6. Apple Pie


The relatives who were involved in Mom’s well-being and hospital visit were absolutely shocked at this suggestion.


“No way!” was their response, Mom’s response, and my translated response. There had to be another test or another doctor who would take a look and determine how to fix the problem without introducing cancer.


Mom’s tailbone pain was so extreme she couldn’t walk because the fall threw her hips off balance. A home-based homeopathic doctor corrected and adjusted her hips and promised it was on its way to fully heal. The bruise and pain on her chest wasn’t getting any better and breathing was becoming very difficult. Another appointment was scheduled. This doctor didn’t receive the full story either, so he contacted the first doctor and had the same “cancer” suggestion. One of the uncles flew off his handle.

“How dare you keep saying it’s cancer? Get some doctor in here who knows how to be a doctor and make my sister better!”


After more yelling and threatening, security was called and my uncle had to calm down and be escorted out or else he’d get arrested.


This experience prompted us to drive a few hours to take mom to an emergency room in a Seattle hospital. Here her case had a team of students who followed the main assigned doctor around and took notes. One set of the aunts and uncles who regularly stayed with us were outraged and had a huge complaint about “student” doctors who didn’t know anything. They demanded professional doctors, not students. As the translator, I reworded the sentences to make them sound slightly more pleasant. Last thing anybody needed was another security officer adventure.


To deal with the sterile, antiseptic smell of the hospital room, I wandered around the building until a different scent reached my nostrils. I’d reached the cafeteria. From the limited food options, the apple pie looked most appealing. I ordered a large slice and breathed in the aroma. The taste was absolutely perfect: a delicious combination of a warm, flaky crust, and soft, sweet apples, with just a hint of cinnamon. I enjoyed it immensely and had a few pieces during that stay. That is where I learned what emotional eating was all about.


During the night Mom had a terrible breathing attack and a doctor on duty came to help. Since he wasn’t familiar with the case, he decided to check what was causing this shortage of breathing. He inserted a little tube with a light at the end of it, inspected the area, and said that some veins burst. Mom would need a surgery to repair those veins to get the blood flowing normally and to restore the circulation. The surgery couldn’t be done immediately because first, the assigned doctor needed to go through all the paperwork, and next, Mom needed antibiotics for several weeks before she could be ready for the surgery.


Mom requested to go home for the antibiotic treatment. We continued to have people visit us who prayed for Mom in hopes of obtaining supernatural healing. Mom read Psalm 121 aloud on a regular basis. The uncle who had the shouting match received a letter from the hospital stating that Mom’s condition was in fact not cancer.


For the first time in my life I was allowed to have a party to celebrate my 15th birthday. The planning didn’t take long; I just wanted a cake and some friends over. The night before the party Mom had a breathing attack and was running out of breath. The closest driver was Grandpa, so he took us to the hospital. Mom was given an oxygen mask and we were placed into a room overnight.


Instead of feeling bad for Mom, I was feeling sorry for myself. The birthday party was supposed to be my highlight of the year. I collected some tabloid magazines and sat in the sitting area hating my life. In the morning I dialed a few numbers and briskly stated the party was cancelled due to the fact that I was in the hospital with my mother again. I made friends with the apple pies in this cafeteria too. Well, that wouldn’t be correct. If I made friends with them I wouldn’t be eating them, but I did, so technically I just enjoyed how they made me feel. At least I could count on apple pie. The apple pie paired quite nicely with a can of Root Beer. Unfortunately Root Beer was the enemy because it had the word “beer” in its title, and it caused an unnecessarily long fight with an uncle who couldn’t believe I stooped low enough to drink beer.


We were released home again. Mom’s immune system kept getting weaker. She was now barely walking holding on to a familiar steel walker, the kind that Dad used to have. A ten second walk from her bedroom to the bathroom began to take several minutes long with assistance from a person or two. Grandma’s cheeks were streaked with tears as she helped mom with a bath. After she was done and Mom was back in her bed, Grandma would let the tears flow freely and say how unfair it is for a mom to watch her child go through this. That it should be the other way around. I agreed with her. But a child watching a mom go through it was unfair even more! I would think, but keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t get in trouble.


Mom’s voice completely disappeared. Her breathing was raspy and she had horrible hacking coughs to a point where she would cough stuff up. I had to make a phone call to the bank about Mom’s account and had problems when it came to the verification problem.


“Am I speaking to the account holder?” asked the bank representative.


“No, this is her daughter, but she’s right here. She doesn’t speak English very well, plus her voice is broken so I’m calling for her.”


“I’m sorry Miss, but I cannot give you the information you’re requesting until I speak to the account holder.”


“She’s right here! Let me turn on the speaker.” I moved as close as I could to Mom.


Mom was propped up on her bed and tried to speak. “This is Yelena,” she whispered. The bank rep couldn’t hear anything. Mom strained her neck, applied as much effort as she could, and a croak came out. I tried to use that.


“You hear that? That was her voice. Can you help me now?”


It was useless.


Another time Grandma made a thin soup for Mom. It had some rice, potatoes and grated carrots. Grandma left me with the bowl and said to feed Mom.


Mom tried to eat a bite, but it was difficult for her throat to swallow anything. She gave up after several attempts.


“I can’t do it; I don’t want any,” she whispered in a barely audible tone.


“But you have to! Grandma will be mad at me if you don’t eat any!” I tried to persuade Mom to eat a few bites.


Mom’s eyes were filled with tears. “I can’t,” she said.


Grandma came in to check on us. She didn’t approve the current status.
“What is this? No excuses. Eat,” her disapproving tone demanded obedience. When she needed to be strict, she could manage it in such a way that anybody in her way would drop what they’re doing and follow her orders.


Mom looked at me desperately.
“Please eat a few bites for me, honey. Please do it. I cannot. Please,” she begged. I haven’t seen Mom act like that before and it frightened me. I forced a few spoonfuls down, just in time as Grandma came in again. The bowl was wordlessly handed over, and we received a satisfied “Hmph!” in return.


Those months were a blur of hospital visits, faith healers, elders, and more scrutiny of our lifestyle than ever. God definitely must be punishing us for something. Obviously Mom must have some hidden sin in her life. Perhaps a mistake must have been in our decision to switch churches. Mom was required to agree going back to the previous church if she got healed. Perhaps a curse was on our family. Was Dad’s mother a witch? Some of these conversations took place inside hospitals, not just at our home. Mom would be so drugged up with morphine that her speech was babble that didn’t make any sense. In between doses when her speech was more coherent, a helpful individual would shower her with these suggestions and questions.


The doctors had some bad news for us after some more tests. The surgery couldn’t be done because the antibiotics were administered too late. They should have been done right away when Mom had her accident. Her situation became worse: either the blood was clotting, or something was happening to the veins and they were affecting the lungs, or the lungs themselves were collapsing. To top it all off, she caught the MRSA bug at the hospital and had to be placed into quarantine. One person at a time could come in, only if dressed up in protective clothing and mask. That day she slipped into a coma.


The next day, September 11, in my first period class, something strange was happening. The TV was turned on, the students were panicked, the teachers frantically scurried from one classroom to the next. The World Trade Center twin towers had just been attacked. The dreadful anxiety I was feeling because of Mom’s coma didn’t have to be hidden. It was a relief to let it out and cry with the rest of the students.

2. Valerian Root


My dad didn’t take his test results well. He came home, stretched out on our blue couch in the living room, covered himself with a thin blanket, folded his arms, and waited to die. He had the latest stage of cancer so thoroughly spread out, that even the doctor was surprised how dad was still alive at this point. The prognosis – one month of life left.


Two years prior to this, my dad got a job, which required a health checkup. On that exam, a few little spots were discovered on his lungs, and a biopsy had been recommended. It was of concern because we had lived in Ukraine, where a few years prior the Chernobyl disaster had occurred. But my dad, he was a man. Macho man. Superhero. He wasn’t feeling pain anywhere, so why in the world should he get a biopsy done? If it were truly something serious, he would be feeling pain, and that would justify getting the biopsy. Well now it was too late. The cancer had spread; there was zero hope of any kind of treatment helping. In fact, it had spread to a part of his brain, which was causing the seizures.


The second time he had a seizure was no less scary than the first. He fell to the floor, and half of his body was jerking and trembling uncontrollably. Again, I made a familiar phone call, the ambulance arrived, and off we went to the hospital. We were informed that as the cancer grows, more seizures would take place. And they did. I began to dread waking up, not knowing if that would be a day where another seizure would happen.


My dad was a very disciplined, brilliant man. Immigrating into the United States of America at the age of 34, he immersed himself in all the English language programs and books he could possibly find. Within a year he was the designated translator/interpreter in our social circle. That year I went into first grade and learned the language there. We would have a competition of who knew more English words.


“Dad, I have a new one today!”


“What is it? I learned many words today too, I bet I already know it.”


“Nope! What’s hotdog?”


That was the one word that stumped him, because literally hot and dog are two words, which made no sense combined, and hotdog was a food item that I saw in the cafeteria that day. It felt so good to outsmart my dad.


Each morning before the school bus picked me up, dad would give me a Russian language book, from which I needed to read, and if I was done quickly, to spend the remainder of the time practicing Russian handwriting. He always ordered books from a book company, and sometimes he would let me browse through the catalog to choose a children’s book too. These were days before we had the computer or Internet or iPhones, so our free time was spent playing tag, riding bikes, or reading books.


One day somebody recommended a natural cancer treatment book to my dad. This did wonders for my dad’s attitude; it was as if he got another shot at life. The next day a juicing machine appeared in our kitchen, followed by bags of vegetables. I remember chopping up beets, celery, other greens, and carrots. My siblings and I took turns making juices; we would sneak a few sips, especially carrot juice. My dad began juicing furiously, hoping to cure the cancer. He ordered a giant box of special herbs from another country.


I baked some rolls for him, his favorite, ones that were labeled “Daddy’s Buns” in the recipe book. Each buttered bun had one raisin at the top for decoration. This was a recipe I had perfected because dad encouraged me. He supported most of my little projects. Sometimes I felt that since I was the oldest, I was his favorite. Once I wanted to bake bread, so I called my aunt, got the recipe, and had the ingredients purchased. I had no idea what dough was supposed to look like, and my mom was busy tending to the young babies, so it was completely up to me. The first water/yeast batch didn’t rise, so I just mixed it in with the remaining ingredients and got a lumpy sticky batter. The “dough” needed to rise, so I poured the batter into five bread loaf pans and stuck them in the oven while I went to school. Hopeful that the batter would rise since it had more hours in the oven, I was disappointed to find the same lumpy batter at the same level in each loaf pan. They baked for hours. Finally they seemed to be fully cooked. The final result was a brick bread that looked identical to an actual brick. I tried it; it was disgusting.


My dad sawed off a corner, tasted it, and said, “Delicious!” and ate a few more bites. I was very sad the bread didn’t turn out and was ready to toss the loaves into the trash.


“Nonsense! Bring me some foil, I’ll wrap up the remaining loaves to put in the freezer and I’ll eat them later while I eat this one up!” His encouragement kept me going, and I eventually learned there were cooking books in the school library that I could check out and keep experimenting. Yet these Daddy’s Buns he wouldn’t touch because of the strict juicing requirements.


People began visiting us, praying for us. The seizures continued. I stopped going to school. My mom had to deliver the baby, who was the 10th child into our family, so one of the relatives drove her to the hospital. My dad’s mother came to stay with us. She was a fantastic baker, yet a terrible cook. Her bland combination of water, noodles, potatoes and carrots, which she called soup, was appalling. It challenged me to do a cook-off, so the next pot had a flavorful soup like the one I’ve seen mom make. Grandma baked delicious kolach, yet she couldn’t tell me the recipe because everything was made “na glaz”, or by the eyeball method. Since I had more time, I followed her around and recorded how much of each ingredient went into the recipe.


By this point my dad received a hospital bed, which was situated in our living room. He had a steel walker and managed to hobble around that way. Then one day, a worker from Hospice Care arrived. She said she needed to talk to us about what we are doing, what are our plans after dad passes away, does he have a will, and so forth. I’m not sure why it was a shocker to me, probably because most of the people who visited us kept saying “we will pray for you” and “your dad will get healed”, and here was this woman saying these very morbid sentences. I got angry with her.


“No thank you! Our dad will get well! We are praying very hard, we believe in God, we believe he will get healed! So there!”


Not sure how effective my outburst was, because the woman kept talking, and saying phrases like “it’s hard” and “being in denial” and “comfort care” and eventually left a packet for us.


As my dad’s health deteriorated, he was moved to a nursing home where he could receive 24/7 care.


Some elders from churches came and urged us to pray more intensely. They had several suggestions and questions.


“Perhaps this is God punishing you? Were you very disobedient to your parents? Or you’re not praying enough? You don’t have enough faith?”


In horror I recalled all the times I disobeyed my parents. For some reason I was the troublemaker; I would talk back, I would tell jokes and make my siblings laugh in church, or I didn’t pay attention during a sermon. But I thought I was fine, since I’d already served my punishment by either getting the “switch” (tree branch whipping) or standing an hour or two in a paper-bag in my time-out corner. I must’ve been born naughty. When I was even younger, I got the stinging nettle punishment. When I disobeyed, dad would get a stinging nettle plant and glide it over my leg until it was completely covered in a most unpleasant burning, itching sensation. And here I was, disobedient and naughty to such a degree that God was punishing me by making my dad have cancer.


“Or perhaps there are some hidden sins he needs to confess?”


I listened to the uncomfortable dialogue of people attempting to find all the faults in my dad’s life. He read a lot of books, too many books. Perhaps he was swayed by weird teachings? He ordered many books from a catalog, who took the orders? It was a woman? Did he spend too much time talking to her? Was something else going on? These concerns were brought to him. Anything remotely suspicious or less than ideal living was a factor he had to deal with: he made phone calls, apologized to anybody who might have ever gotten offended by him.


We took turns visiting dad in the nursing home. These visits were more tolerable because they didn’t include the sterile, antiseptic smell of hospitals that made me nauseated.


One such evening I opened the back door to welcome my mom from the nursing home. She had grandma with her.


“Um, mom? Why is grandma with you? She usually stays with dad.”

She didn’t meet my eyes.


“Um, mom?”


She looked at me. Then in a barely audible voice, she whispered, “They let dad go tonight.”


What kind of an answer was that? Did he get healed miraculously?


Mom! What do you mean?”


She opened the medicine cabinet, which was located right next to the door, and took out a round container of valerian root. She shook out a few capsules and handed them to me and put a few more in her mouth.


“Take these, they will calm the nerves.”


And then I knew what she meant.