7. Goodbyes

FullSizeRender-4During one of the visits in the quarantine room, the doctor turned to me and asked,

 

“You’re the oldest daughter in this family?”

I nodded.

He cleared his throat.

“Ahem. Ah, well, now would be a time to say something to your mother. Last words. A final ‘I love you’. She won’t respond but she might hear you and receive your message.”

 

I choked on the sob that burst out of me. I knelt by Mom’s hospital bed as thoughts flashed through my head. My last ‘I love you’? We had never said “I love you”. Ever. This would be my first time.

 

My breathing quickened to rapid bursts, my cheeks were flushed, I couldn’t wipe the tears off fast enough, and the room felt like it was closing in.

Oh. My. God.

I looked at Mom’s face. Her eyes were closed, and she looked quite peaceful. Her dark brown hair was in a messy bun, and a few strands escaped to make swirls across the pillow. “Mama, I, uh, um, I don’t know if you can hear me,” I whispered. This felt so unnatural. “I want you to know that I think you were the best mom out there. I, um, I love you. Very much. I don’t want you to die! Who will take care of us? I’m so sorry for being a brat so many times! Please forgive me.”

 

I didn’t think I could cry any harder, but a new wave of uncontrollable sobs erupted.

 

The doctor said, “OK, times up.”

 

I whispered a last desperate “I love you!” and stepped out of the room.

 

An overwhelming feeling of remorse filled me. Mom probably thought I didn’t even like her. I’d been so self-centered so often. Always thinking of myself, whatever is best for me, not being aware of how other people are feeling. My dad had been right; I was selfish. And here was Mom, dying, and it was too late for me to show my appreciation of all she did for the family. It was too late to say that I loved her. What good was it saying to somebody who was barely alive?

 

Two days later I got off the school bus and saw my aunt, who I’ll call Aunt Jenny, standing by the driveway. She motioned for me to come closer. I had a sneaky suspicion I knew what it was about.

 

I came closer and waited for her to say something. Her eyes were darting all over the place and finally landed on mine.

 

“I have to tell you something,” she paused, then took a shaky breath. “Your mom. She’s gone.”

 

Then she opened her arms and caught me as I fell on her and wept.

 

A blurry filter took over. Everything went hazy.

 

Life shifted out-of-focus.

 

The next thing I was aware of was having a conversation with my grandma. It didn’t seem real, because her voice seemed far away, as if in a tunnel. It felt like I was watching the scene, like I wasn’t even there. It was a discussion about where each sibling was going to live. For some reason, Dad’s relatives were out of the question. Some relatives could take one sibling; some two or three. Some families who had cousins close to my age wanted me to live with them. I had to think of which sibling got along best with whom. Where would each sibling go? Did that family have similar aged kids? Which family could handle a particular brother or sister? The ten of us were split up amongst six families, from the west coast all the way to the east coast.

 

I was terrified of moving somewhere unfamiliar. Plus, the coolest aunt and uncle were the ones who lived locally, Aunt Jenny and her husband, who I’ll call Uncle John. Uncle John played in a band once, and still performed with a group at certain events. I convinced Grandma that the best fit for me would be to live locally, because of school and the complications of moving and making friends at the high school age level. Tickets were purchased. Everybody would pack a bag of belongings and head out the day after the funeral.

 

We sat on the front row during the memorial service. Story after story was told about what a nice lady Mom was. Wow. She helped out when a metal flagpole fell on somebody’s head, assisted folks with meals, helped out financially, gave good advice, and prayed for needs. I wasn’t familiar with all the stories. My perspective had been one-sided, a negative one at that, because I disliked my role at home and because Mom never let me go to sleepovers.

 

I thought of the pleasant things she’d done. She took me shopping for a zip-up sweatshirt. She bought a real camera for me. She even allowed me to order a refurbished laptop from an ad that we got in the mail. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the laptop to work, but it was still the most expensive purchase she’d ever made for me. I wondered if all those items she bought for me had anything to do with my annoying remarks about her spending so much time working. Quite often I reminded Mom that I could be doing so many other things besides taking care of the house and kids. This was her way of calming me down, by buying me gifts. But now, seeing her lifeless body in front of me, I could care less about those things. I wished for more time with her. I wished I didn’t complain during the thrift store shopping trips. I wished I cherished the time I worked at the Dollar Store with her. I wished I smiled during the photos with her, where she found similar looking outfits and wanted pictures of us together. I had disliked all things that bonded us together. I regretted that with all my might. Oh what I would give to go back and relive those years. The uncomfortable knot in my stomach became painful. What a lousy daughter I had been.

 

During the funeral service, I alternated between sobbing and cracking jokes. My friends joined me in the nervous giggling after hearing the punch lines but then would look at me with wide eyes and ask,

“What’s wrong with you?”

I had no idea. The jokes were coming out by themselves. Something probably was wrong with me.

 

There were countless hugs going around, especially between my brothers and sisters. We clutched each other tightly until we couldn’t breathe and apologized for all the sibling rivalry we’d ever had. I apologized to each sibling who wasn’t allowed into my room because he or she was considered too young. I apologized to my brother who was tricked into getting paid by a fake five-dollar bill after tidying up the living room.

 

Out on the burial site, things got even more exciting. A tall, old man, one of the highest-ranking elders in fact, dared say something unspeakable, loud enough for everybody to hear:

 

“Crying won’t help any of you. Calm down. It’s not going to bring your mother back. I didn’t cry when my wife passed away.”

 

There was an audible gasp from the crowd. How dare he say something like that? An awkward pause followed. What now? Nobody talks back to an elder. Then, to my great astonishment, a friend who was a few years older than me, raised her voice and challenged him:

 

“Are you out of your mind? That is not nice! These kids just lost the most important person in the world to them!”

 

She instantly earned a hero status in my mind.

 

After several commotion-filled days, we began to settle in. I shared a room and a bed with my sister who came right after me in sibling order. We whispered late into the nights about what the future held for us. How can we go to school and act normal and happy? Now that everything was completely different, was there anything good that we could look forward to?

 

I sat up abruptly. “Yes! I’ve got it!”

My sister looked at me with puffy eyes. “Oh really? What?”

“We can wear pants! Even jeans!”
“No way. Parents never let us, why would Aunt and Uncle allow it?” Why was my sister being so sensible?

“Because they’re the awesome relatives! Aunt Jenny is really pretty, she can wear pants, and they have a fancy house…” my voice trailed off.

 

I asked both Uncle and Aunt about it. Aunt Jenny was hesitant, “Well, I don’t know. Your mother was pretty firm about the no pants policy. I’m not sure how she’d feel if we began to allow you something that was against her principles.”

 

I grimaced. It was mostly Dad who had cared about the pants, with Deuteronomy 22:5 being the driving force. Gym class was the only exception. Once in a while some of us sisters would sneak pants under the traditional skirt or dress outfit, and change while hiding cleverly between the seats of the school bus. Of course we’d have to switch back before arriving at home.

 

Uncle John came to the rescue. “Who cares if they wear pants? What difference does it make now?”

 

Yes!

 

Aunt Jenny took us clothes shopping at the mall. Nobody had ever purchased so many things all in one go for us. We got sweatshirts, shirts, leather jackets, and last but not least, actual blue jeans. What a gift!

 

Right away I wore the jeans to school. I felt slightly more normal than when I wore my bright old-fashioned skirts with white sneakers. A popular sophomore girl came up immediately and exclaimed, “Galina! You’re wearing jeans? Wow! I’ve never seen you wear pants before!”

 

My excellent social skills came in handy. “Um, yeah well, you see, my mom never let me wear pants and she died last week so I guess I can wear pants now.”

 

She looked visibly shocked. She quickly mumbled an “I’m so sorry!” then rushed to talk to somebody else.

 

At that moment I realized that even though I was now wearing jeans, I wasn’t going to ever fit in.

 

3. Food Stamp Rewards

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I don’t remember much about the funeral except sitting in the front row of the memorial service and staring straight at the open casket. As absurd as it may seem, a tiny, almost fearful, glimmer of hope remained: what if dad will wake up? It happened in the Bible, why not now? Maybe the miracle was waiting to happen? Yet it was terrifying to imagine a dead body moving or sitting up. I tried to make my siblings feel better.

 

“There’s a book that’s called ‘Ten Kids, No Pets’. Maybe we should all write a book, and call it ‘Ten Kids, No Dad’?”

 

Nobody thought it was funny.

 

After the body was buried, I realized all chances for a supernatural miracle were buried as well. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt that I didn’t pray hard enough or demonstrate enough faith to save dad.

 

That year I was a seventh grader, and it was my first year at a private school. Some friends sent their kids there, so my family had decided to try it out too, just me though. During the months my dad was sick, I attended irregularly and one of my teachers would bring me some of the homework so I wouldn’t fall too far behind. When I resumed attendance, there was a small yellow card on my desk from my teacher, and in absolutely beautiful handwriting was a message about missing me and how nice it was to have me back. It was one of the sweetest things anybody had ever done for me. During the school morning assembly, there was a gift waiting for me. It was a bike. It was very nice bike, much nicer than the garage sale bikes we had at home, but it wasn’t my dad. It didn’t replace my dad. My teacher asked if there is anything at all that could be done to make me feel better. To my delight, she was willing to give me piano lessons during lunch break. She took it up a notch and taught me a song on the violin, and even let me hold a flute. The music experience was a fitting distraction from reality.

 

A short time after, we moved into another house. It was too unsettling to continue living in the current house and imagining dad everywhere. I went back to the local public school. Life was obviously different. We switched churches. There were no more Saturday morning garage sale shopping. Mom didn’t smile anymore. I felt sorry for her because she now had to play the role of two parents caring for so many kids, and especially with the baby being a few months old. The baby was my biggest responsibility: diapers, formula bottles, naps and bedtime. There were nights the baby just wanted to be held, and I would pace the room while the whole family was sleeping to keep the baby quiet.

 

I had to ensure all the household chores were completed by the assigned kids: all the dishes, kitchen tables, laundry, vacuuming. Mom used money to reward us. I would get the most since I was the oldest and had to manage the chores. This served to my advantage because I had extra money that I could use to pay one of my siblings to do my chore for me. Now the disadvantage was that most of this money was in the form of food stamps. The booklet allowed $1 food stamps to be torn out, which is what mom used. Then when she went grocery shopping she would take up to three kids with her and the prizes would get purchased, usually Little Debbie snack packs. Star Crunch was my favorite. Once in a while the green dollars were used, which held a higher bargaining power. When that didn’t work, I would offer to do homework or projects in exchange for cleaning a particularly messy kitchen or room. Once I did a drawing project for a much younger sibling, and it accidentally won a prize and got in the town newspaper. I became more careful with which homework I helped after that.

 

Mom began having some weird dreams. Dad had a brother who never married, and you guessed it, that’s who the dreams were about. She began fantasizing about him marrying her and making her life a little easier. He came over several times for some practical purposes. Mom casually mentioned the idea, scared him off for good, and he never came to visit us again.

 

We slowly adjusted to the way things were. With ten kids around it was difficult to be bored. Somebody gave us kittens. We dug out an enormous dirt pit for the boys. It had fantastic roads and tunnels where they would drive their Hot Wheels cars around for hours. We had a huge yard to play in. It was so huge that we would run laps and imagine we were training for the Olympics. The next-door neighbor was an avid gardener who spent most of her time digging around in her plants. We imagined her face expression when we would win the Olympic medals and she would say “Wow! I lived next door to them and saw them training! Too bad I wasn’t very nice to them. Too bad I never got their autograph!” The remainder of our free time was spent playing tag downstairs.

 

One of the more challenging adjustments was waking up on time. Our mornings were ridiculously hectic. We had a few alarm clocks always set. Somebody would finally wake up and realize it’s five minutes before the school bus arrives, so a mad dash around the house got the rest of the kids up and out the door. Good luck trying to eat breakfast. Of course there was the person who liked to snooze. As we would run up the long driveway to the road where the bus was waiting, I’d do a quick headcount and realize we’re short one, so I’d have to rush back into the house to see who’s missing and why. It was often a sibling who fell asleep while doing homework, which meant a quick “Get up and go!” especially if yesterday’s outfit was already on. If not, it might be too late to make it to school. Garbage Day was the worst day of the week. As we raced up the driveway to get on the school bus we would remember about it:

 

“Oh no!”

 

“What?”

 

“We forgot the take the garbage bins!”

 

“Ok, go, go, go!”

 

“No! I did it last week!”

 

“Who cares? Let’s go, I’ll help you!”

 

“No, my backpack is heavy!”

 

“I’ll give you a dollar!”

 

“OK!”

 

“Oh no!”

 

“What?”

 

“We need to do recycling containers too!”

 

The bus driver would patiently wait for us, every single school day. God bless her heart.

 

It wasn’t enough for our family to live off of the government assistance, so mom began looking for jobs. She found a laundry position in the evening in the same nursing home where dad had been. One of the grandmas, aunts, or a friend would stay over to help with the kids. We went to church on Sundays in our white and blue Dodge Ram van. It was fancy because it had a TV inside. The first TV we’d ever owned. As soon as service was over, mom would stay and chat with people, and we would hurry into the van and watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It was the only available option; all the other channels had static.

 

Then one evening something unusual took place. There was a knock on the door. We opened the door to see a man with white hair and a bouquet of flowers standing there. He looked at us awkwardly and said,

 

“I’m here to see your mom, is she available?”