his was very good, very good with flourishes here and there and everywhere that were straining to be seahorses, the seahorses he would only draw for me.
My mother’s penmanship, he would kid her when I was younger but accuse her when I got older, was terrible. How did she ever graduate high school with such terrible penmanship. What kind of person goes through high school and doesn’t have proper penmanship? Not a very good one he would accuse her.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I really could prove that there was no correlation between education and penmanship, and I would say to him stop saying such terrible things about mom, I have professors who have won Nobel Prizes and they can’t write anything legible on the the board or on the margins of my papers.
By then he had long ceased to draw anything for me, unless you count my ire.
My aunt Demetria died of kidney failure, and as she was still unmarried, they buried her in a wedding gown. My father’s brother, Demetrios, with whom she shared the same first name, which means “follower of Demeter,” the Greek goddess of corn and harvest whose withdrawal for the part of the year that her daughter Persephone must spend with the god of the underworld is the reason for winter in Greek mythology, had already moved back to Greece with his son and wife, so they were there for the funeral and they took pictures.
Pictures! Pictures of the dead aunt who I never met, the only child about whom my grandmother spoke lovingly and the only member of my father’s family I have ever, ever heard anyone speak lovingly of, the same aunt whose death my mother reported to my father when I first saw him cry, when I was in the wash basin and he still used to draw me seahorses.
But not after his sister, the aunt I never met, died. Never ever again.
Today is the day before Father’s Day and it just occurred to me that I completely forgot about his Saint’s Day which always on May 21, a day which traditionally is far more important than your birthday. It’s sort of your own personal Christmas, once a year. On that day you would traditionally have an open house, where it is understood and expected that your friends and family come, not to bring you material gifts, but to wish you well and to toast that you enjoy your personal day. As the celebrant, you are expected to give, to give all your guests something sweet and edible.
There are always sweets and a few phonies you can’t stomach on that day, who come out of obligation and tradition and not because they really care. That would make it more like Thanksgiving, I guess.
It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when my mother’s doctor called to tell me that her blood test results had come back and that it this was a serious matter and I should check her into the hospital right away but on second thought I should wait till the day after Thanksgiving to have her admitted.
She had only recently come out of the hospital after I had insisted I take her to the Emergency Room, when I noticed she was speaking erratically, as if she were sleepy and mumbling, but she wasn’t either of those two things, not at 4 pm. It was when she started wandering around and I had to follow her around the apartment so I could make sense of what she was trying to say and what was happening altogether, when she asks me why did she get up so early and what am I doing there at 4 am in the morning.
Come on mom, were going to the Emergency Room. No, no we’re not. What are you doing here at 4am? It’s not 4 am it’s 4 pm and it’s time we go to the Emergency Room, mom, I think you’ve had a stroke.
Yes, a stroke of genius on my part, lucky for her I just happened to walk in that day at 4pm. She was home alone and had a stroke on the stroke of something alright. But she didn’t want to go anywhere at 4 am.
She had to be kidding because she made me take her to the Emergency Room about five years before, insisting that the really bad headache she had must be a stroke and I had better drop everything I was doing and take her to the hospital. Well, of course I took her and of course she wasn’t having a stroke, because anyone who’s likely to be having a stroke is also highly unlikely to know they are having one, at least in my inexperience.
Yes, you know what, it is 4 am but the Emergency Room is open all the time, so just let’s go before it closes. That finally made sense to her, which now makes perfect sense to me.
Tom Kolovos is Editor in Chief of aControlledSubstance.com. All material in Stories is subject to copyright. Read Chapter Two here