My 13-year-old son was supposed to play a song “Alive” by Tobu in his piano recital this spring but instead, for some reason, he changed his mind last minute and played “Sing Me to Sleep” by Alan Walker on piano and sang the lyrics:
“Wait a second, let me catch my breath
Remind me how it feels to hear your voice
Your lips are movin’, I can’t hear a thing
Livin’ life as if we had a choice
I would do anything for you
Anything for you
Yesterday got away
Melodies stuck inside your head
A song in every breath
Sing me to sleep now
Sing me to sleep
Won’t you sing me to sleep now?
Sing me to sleep
Remember me now, time cannot erase
I can hear your whispers in my mind
I’ve become what you cannot embrace
Our memory will be my lullaby.”
In took me a couple of moments to realize the hidden symbolism behind it, having just lost my mother a few days ago. Once I realized what it meant, I sobbed in a company of many people who came to see the concert who were probably thinking I was crazy. I just let them stare. I was so moved by the beautiful music, literally witnessing how my mom’s grandson lovingly sang her to sleep. It meant a lot to me.
He only sang to her spirit as her body was in the Russian morgue at that time, thousands of miles away, alone, frozen, partially decomposed as it was found in her apartment 6 days after her death. She lived alone for many years and did not communicate with anyone after she disconnected her phone and stopped checking her mail or opening her door to anybody since 2008.
My parents got divorced when I was 4 and I went to live with my mom and my dad visited me on weekends. My mom was a very intelligent and highly educated person, a doctor who was working as an infectious disease specialist in a microbiology lab. She used to tell me that she liked bacteria more than people. She never was very social, was quiet and reserved. I remember when my dad had guests over before their divorce she locked herself in another room and did not come out until they left. She did not have friends and did not allow me to bring friends to our apartment. My grandmother was caring for me while my mom worked long hours in the lab. When she came home, she would go into her room and close the door. We never had dinner together or went on any family vacations. I felt alone often and to alleviate my loneliness, I went to see my friends and my dad on weekends. My grandmother also taught me to saw, knit and make delicious Russian fish pies, she was a sweet stereotypical grandmother and spent time with me!
My mom was very strict and controlling and did things behind my back rather than approaching issues directly and discussing them with me. I felt she was dishonest with me a lot and I never could read her mind. She had frequent migraines and was hospitalized many times for “headaches”, at least this what I knew as a child. I did not know what mental illness was back then.
One thing I still remember about her is how clean she was, she washed twice a day and cleaned her apartment daily. She did not want my help because I did not clean up to her standard. She was not usually physically abusive but hit me with a belt 3-4 times when I refused to do what she told me. When my grandmother was dying from the Alzheimer’s, my mother did not let the EMT in her apartment. I called the ambulance because my grandmother could not swallow anymore and needed an IV and a feeding tube. Because my mom did not let her be taken to the hospital, she died from dehydration and starvation in front of my eyes. That day I also failed my university entrance exams because I was so distraught about my grandmother’s death.
Needless to say, I wanted to escape my difficult living situation when I was 18 and got married and left home. A few months later I also left Russia and came to the US at the end of 1999 with my former husband who got a job as a computer programmer while I was accepted at the university.
I still called my mom frequently when I first moved to this country but after I got pregnant and my husband divorced me because he did not want to have children, my mother promised me that she will come to the US and help me with my baby while I work. When my son was born, she told me to figure out how I will do it on my own or I can always come back to Russia and live with her under her conditions. I did not want to do that and was devastated by her lies when I was most vulnerable and desperate. I stopped calling her for about a year. After I got over that betrayal and called her again, she did not talk much to me and our relationship became very strained and most of the time she just would not answer the phone.
In 2007 I came to see her with my new husband and a 2-year-old son from the first marriage but no matter how many times I rang the doorbell, she did not open to us. We stayed with my dad so we can have a place to sleep.
In 2008, we came again and she opened on a second day accidentally as she was leaving her apartment to go somewhere, and we just happened to be right there! We talked a little and she let us in and we slept that night in her apartment. She told us we were dirty from our travels and need to wash immediately but she had no door to the bathroom. She had no bed for us or chairs and she herself slept on a floor. She had fancy wallpaper and a lot of beautiful paintings in golden frames, her apartment was almost empty and immaculately clean and looked like a gallery, it was dark and eerie. There was no food in her apartment but she got very overweight somehow, I have never seen her like that when I lived in Russia as she was always slender and tall.
I told her that I will go grocery shopping and cook dinner for all of us so we all can sit down and have a meal together. She told me that she cannot join us and went to her room to sleep. We followed her into her room to talk to her and she smiled at her grandson and I have precious photos of two of them smiling together! After a few minutes, she told me she had a headache and we need to go in the other room. I could not sleep all night but heard her steps going in the kitchen. In the morning all the left-overs were gone, she ate them all alone at night.
I asked her about her life and she just told me that she is dating a young painter, thus she has all the paintings that he gave her. I did not believe her but said that I would be interested to meet him. Of course, she said it was not possible.
I told her to join us for a play, movie or to go see our friends or shopping or anything else that she would want to do with us. She told us to go by ourselves because she was too tired. I could not get through to my mom and we left and stayed at my dad’s apartment again. I was very sad and hurt and mostly felt like I failed to help her in any way despite our best efforts.
When we came back to the US, she disconnected her phone line permanently and we never spoke again. I called her neighbors and asked them to put my written messages by her door but she never picked them up or replied to me. I have never seen her again. I sent her letters, pictures of my kids, my dad’s book that I published after his death, care packages, asked people including her relatives to knock on her door with no positive result. She was totally unreachable.
I tried my hardest to concentrate on my life and my blessings and not worry about my mom because I could not change anything about her. When people asked about my mom, I always used to say, she doesn’t talk to me anymore and since I cannot change that, I accept her decision. Sometimes I wondered if she is as good as dead for me. I hated myself for having those thoughts.
I had a vivid dream at the end of April that I came to see her in Russia but did not know the passcode to open a door to the common entrance of her apartment building. I was waiting all day and all night for somebody to open the door for me but not a single person was there and I left feeling completely devastated. I woke up in tears. A week later, I got a call about her death from my best friend in Russia. I came home from a morning jog, I was in a good happy mood. When my Russian friend talked to me she told me that she just had a new baby. I was so happy for her and asked many questions, but then she proceeded to tell me that my mother is dead. That was simply surreal. I sat on the ground and stared in front of me in shock and disbelief. She just turned 76, I never thought she would die so relatively young. I thanked my friend and told her that I cannot talk anymore. I was sitting on the ground, frozen for hours just staring at the distance.
In the evening I summoned some strength and called her neighbor to learn details of her death. They found her 6 days after she died and there was a bad smell. Her body was at the morgue. The was an investigation into the cause of her death and the apartment was sealed because she lived alone. I heard isolated words but could not construct a cohesive image of what actually happened to my mom and what I am supposed to do about it.
I went to sleep and slept for more than 12 hours. I did not care about anything. My husband had to take time off work to care for our four young children because I couldn’t. I stayed in bed. I did not talk much. I did not eat for a few days and barely drank. I stayed in my room, just like my mom used to do. I did not cry. I felt numb.
My life lost its meaning, somebody dear to me who was supposed to be by my side never really was and now never will be. However her door was finally open, I laughed in trance. That door that I despised is finally open! Her beautiful paintings, objects of her admiration that she chose over living people who loved her, are still hanging there as nothing ever happened even though she is gone. Now those objects of art are staring at the eternity. I looked at my current house too, so many meaningless things, my souvenirs from travels, kids portraits, vases, all meaningless, all temporary. I am temporary and so are my kids and my husband. We all are going to die, so what is the point of it all? I was scared of my thoughts and my cognitive dysfunction and the powerful existential crisis.
I was taking a class in my graduate program and I literally could not pay attention or understand my professor’s words. I told her that. She was worried about me and made sure I got into therapy, which I did. I would describe the first few weeks as a state of dissociation, unreality, a frozen state. My children were very worried about me and so was my husband. I had a flat affect and expressed no emotion.
Later I experienced profound sadness mostly without crying because I do not like to cry, the only consolation was when I felt my mom’s presence. I walked in a hallway and a small red glass heart fell on my foot. It felt as if she said that she loved me! I heard a song that was about somebody loving their beloved despite the fact that the other person was too far for too long. All is forgiven, it said in the song. I cried tears of joy and compassion after hearing it as I felt it was a message from her.
Then I found my dad’s letter about how much he loved my mom and how much he wanted to be together with her before his death in 2013. Then my 5-year-old daughter wrote a word Embassy on a notepad and I was even surprised that she knew that word but as I found out she just copied Embassy Suites from the cover of the notepad. I knew that I had to go to the Russian Embassy and bring my mom’s body here.
After a lot of paperwork and many difficulties as well as help from my stepbrother in Russia (we have different moms) we had her body brought here so she can be buried next to my dad. We had a lot of difficulty getting her body from the JFK airport because the customs employee did not find an official cause of death on her death certificate and was refusing to release my mom’s body. I really lost my cool when talking to that woman and she told me I am too emotional and hang up on me. I was able to find a cause of death on a different certificate and then she was released to the funeral home the next day.
We had a funeral right away exactly a month after she died. Two of my friends came to support me and my in-laws in addition to our family. My son played the keyboard to her and sang and I read a eulogy and the Russian Orthodox priest said traditional prayers for the deceased. The first time she ever came to visit me was in a casket, it was very bittersweet, more bitter than sweet. My mom was finally close to me. At the funeral, I told her that I want to remember the day she brought me home from the hospital when I was born and gazed at me all night with motherly love and tenderness. I want to hold on to that moment forever despite different, darker, more painful moments we had later on in our relationship. The day before I buried her was a Father’s Day and I took my husband out to a place we both have never been before and we saw a portrait of an older woman hugging a sad younger one on a wall at that restaurant. I knew it was my mom’s message of love, comfort, and forgiveness. Amazingly, I felt a relief after I buried her, I was almost ecstatic, I brought her red roses to her grave. She loved red roses. I felt she was at peace. I was at peace.
Then in the next few weeks, I had a roller coaster of emotions ranging from despair and sadness to anger, to guilt, numbness, and sometimes to nothing. I am currently seeing a therapist for my grief and it helps to talk to somebody who understands.
I called my mom’s only friend and talked to her so she could share memories of my mom with me. She told me that she invited her many times for tea but my mom did not accept those invitations. She told me that when my mom no longer needed something to be that a person or a thing, she would let go of it without any regrets. I called her brother and he said that she was always quiet and did not sit with her family for dinner and never wanted to be in any family photos and her mom (my grandmother) was worried about her mental state when I was a child. He also told me that his father and her stepfather was physically abusive toward her and frequently used a belt and would also lock her in a room with him and later buy her expensive clothes and jewelry when she was a teenager.
To find resolution and the better understanding regarding my mom’s life and death, I went to see a very gifted medium. She told me that my mom looked beautiful and elegant in her vision, well dressed younger version of self, surrounded by red and pink roses (she really loved roses). She showed her life in a busy town, her walking and taking public transportation to get to work. She described seeing apples (my mom loved apples) and her dark room where she liked to lay down on the floor. My mom did not like any light in her apartment and had 3 layers of heavy drapes on her windows and dark brown wallpaper on her ceiling and walls. She loved shoes and used to have many pairs. She told me my mom was religious and lit candles when she prayed. Her legs were swollen at the end, she has a congestion in her chest and was very nauseous before she died. She was waiting for me even though she couldn’t let me in and she sat in her chair for days and waited and looked at the paintings. She loved me without a doubt but that love was more like a bird in a cage that could not escape her intense fear of leaving her surroundings and communicating with people. She had a profound mental illness and emotional pain. The medium told me that the stepfather was awful to her, abused her physically and sexually without feeling any remorse. She was deeply hurt in her childhood. At the end she was very unwell emotionally and psychically, she was suffering and death was a welcomed relief. Her message to me was to not judge her harshly because she simply could not connect with anyone, she lived her life “behind a glass” and one of her biggest joys was actually having me. She wanted to remind me that we also had good, happy times when I was little and she wanted to relive them again. She cared for me in the best way she could by buying me nice clothes and shoes and feeding me healthy food but she did not understand me and could not connect with me on the emotional level. But she admired me for my liveliness and resilience. I was very different from her, I was a survivor. She was aware I went through very hard times in my life in 2013 and had multiple losses. She feels no anger toward me, just the regret that she couldn’t do better or help me in my struggles. She still watches over me. She would love if I visit her grave and bring flowers. She tells me to study hard and pursue my career in counseling because I can help many people who struggle like her. She is fascinated with how well my mind works and how positive I am after everything I have been through, which was divorce, single motherhood without any support, loss of my dad, 2 miscarriages, and a heartbreaking failed adoption. She said I am her happy thought and she will forever hold on to those precious moments. I was very happy to hear those messages from her and the accuracy with which the medium described everything about my mom was simply fascinating! I felt her presence, her love and it gave me peace.
I will not give up and my goal in life now is to overcome my fears because fears are what destroyed my mom. I think the best thing I can do to honor her is not to become like her in that regard.
In terms of the counseling perspective and how my grief experience can help me work with bereft clients, I learned that grief is a very non-linear process and the most important thing is to move through and not get stuck in any particular stage for too long. I took an active approach by bringing my mom’s body here to bury her it next to my dad, working with a lawyer to sell her apartment in Russia, talking to her brother to learn about her childhood and a friend to learn more about her adult life and seeing a medium to find the hidden truth.
I feel better and less helpless for being able to do something in a situation that seemed hopeless. I love my mom immensely. I do not want to be like her.