In Memoriam: A tribute to my Mom

My mom died yesterday, Thursday, after several days of complete agony.

Her name was Elena but we all called her "Lenny", and she liked it. She lost her battle with an aggressive renal cancer. She was 71. I am having some absurd need to talk and talk right now. Might sound stupid to some but I feel she needs to be remembered.

The metastases found in her bones last spring have caused more and more pains and yet she refused to stop moving.  Her condition deteriorated so fast in the past 20 days. Two weeks ago, she was still able to walk slowly, and she visited a laboratory, assisted by my father, to have her blood checked before yet another coming chemo infusion. The next day the spinal cord compression made it impossible for her to move one of her legs, followed be the other leg a day later. Within three days she was completely immobilized...

She quietly chose my father to be the person to take care of her and would not let him leave her bedside, in fear that he might not be there to hold her hand in her final minutes. She refused to have me or George fly over to Bulgaria to be with her – in our last phone call a week ago she told me she would never forgive me if I allowed her grandkids to be traumatized in any possible way by the situation. She said she would be happy if the kids were happy. Period.

She loved my children more than anything in the world, and they just adored her. I have taken the heavy burden to inform them today. I am her only child, and they are her only grandchildren. They both were broken-hearted by the news - I have never seen them look at me with such a pain in their eyes…

Watching her relationship with the two of them has always made me feel I have fulfilled an important mission. They are two wonderful young people, who have always been respectful to anyone they know. We have never ever heard them overreact, or yell an ugly word (or “I hate you”) to anyone... Even when my son must have really hated his granny’s intrusions into his private world (she loved tidying his room,  moving his stuff without his consent, sometimes switching off some game when he had reached a critically important level), he would still bite his lip and never said anything harsher than a politely-worded request to never do this again. But she did it over and over, with all the best intentions. And he was patient enough again.

My mom was a rebel and she preferred to have things done her way. Sometimes she said harsher words just because she meant them at that moment, but she always did it with the idea to be honest and helpful. She was a champion of truth and tidiness. She spent her life being extremely elegant person who never allowed herself the liberty to look messy at any time. Even her “home outfit” was meticulous just like any other one she would put on. She thought it was a respect first to herself and then to the people around to look that way. Even in old age she kept sticking to that motto. Her house looked the same way.

For a person who had had her childhood, youth and all adult life lived in communist Bulgaria, she was an ardent freedom lover and a person of great touch to reality. I can proudly say that both my parents were great people and they raised me to be a good person. I have always been very close to both of them and I have been much envied by friends for enjoying the unique freedom to make my own choices and express myself, having full parental support.

There are moments today, being a parent myself, when I wonder at the decisions they took regarding me back when I was teenager and the freedom they gave me - I fear to go that far with my own kids now… I have been allowed to make decisions for myself ever since the age of 16 and yet all of those decisions were quite descent ones. My parents approved most of the things I did - completely and unquestionably. As for the things they did not approve of -  they did their best to make their point clear and I usually respected their opinion and had no regrets doing so. In the 1980s I was pronounced to have the “most modern parents” ever, which made me feel really lucky having them (well, nothing went too smooth, of course, but that’s normal...).

When George and I moved with the kids to the States in the summer of 2005, my mom was still healthy and in good shape. No matter how she might have felt inside, she expressed huge enthusiasm to have us live in Colorado. She never said she wanted us close to her, never. She was truly happy because she saw us being happy.

After excruciating months of chemo in the spring of 2007, while we were on a visit to Bulgaria, she firmly asked us to take her back with us to the States – she wanted to live for  5-6 months with us. This was a shock. We knew how fragile she was at that point and I told George that we should probably wait for some more time for her to get in better shape and then travel overseas. George asked me: “What if she does not have that much time? What if now is the right time?”

So, although absurd an adventure to do six months after her diagnosis, with one remaining kidney, and just four weeks after her last chemo, she was on the plane to Colorado. The doctors did not even bother to protest, they were certain it was a suicide but said “that might be the best she could do for herself at that point”….

She looked so happy, like a child in a candy store. She wanted to see what we were calling “our home” and where and how her beloved grandkids lived. She even wished to be taken around to see some local Colorado-Springs sites, like “Garden of the Gods” and “The Seven Falls”. She visited the schools Kal and Trayana attended; she was at the Thanksgiving celebration at Trayana’s school; she laughed and took immense pleasure in anything she did. She said that was the happiest half a year of her entire life.... She was sitting out on our patio one warm morning, listening to the sound of the tiny waterfalls in the creek running behind our house and to the chirping of the birds in the trees – and she turned to me, saying: “You know, Tanya, I feel like I can die happiest right now, in this second…” Seeing the kids and us happy was everything she ever dreamed of. She needed nothing more, her life mission was fulfilled.

My mom has always passionately opposed silly traditions and old-time customs. She was modern and revolutionary. For her it was important how someone had been treated while alive and she despised funeral hypocrisy in all its versions. She knew she was much loved by her closest ones and she took immense pride in that. To all people in the neighborhood where she (and we) used to live, my husband George was considered being "her own son". This is how everyone saw our relationship - probably because people do not often see sons-in-law being that close to their moms-in-law.

George and Lenny were real close. I even used him as a weapon to achieve something I could not otherwise – so I said “George thinks so, too”, and then  she definitely gave it all a second thought. She actually did her best to explain to people that George was not her son but son-in-law. Well, they would not believe her in the long run, so she just gave up. Her favorite joke was: “Yes, my daughter is married to my son and they live happily ever after, having two wonderful kids”… People would look at her in amazement, she would explain to them who was her own child, who was not; then people would nod at her with understanding… and then, a couple of days later, George would be declared her son again. She just laughed at all that but she was extremely flattered deep inside.

She considered herself being the “soldier” type of person – she was always ready to be summoned if needed within minutes; she was always ready to help (although with the usual nagging for an additional colorful accent) and she was a perfect care-taker indeed (if she herself wished to be one, which the case was most of the times). She loved helping around, totally sacrificing her time and needs for the best of other people, and yet, she managed to do it all in a very dignified way that should have told everyone around that she was not anyone’s “servant” by any means...

She was an opinionated lady but she was also a fragile and shy person who hated attention. She also hated talking over the phone with people she did not know, as she believed that made her “look silly” in people’s eyes. She preferred somebody else to do that for her. Then, she would be grateful to the talker but she would also have some harsh criticism up her sleeve. She was a multi-faceted person that would always surprise you even when you thought you were able to see through her….

My mom was a very elegant and nice-looking lady. Coming from all old Greek mythology down to typically Bulgarian folklore, Elena (Helen) has been a name usually adorn by the adjective “beautiful”.  So my mom felt obliged to live up to that standard, as she would often joke.

She had blond hair and never wore it too short, as that was “anti-feminine” according to her (but she did not mind me having very short hair - well, with just itsy-bitsy pieces of criticism...). She cut her own hair short in the expectation to lose all of it during her chemo – which she did not actually, she lost huge amounts of it, yet she still had some thin hair remaining until the end and she liked that. She was not too vain - but she just hated looking pitiful; she hated people feeling sorry for her or seeing her looking truly bad. She hated all that.

That attitude of hers was a credo she always believed in - and that was the reason she wanted people to remember her just the way she used to be. I used to talk several times a day to her all of the past year; and then she suddenly stopped talking to me anymore in her last few days because she was not able to articulate clearly and she did not want to make me feel any more frightened or worried than I was... So, she just stopped talking, and my father accepted her wish, turning into her translator for the rest of the world. She needed to remain the mom and granny we knew - that was how she wanted to be remembered, no matter all fears she might have felt inside….

The only person she seemed to want badly by her side in her last hours was my father. They had actually divorced 10 years ago and yet - he was the person she needed around her in her last moments. Feelings never die, obviously. He carried her around, cleaned her, fed her and took care of everything when she could not even talk clearly but he knew what she meant by her tired gestures.

Although there was a large number of friends and relatives around her, she practically sent them all away at some point to have just him by her side. He readily took the heaviest burden in one’s life and stood by her side through everything. For two nights and three days he was there by her side, awake, without a blink of sleep. This is a horrible experience for a person of any age, let alone for a 74-year-old man. She passed away holding his hand and calling his name...

After my father called me, I felt awful and yet relieved for her. No matter how lost I am going to feel in the coming days, I am deeply peaceful with the thought that her suffering finally ended. She has always been a Good Samaritan and having her lived through these horrible two weeks of hell was just not fair.

My first impulse, after I had to break the news to some friends, was to take our dog on a long lonely walk around the creek to cry my heart out. Surprisingly, the dog behaved perfectly, no pulling at all, as if he knew I felt sick with sorrow... Good boy.

I had to get back within an hour as our son was coming back from school. I had to go through a terrible ordeal and I needed to pull a brave face for it - Kal was having his final day of Quarter 3 on Friday (today). There was nothing he could do anymore for his granny, so a day would not change a thing.

He needed to prepare for his presentation in English for today. In February he was supposed to choose a poem to analyze stylistically. The irony of the whole situation is that he chose Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”. Good for February, bad for yesterday…. So, I had to sit at the dining room table, listening to his interpretation of that beautiful poem, a metaphor of the journey to the end of life. The drawing he did on his poster for this poem was a carriage pulled by two horses with three passengers in it: Death, Immortality and the Speaker.

I was expected to ask questions and discuss what was a symbol for what in a poem completely focused on death - a bit too much for me at that moment. It was a relief to brush a tear or two away, but our son was aware that I had been awfully tense those last weeks and that the topic of the poem was bothering in general, so he did not pay much attention to my reactions…

Well, today, when he got back from school, I needed to tell him the truth. Watching him collapse in tears was awful but he had the right to be told the truth. I pulled all my fancy talk about souls and heaven to try to make him feel a bit better. I doubt I did... Our daughter’s reaction was equally painful but much shorter in time – she felt content with the knowledge that granny will look onto her from above.

Before our moving to the States, Trayana considered her granny being her closest person/friend ever and it did take me quite some time to grow closer to her and to lessen the pain from our living away from her beloved granny. Today her reaction was typical for a young child and a totally honest one….

Why am I writing all that now? I felt the need to take it off my chest.

I felt my mom needed to be remembered as the person she actually used to be all her life long. She never considered herself “an elderly lady” - not because of some stupid vanity, no – she thought she was just different and did not need to be qualified by any labels or to be compared to other ladies her age. She was unique, she was herself - until the very end of her life.

This is why I feel and hope she would be happy now with me paying this tribute to her. She would not want us think of her as the 71-year-old elderly woman who died in terrible agony. She would like us to remember her as the self-sacrificing good-looking lady - mother, mom-in-law, granny and wife she has always been.

So, this is for you, Lenny, with all our love:

  My mom in her mid 30s

  with me - in the late 1960s

  again with me - in the late 1960s

  again with me, same time

  My mom (right) with friends at Bulgarian seaside, late 1960s....

  with me again (who else?), at my best friend's wedding (1987)

 with my father and our dog Margie, an English Setter (in 1992) - in the beautiful old part of Plovdiv

  with my father again - same time, same place

  My mom and me with a friend's daughter (1992)

  with my father at my wedding (1994) - Eastern Orthodox churches are really dark sometimes, and this one is many centuries old....

The following photos are her latest ones  - taken during her "crazy Colorado adventure" (August 2007 - January 2008). She loved these photos for the reason that they were taken with the people she loved most: her two grandkids:

  Christmas 2007

  Christmas 2007 again, with Trayana

  Having some girls' fun, eating in bed...

  Driving "Miss Daisy"...

  and my favorite one, although not focused at all:   a lady with an attitude.
(she is laughing actually, although she looks like she's crying)..

We love you so much. We will miss you terribly.