The snow whirls thick snowflakes over the houses, and the bare trees resemble silver pins in a downy cushion. The icy gusts of wind that rattled the shuttered windows throughout the night, have since died down. It is late morning. The heavens touch the shingled rooftops, bloated and heavy. It is the week of the worst snowstorm the city has seen for years. The snow spills and spills on buildings and houses and streets and people and sheds and gardens. From inside the house, the entire world appears to be suspended in a snow globe: a white bubble of silence.
We’re all gathered together in my dad’s childhood home, the mud brick house with walls three feet thick and double windows. We are all together – my dad and his six siblings, their spouses, the children – all gathered around the open gleaming casket of my grandmother. She is oblivious to us, her eyes shut, her hands folded on the white silk of her blouse, the blouse she had commissioned from the seamstress for just this purpose: her death, her burial.
We are not alone. There are people everywhere, in this room, in the next, in the hallway. They have come to pay their respects. They come in their Sunday best, with polished shoes, and starched collars.
Manners aren’t forgotten in a time such as this, no matter the weather. They sit and stand and cry and say a word of kindness. They lightly kiss the offered hand of the women, with a quiet: “I kiss your hand madam.” They embrace the men, and kiss them on the cheek. Their voices are hushed, their eyes downcast.
They come with homemade bread and chicken soup and pork sausage. They clear the tiled front steps and shovel the pathway from the courtyard gate to the front door. They chop wood, stack it, and feed the orange mouth of the fireplace. The air is stale with their smell: with the smell of sweat and garlic and sausage.
Grandmother’s sons howl outside the door like little children. They slobber into each other’s necks. Why did their mother have to die? What will they do without her? Who will they run to with their problems – for a word of advice, acceptance, their favorite mutton stew?
In the beginning of it all, when the doctor gathered all six of them and their sister, in the cold blue and white tiled hospital hallway, when he told them to take their mother home, that there was nothing he could do, they seemed prepared. They had the front room cleaned out from top to bottom, dusted the heavy furniture, cleaned the emerald green brocade window drapes, beat the rugs. They ordered the most expensive coffin, packed the pantry with pickled green tomatoes and cucumbers, and called the minister to come and anoint her head for the transition.
They butchered a hog and threw a party, invited family from near and far. Grandmother said her goodbyes unhurried, in a civilized manner, amidst tears and smiles and cakes. Her children sat with her and waited, moistened her parched lips, held her trembling hand, fed her tiny spoonfuls of soup, and positioned her frail body.
But something must have happened to them when she crossed the threshold from the known to the unknown world. Because something in them is out of whack.
They walk in circles and press white-tipped fingers into their temples. They hold on to each other. Their eyes are wild. Their hair stands on end. They moan and rock on the balls of their feet. They are unashamed in their sorrow. They are not the fathers we remember. Their pain scares us. They scare us. They do not see us anymore. They do not see their wives or their friends. They only see each other. They only see their dear mother.
When the adults leave to relieve their cramped legs and bursting bladders, when their stomachs rumble for the world to hear, begging to be fed, the children sneak into the room. We make our way to the coffin, peer into our grandmother’s face. We dare each other to touch her, we move the lips to see if they really are held together by a pin, we imagine we see her eyelids quiver, we giggle nervously that we are so daring near the presence of Death. We run out into the hallway terrified when a loud knocking comes from where her feet should be, and collapse into tears of relief when one of our older cousins admits that he hid under the table to scare us. We get our ears pulled by one of the aunts for our lack of disrespect, get sent into the kitchen to wash the dishes and clear the tables.
Outside the window the falling snow blurs the edges of the acacias across the street. The crows and the ravens begin to croak. The room slowly empties. The fire in the tiled fireplace has died. The crying has stopped. The inevitable moment is here. The horse-drawn glass hearse has arrived. It is time to line up for the funeral march. The minister sends everyone out of the room. This is the uncles’ final moment alone with their mother. They shut the door after themselves. Shut everyone else out.
My sister and cousins and I glue our ears to the cold panel of the door. We hear muffled voices and then, much later, the tap-tapping of the lid being nailed down.
Our mothers seize our arms and pull us away. They bundle us in layers of wool and feathers and send us outside.
Helping fingers point us to where we should go.
Our breaths are smoke in the frozen air, our noses and lips turned to marble. We touch them with gloved hands from time to time, to make sure they are still there. The snow settling on our eyelashes prompts us to imagine ourselves as old people.
We hunch our backs and lean on imaginary canes. We get a fit of giggles and feel guilty for them. So we imagine ourselves old and dying, dead already, and we are serious again.
Family, friends, neighbors, and what seems to be the entire city, are packed on the narrow cobblestoned street, shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to accompany grandmother’s soulless body to its hole in the frozen ground.
“It took all night to dig the hole.” The whisper passes through the crowd. The whisper tickles our ears but makes no sense. We haven’t met Death before. We don’t know he likes to take the bodies with him into the ground.
After the coffin is secured inside the hearse, after the uncles remember to take their places next to their wives, after the wives account for the children, after a moment of silence, we march through the icy streets, led by a brass band.
I have a friend who lost her daughter to cancer six months ago. I saw her today for the second time since then, and I am amazed at her ability to go on, to get up and get dressed, put on make-up, go to work, take care of the rest of her family. Her daughter, her firstborn, was just eighteen, so beautiful, so full of energy, so full of life when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She lived for almost a half year longer, giving her family time to prepare themselves with her death. But how can a parent prepare for something so horrendous? I do not know. I know there was a lot of screaming and praying and silent tears and sleepless nights. And I know there was depression, and there still is, a vacant look in the eye, a smile that is forced, the desire to lie down and wake up on the other side.
And how does a child prepare?
I wrote this following piece when I found out the news. My feeble attempt to understand what my sweet friend’s daughter had been going through, while knowing that I never could.
Imagine yourself at eighteen. Maybe you’re a senior in high school. Maybe a freshman at a community college. Maybe you’re taking a year off to rest and decide what to do with the rest of your life. You are intelligent. You are beautiful. And you have all the time in the world, because you are just eighteen. You have a mom and a dad who love you, adore you, really, because you are the baby. And while they want you out of the house so they could downsize and start traveling the world, they also can’t imagine you leaving them. Or maybe you are the eldest, and intertwined with that love is that anxiety parents experience when their firstborn leaves, moves out to try life on her/his own.
Now imagine a visit to your doctor. Your pediatrician. The man or the woman who has seen you every year from the time you were born. This is really the last visit before you move on. You have a bad cough that just isn’t going away, or a bruise that isn’t fading, or a mole on your back that looks a bit strange since the last time you went tanning and fell asleep in the tanning booth, or maybe a headache that just won’t go away.
She examines you, making little noises at the back of her throat. Same noises she’s made while examining your broken nose in second grade when a big ball came out of nowhere while you were walking around the track with your three best friends; or the time you stepped on a rusty nail and had to get a tetanus shot. It sounds like she’s humming, or chirping. In any case, it’s a comforting sound, so you close your eyes and wait for it to be done so you can get dressed and go. You have plans tonight.
Then she sits you down. Takes off her glasses, rubs her eyes, looks at you over her clipboard. And says that you’ll need to go to the lab for some tests. You ask if it could wait until Monday, after all it is three o’clock on Friday and you need to go places. To see people. And there is that shirt, or dress, or shoes that you absolutely need to have for this party you’re attending tonight.
She looks at you and smiles and nods her head, but a sigh escapes. First thing Monday morning, she reminds you. Then she gives you a hug that’s a bit too tight and a bit too long. And your childhood ends. Because you know that something is going on. There’s a war inside your body. Something you have no control over. And all cheer until you find out what it is, is false cheer.
So you call your mom. She’s frantic. She hangs up too quickly, then calls you back. She tells you to wait for her right there, she’s on her way. And you wait because what else can you do? Meanwhile thoughts race through your head: you’re just eighteen; whatever it is, it isn’t fair; there are never any decent magazines in the doctor’s office; maybe you’ll be done quickly at the lab; you hope you make it to the mall; you’re just eighteen…
And the weekend passes in a blur. Your doctor calls on Monday. You need more tests. You go in. You get hooked up to things. Blood flows out of your veins and into countless vials. You hear your mom crying herself to sleep at night. Your dad, so strong, so tough, is breaking apart. So you try to be brave for your parents and for your siblings who watch you with big, fearful eyes. Or maybe you break down and cry with them. You hope. You despair. You pray. You pray for a miracle. After all you are just eighteen. And your whole life should be ahead of you.
If you find it in your heart, please say a prayer for my friend. That peace and joy return to her. Thank you, my dear and lovely readers.
I have been in awe of Lidia Boicu’s photography for quite some time. To begin with, I did not know much about her personal story, although I did know that she is my age, a cancer survivor and mom to a preschooler. I was drawn to her determination to persevere and confront the enemy by living her life passionately, and by giving back to the community of families affected by cancer through her non-profit organization, Tiny Sparrow Foundation. Facebook brought us together, and gave us the chance to form a real friendship when we started conversing over the phone, and finally met in person.
Through Tiny Sparrow Foundation, Lidia has been offering families with children suffering life threatening illnesses, free of charge professional portraits and albums, while bringing smiles to those faces most needing of them.
Lidia, how would you describe yourself?
I would say that I am optimistic and motivated. I try to live my life without fear.
Have you experienced any miracles?
Oh, so very many. When I was 5 months pregnant with my daughter, I developed an infection for which I was hospitalized. My white blood cells were so high and the doctors determined I had C-diff. It was so out of control that I was in the hospital for 2 months. My colon was inflamed and my body retained so much water that I soon ballooned out to 240 lbs. Although I was on both Morphine and Oxycodone, the pain was excruciating. I had a nurse that had to just take care of me and she would come at night and massage my body in hopes the pain would go away.
Those moments when somebody reached out to me are in my mind forever. My hand in somebody’s when I was in the lowest of lows was so astounding that I vowed that if I got better I would be the person offering comfort.
I did get better, and 3 months later my baby was born. She, however, was missing her entire sternum… You could see her heart beating. At 5 weeks old she woke up choking, we rushed her in and the doctors discovered a hemangioma blocking 75% of her airway. We were hospitalized. At 7 weeks she was diagnosed with PHACES, a relatively new condition discovered in 1997, affecting only 200 worldwide, and lacking information on it. We were hospitalized again. And then again when she was nine months and we determined that fixing her sternum was necessary as it protects major arteries.
When my daughter was two, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer which involved my lymph nodes. The miracles started pouring in. Although we were in a new town and knew no one, people jumped in cooking meals for us, helping with my daughter, cleaning the house. I had a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy and spent many hours in bed.
Is that when you started your photography?
Yes, my husband had gotten me a nice SLR digital camera for Christmas. I placed my computer in bed next to me and learned photoshop. I took picture after picture. After I recuperated, at the encouragement of my new found friends, I decided that I would take my photography to a different level. Cancer gave me the courage I needed and had been lacking. I contacted Kate McRae’s family and told them that I wanted to provide them with professional photos of Kate and their family. I was surprised when they agreed.
Do you think about dying?
Only every single day. But I am not afraid anymore. Life is a journey. Still, I would love more than anything to be here for my daughter. She beat all odds. I so want to see her grow up into a beautiful young woman.
Any regrets, Lidia?
That I have spent too much time agonizing over what people think and say. And for what? No one has a perfect life. Everyone has problems.
How do you want to be remembered?
That I made a difference in someone’s life. That I have built strong, lasting relationships. But I don’t want the focus to be on me. I want it to be on those little boys and girls that Tiny Sparrow Foundation is hoping to touch. Their memory will live on.
Thank you, Lidia. Please take a moment and visit:#mce_temp_url# Bookmark the site, and if you find it in your heart, please make a donation.