A mugging gone bad took my father when I was two years old, and now cancer was taking my mother from me at twenty-one.
I sat in her bedroom, holding her hand, waiting for the pain medicine to kick in so she could sleep. Her once-beautiful face was pale, her eyes sunken, as pancreatic cancer ate her from the inside.
The last six months had been horrible. I was going to school at Northwestern University on a full-ride scholarship, in my junior year of the Mechanical Engineering program. I had come home for Thanksgiving when I found her.
When I came through the door, she was lying on the floor, sobbing. She held her stomach as I lifted her head. My Mom could barely talk through the pain. I rushed her to the hospital, where she went from the emergency room to the oncology ward. The next day, the doctors in the room told us the bad news. She had Stage Three pancreatic cancer, an aggressive strain that had already spread throughout her body. Five-year survival rates for this kind of cancer were in the single digits.
The oncologist recommended aggressive chemotherapy to shrink the tumor and limit the spread. At the time, the tumor was too extensive for surgery to be an option
I dropped out of school to care for her. Our savings quickly disappeared beneath the mass of bills left over from her insurance coverage. I held her hair out of her face while she threw up after the harsh chemotherapy treatments, then held her shoulders after her hair had fallen out. Two rounds of chemotherapy left us broke, and her body ravaged.
In the end, the harsh treatments accomplished nothing. The tumor didn’t shrink enough to operate, and cancer spread to her lungs and brain.
I brought her home last month when she refused to undergo a third round of chemotherapy. She didn’t want to be sick anymore, and we couldn’t afford it. She begged me to let her die in her own house.
We were broke.
Our savings were long gone. I sold Mom’s car, her jewelry, and anything we had of value. The house that Dad’s life insurance paid for? Mom took out a reverse mortgage on it. When she died, I’d have nothing.
I offered to use my savings, and to sell the car I had worked through high school to buy, but she wouldn’t hear of it. “You don’t pay for my bills,” she told me as she pushed the money back to me. “My bills will die with me.”
“I don’t want to lose you, Mom!”
She squeezed my hand, weakly. “It’s time,” she told me as tears ran down my face.
“I have no more strength to go on, Jessie. I’m tired of fighting it, and I’ve made my peace with God. Let me enjoy these last moments with you, my daughter.”
I brought her hand to my lips. It was cold, and her skin was grey. “I love you, Mom.”
“And I love you.” She coughed, a little blood coming up that I wiped away with a tissue. “In the bottom drawer of the desk is a manila envelope. It has my will and some other papers. Don’t open it until I am gone.” She coughed again. “There won’t be anything left for you, Jessie. I’m sorry that I can’t give you more.”
“I don’t want money, Mom. I want you.”
“There will be some hard things for you to learn in that will, Jessie. Know that we never did anything to hurt you, only to protect you. You’re my daughter, and I’d do anything for you. Your father did too. He loved you so much. He’d be so proud to see the woman you’ve become.”
We talked until the drugs took her to sleep. I made sure she was comfortable, then went out into the kitchen to make my dinner. I’d stopped at the food shelf on the way home. I was lucky enough to find some fresh vegetables and frozen sausage among the canned goods and pasta. I started a pot of water to boil while I pulled ingredients together in a pan. I started the sausage first, rolling it into small balls before cooking it in oil. One green pepper and half a red onion followed, finally adding some sliced mushrooms. The tomato sauce was a cheap kind from a can; I didn’t have enough fresh tomatoes or enough time to make a fresh sauce, and I couldn’t afford to buy them. While the mixture cooked, I pulled the loaf of French bread out and sliced it in half. I put one half in the freezer for later; it wouldn’t stay like the pasta would in the fridge. This meal needed to stretch for the rest of the week until I got to my weekend shifts at work. I could make enough tips to buy food on Saturday.
I sliced the remaining half of the bread at a slight angle before I put butter mixed with garlic powder on it, then I put that in the oven. The water was at a rolling boil, and I added the bowtie pasta to it. After I stirred it, I opened a can of chicken broth and started to make a soup as well. Mom couldn’t handle the tomato sauce after the chemotherapy. She could barely tolerate the broth and noodles I would make for her.
Dinner was a quiet affair for me as I waited for Mom to finish her nap. I had sold my laptop and iPad last month, and I stopped paying for cellphone service before that. Mom’s cable TV went away three months ago as we cut our expenses. I watched a DVD of Sons of Anarchy I’d borrowed on the 21” television I’d moved into the living room. I ate the pasta slowly, savoring the flavors. When I finished, I made a half-dozen meals in Tupperware containers and put them in the near-empty refrigerator.
The soup just needed me to add some of the cooked pasta, and it was ready. I made up a bowl, adding a glass of water to the bed tray before taking it into Mom’s room. I pushed open the door, bringing the tray over to set on the table next to her bed. “Dinner’s ready, Mom,” I said as I reached for the light.
I turned to wake her, and instantly knew it was too late. “Mom….” I sank to my knees, looking into her vacant eyes. Her hand was cold, and I reached down and checked her pulse while watching her chest. “Oh, God! Mom.” I collapsed on the bed, hugging her to me as the tears fell. She was finally free, I said to myself. Free from pain, free from stress, free from cancer.
I don’t know how long it was until I could sit up. With no phone service, I had to walk to the neighbor’s house and ask if I could use their phone. Thirty minutes later, the county coroner was removing the body, and I was alone.
I didn’t sleep that night.
I went into her room the next morning, turning on the lights and sitting at her desk. I remembered her words to me about the papers. I opened the drawer, flipping through the folders until I got to the one called “WILL.” I opened it up. Inside were two envelopes, one labeled “Last Will and Testament” and the other labeled “Jessie.”
I opened the will first. It was a straightforward document. Mom had left everything to me, and named me as her executor. That would not be fun, as she had more bills than assets now. As soon as I had all the documentation, I would have to start notifying the creditors. Legally, I had no obligations to make good on all her debt; they would be fighting over the scraps left over when her meager estate settled. She left instructions for her cremation and asked me to scatter her ashes on the same Lake Superior overlook where she had scattered Dad’s ashes. None of this was a surprise. I had researched what would have to happen at the library and had already printed the forms I would need. The fact that I was afraid of Mom dying didn’t change that I knew it would happen. I had to prepare.
I put the paperwork down and opened the second envelope. Inside were originals of some documents; my heart stopped when I saw the first was a Certificate of Adoption.
I dropped the paper, unable to read further. I closed my eyes, remembering back to what Mom had told me earlier, the part I didn’t understand. She told me there would be some hard things to understand, but that she was my mother. She did some things to protect me.
I wiped the tears from my eyes, looking down at the form again.
My birth name was Natalya Klishnina. My birth mother was Ekatarina Klishnina, age 21, from Sergiyev Posad, Russia. My father? He was “unknown.” Mom and Dad signed as my adoptive parents, including my new birth certificate. International adoption paperwork in the envelope came from a Russian adoption agency.
I was four months old at the time.
The final document was a letter from a Russian Priest. “Natalya, if you are reading this, you are now an adult, and your parents have decided you should know the truth. I cannot hide it from you if you are determined to know that truth; while the truth can set you free, some truths should remain buried forever. Your past should be one of those.”
I took a deep breath and kept reading. “I was your mother’s priest for over a year after she returned from Moscow. She had left school and quit her job, needing to move back home to care for her sick mother. She was pregnant, frightened, and alone. Your grandmother died soon after your mother returned. I was the only person other than the doctor at your birth.” I wiped a tear. “She died when you were a few months old. As she wished, I arranged for your adoption by a couple in the United States. All of this is the truth, and it is all the truth you need. I beg you to put this letter down and think about what you are about to do. Curiosity kills the cat, and it isn’t always good to uncover the truth.” Wow, he didn’t want me to know. “Know that your mother loved you and gave you a better life. If you continue to read, you cannot unsee it what comes next. If you were my charge, I would beg you to stop now, burn the rest of this letter, and go on with your life. You will know how good a woman your mother was, and how much she loved you in the short time you had together. Hold onto that memory, do not stain it by reading on. I would not write it if she hadn’t begged me to give you the option.”
I put the letter down on the desk, getting up to go to the kitchen. I poured myself a glass of water, looking out over the houses in the older neighborhood. Our house was small and cheap, a bungalow built in the 1920’s. As I drank the water and let the night breeze blow over me, thinking about what I had learned. I shouldn’t want to know, but I needed to.
I went back to the letter. “Last chance, Natalya. If you turn this page over, and you will learn things, no daughter should ever have to know about.”
I turned it over, my hand shaking as I wondered what it would say. It reminded me of what a coworker with nasty gas did. He farted into an empty coffee container, put the lid on, and labeled it with tape that said, “DO NOT OPEN! HAZARDOUS FART GAS!” It sat there in the break room for three days before another guy couldn’t take it. “I gots to know,” he said as he opened it and took a sniff.
He regretted it, but he found out. Somehow, I knew I was going to be the same. I gots to know.
I turned the page over.
“Ekatarina was a good student at Moscow University, but struggled to make enough money to pay her tuition and expenses while also helping to support her mother. She was young, beautiful, and graceful, trained in ballet and dance. She was recruited by another student to dance at a gentleman’s club in Moscow.” I was a little shocked, but I couldn’t judge her. She did what she had to do; I’d thought of the same thing, but Mom would die before letting me dance nude. “She didn’t like it, but she made more money there in a night than she could make working full time as a waitress for a week. She struggled with the constant pressure to take drugs or engage in prostitution. She had worked there for three months when the owner took an interest in her. One night, he called her into her office, and he raped her repeatedly.”
I dropped the letter to the desk, closing my eyes. I was the product of rape. In a moment, the scab from the wound upon learning I was adopted was torn wide open. I sobbed in the chair, wishing I had burned the letter instead. The Father was right; I could never unlearn what I just read.
Picking it up, I continued. “Your mother was a virtuous woman, trying to hold on to that virtue despite all the influences around her. She was a virgin when he raped her, and he left her pregnant with you. She had nowhere to go for justice; your father was a powerful man who the authorities could not touch. A rape allegation would be nothing but a nuisance to him; his people would make it go away. She had heard the stories in the Club about previous conquests. She had no doubt he would kill her if she said anything.”
“Four months after you were born, the money had run out. Your mother was going to lose her home. She came to me, asking me to look after you while she went to visit your father to ask him for support. I begged her to stay, but she had to try. As I expected, he killed her and dumped her body in the alley behind her house. The police called it an accident.”
My poor Mom, to be that desperate. “Your mother knew if he reacted badly, you would be in danger too. She left me with the papers I needed to have you adopted and taken to America. Ekatarina’s body is buried at the Blessed Mother Cemetery in Sergeyev Posad.” He had enclosed a photo of her gravestone.
“I will not tell you who your father is, going after him or letting him know you are alive would be foolish and dangerous. He killed your mother, Natalya. He would have no problem killing you as well.” I wiped away a tear. “I have asked not to know your new name, or who your parents are. I intentionally stayed out of it in case he finds out about my adoption. I would like to believe that I’d never tell him where you are, but I’m also realistic enough to know his men might torture me to find out. I decided that what I don’t know cannot hurt you.”
I didn’t even know if he was alive, but I could tell he was a good man who cared for my Mom. “If after you’ve thought about this and have more questions, you can reach me through the Church.” He had left the address and telephone number of the Russian Orthodox church. “I pray that you are and remain safe and happy. I know what you have read is difficult to accept, but you must. Rest in the knowledge that your mother loved you enough to die for you and give you a better life. In God’s love, Father Ivan Kempechny.”
I held the letter in my shaking fingers as the emotions overcame me, my head dropping to my arms, unable to stop the crying.