During all of my 'sanatorium' stages, I visited my parents only one time. I was fourteen then. Summer was approaching. In the sanatorium, in our department a grand remodeling had been planned. It was decided that for the time of the remodeling all kids will be going home. I was really longing for coming home, but my parents did not want to come to pick me up. Doctors had been sending them one telegram after another, for no avail.* * *
That was confusing and alarming because my home sat just two blocks away from the sanatorium. The school year was wrapping up. All of the children were going home. Nobody knew what to do with me. My friend Natasha was also leaving. She, too, was an old resident of the sanatorium - she had been treated for the tuberculosis of her spine. When we were little kids, we were staying in the same room. All children younger than eight were put in the same room, regardless of their gender. I stayed in such a room for 'little ones' until I turned ten.
Natasha came to say goodbye:
- Anton, what are you going to do? Almost everyone has already left?
- Maybe I will be leaving soon, too. Maybe, they will come to pick me up, - I said with uncertainty.
- Let's write a note to your parents - suggested Natasha, all of a sudden.
- What note?
- Let me write it.
She squatted near my nightstand and scribbled something with a ballpoint pen.
- Here, look!
In front of my eyes, there was a piece of paper, saying: 'Mother, why you are not coming for me..?' - followed by a very rude profanity.
- No, I do not want it this way! I have great Mom and Dad.
- Good? They don't care if you even exist. See, they don't want you to come home.
- No. Tear up what you just wrote. Destroy it at once!
- OK, fine. I will be leaving now. Maybe I will see you again. Bye.
And she held out her hand for me.
Nevertheless, in two days my Grandpa came. When I showed up at home, it became clear that not only I was unexpected, I was also not welcome.
- Why do you write these dirty letters? - My Mother attacked me straight from the threshold.
- What letters? - I did not understand.
- This letter, - and she handed over Natasha's note from the other day.
- This was found in our mailbox. Without an envelope.
- I did not write this. Can't you see it's not my handwriting?
Mom did not believe me anyway. 'It's signed with your name'.
My friend Natasha overdid it. Even without this note I was unwanted. I could see it from the questions and looks of my little sister who already got used to being the most important person in this family, the subject of undivided attention and affection. I could read it in my Mother's actions while she was doing something for me. No, she did not have to clean up my mess or anything like that. However, I could not manage without someone's help. I needed help to be washed, to be given food, water, to take away the containers with my waste. The family had to constantly worry about what to do with me if they wanted to go on a trip. Mother was quite certain that her energy was being spent for nothing, I will never be useful - I am a fruitless tree - that's what I've been reading in her eyes.
I could read it in the eyes of my Father whom I did not see very often. By this time, he was promoted to the position of the director of the fish-processing plant. He worked late, often - on weekends. Sometimes, he would enter the room I shared with my sister and sit across from me. It was really hard to convey what his look was exactly saying. I could not see in it anything that I was really hoping to see. The only thing that I could very clearly read was a reproach: 'Son, how come you failed me so much?'
In June, almost immediately upon my coming home, my Mother decided that it would be best to go to our summer cabin and stay there for a month, to survive the hottest time of the year. At that time, for a regular soviet family an air conditioner was completely out of reach, almost like space travel. Our family was considered wealthy - my Father had a very prestigious position, however, we did not have an AC unit. At that time, I did not even know what AC was all about, although summer time in Astrakhan is very difficult to bear. The mercury often hits over 100 F in the shade. So, my Father agreed with my Mother's plan, even if he had to commute to his work at the fish plant every day. It helped that my parents had a car, which they purchased after they moved to Astrakhan, using the money my Dad made while working on a whaling ship.
The day of the move was confirmed. All I expected from this day were fractures, because during the move I would be unavoidably carried and not once. In the morning of that day, my mom was talking about something with my Father, before he left for work. Then she approached me:
- Honey, I and Tanya will be leaving right now, and Daddy will come after six and bring you over.
On the floor, Mom set a plate with my regular breakfast and lunch: two raw eggs, bread, salt and tea. I was left alone to wait for my Father. Once, when I was just four years old, I was left alone like that. I was waiting and waiting for my relatives. Usually, nothing scary was happening, but that day, or rather that night, they were running really late. The last sunrays vanished, and our apartment turned dark. I could not turn on the light. I could only crawl to the entrance door, like a puppy, and while looking intently into the thinnest beam of light near the very floor, keenly listen to the footsteps at the stairs. People were passing by. Someone entered the apartment across the hallway; somebody else walked to the upper floor. I already had learned really well how to guess about everything that's going on outside by the sound. I could not go out to look, but I had ears. All that time, I was listening closely to the noises and sounds, waiting for the key to be turned in the lock - I would recognize this sound among thousands of others. But it was all very quiet.
That's when I got really frightened. Not for my life, but for nobody ever coming and me staying alone in this big empty two-bedroom apartment. I started to cry. First - quietly, then - louder. All of a sudden, I wanted to be heard. In a minute, I was screaming.
The woman, who lived across from us, walked to the door.
- What happened?
- Mama! Mama! Mama is not coming - I bawled.
Somebody else walked close, they quietly mumbled and walked away.
In time, I heard the long awaited liberating clanging in the door lock.
- Why did you throw a tantrum? - asked my Mother strictly.
- Make sure I never hear this again, - stated my Father, almost meanly.
Since then, I was never afraid. No, of course I was. I just was trying really hard not to show it ever again.
* * *
On the day of moving to our cabin I was waiting again. It was hot. Our apartment was located on the first floor, with its windows wide open. This time I was listening to the street. There near the entrance door, our neighbors were sitting on a bench as usual. Old women had no other business but to gossip about passer byes - about everybody who was getting into their field of view.
- Oh, hello, Nina! Are you coming from work? You look so tired, why don't you sit down with us for a while?
- Hi, Aunt Lida! No thank you, I am really tired. And I have a dinner to cook. My husband will be coming from work soon and I still have nothing ready.
- Really, you are always doing chores, always working so hard. Does he mistreat you by any chance?
- No, how can you say such things Aunt Lida? He never mistreats me. He likes to take a drink, but he works a lot so he needs to relax sometimes. OK, I will be going now. Maybe I will stop by later.
- All right, Nina, I'll let you go. You work too much, look at how thin you are. I know for sure that your husband works a lot. He is a good guy. He works hard to earn the money, - the voice of the speaker was compassionate, almost pitiful.
Steps on the stairs gradually faded away.
- She is lazy, and her husband is just like her. Gets drunk and hits her. Perhaps, she deserves it, - the voice belonged to the same 'Aunt Lida' who had so much pity for the neighbor that just left.
Knowing about the evil tongues of our neighbors, my Mother avoided conversations with these regular inhabitants of the bench. Only on a very rare occasion she invited any of them for a visit. However, the 'aunties' respected her. At least they showed it when some of them would stop by to borrow salt or flour.
I was listening to these bench gossips, waiting for my Father and trying to imagine how he will be carrying me to the car: how he will pick me up, how he will hold me while locking the door with the key, leaving the lobby, opening the car door, placing me on a seat, how it is better for me to hold my leg with my hand. In short, it was a regular process: I was mentally preparing myself for the transition, trying to foresee all circumstances, in order to minimize the amount of fractures.
It was close to seven when I heard the key being turned in a lock - Father was home.
- Waiting for me, Son? Let me take a shower, then I will relax for a few, and we'll go.
My Dad knew about my emotions. I never told anyone, but he could see how stressed I was, how my face was changing at the moments when he or my Mom picked me up and held me in their hands.
Summertime was always a source of suffering for my Dad. He had Psoriasis. He got the disease during one of his voyages abroad. According to his story, not far from New Zealand, a radioactive cloud covered their ship. An emergency was called, everyone hid inside except for him - he did not make it to the shelter in time. This cloud was the product of a nuclear test on Atoll Mururua. After that trip, Dad spent some time in the hospital. The Psoriasis appeared later, and it was getting worse every time when Dad was under stress. After he became a director at the fish plant, he was constantly under stress.
Red scaly patches covered all of his body, with only his face remaining clean. During a period of aggravation the patches would itch and tighten the skin. Because of the disease, Dad had to wear a long-sleeved shirt even during summertime. Nobody at his work knew about his disease, and he felt very shy about it. The lesions looked scary, and even if this disease is not contagious, it makes an unpleasant impression. Every evening after work he would take a shower, and then sit in a chair for a while, scratching his patches until they start to bleed. Then, speckles of dry skin were scattered everywhere on a floor, and Mom was constantly mad with Dad because of that. But he just couldn't stop. It was an agonizing condition. He went to see lots of different doctors, but nothing helped. Somewhere, Mom found a formula for a potion that gave him some relief. This potion was made at home, from really smelly ingredients. Only in the evening when Dad finally could rub down his skin with this odorous ointment, did he finally look soothed and rested from a grueling itch.
For a little while, he set in a chair picking on his sores, and then started to get ready. He looked out of the kitchen's window.
- What the heck are they doing here? - he sounded irritated.
Only at this moment did I realize that Dad was not just relaxing after work; he was waiting for the neighbors to leave. It was around nine, but they were still sitting near the lobby, and judging by their lively conversation had no intention to leave. Still, we had to travel to suburbs.
Father went to the bedroom that had windows overlooking onto another street. The street was empty. He pulled out the mosquito net, opened the window, and put a chair outside.
- Let's go, Son! - he approached me and took me in his arms.
When Dad was picking me up, I was not very afraid. His arms were strong, and he was always touching me very gently. He lifted me and started to carry me, not towards the door, but towards the bedroom window. He laid me on a windowsill.
- Lie carefully. I will just go out to bring the car up here. These ladies are still sitting over there. I don't want them to watch.
'These ladies' were the 'aunties', gossiping about everything and everyone. All of a sudden I guessed and with a jolt of pain realized - my Father was ashamed to have such son. Also, I figured, not only he was ashamed, but my Mother too. That's what their morning talk in the kitchen was all about. It was about that. This discovery shocked me. Abruptly, I felt a burning agony of inferiority that was just set upon me by the most important of all people -my Father. Guarding himself of nasty tongues of the neighbors, he had chosen to carry me through the window like a thief, so nobody would see his shame and disgrace - his sick son.
* * *
I was lying, afraid to move, experiencing yet unknown pain. I did not break anything; the pain was coming from a very deep inside. I realized that not only was I a burden to my parents; I was also a kind of burden that had to be thoroughly hidden from the rest. I noticed that when we had guests, my parents avoided showing me, keeping guests far away from the room where I was hiding. But that was the first time I realized with such clarity an extent to which my parents were ashamed of me, of my disability.
Dad appeared underneath the window, in three minutes, got up on a chair and carefully took me down from the windowsill. A few moments later I was already placed on a rear seat. And a little later, we were on our way to the suburbs to our dacha.
My Mother was meeting us at the gates. Our plot of land wasn't big. It was almost dark, but in a liquid light of electric lamp I noticed rows of grapevines, climbing up on the strings stretched over the wooden poles. Never before had I seen how the grapes are growing. Actually, that was my first real time outdoors. In front of the house, there was a thicket of rose bushes, and behind there was a vegetable garden. Fruit trees where growing there, too. Mother always stocked for the winter, canning tomatoes and pickles, making preserves. She cooked really well, but staying in a sanatorium all the time, I did not have many chances to try all these delicious things.
For the whole month of June and one week of July I stayed on a dacha with my family. For the first few days, Mom was taking me outside, laying me down on a camp bed under a tent. The tent provided good shade, but still, it was about 100 F. In the night, she would carry me back into the house, where I was sleeping on a floor. My parents and my little sister were sleeping in the same room, sharing the only bed. It was not getting any cooler at night. The fan was constantly on. Everybody had hard time falling asleep. For me nights were torturous. On the first weekend Mom decided to wash me in a small narrow trough. When she lowered me, my collarbone snapped. Fracture. I grimaced but did not say anything to her. She already figured that something happened. When she finished washing, she called for my Father, to help to pull me out of the trough. Pain in a collarbone was strong and I became tense at the moment when my Dad picked me up in his arms. As a result - one more fracture. Actually, two at once. Both arm and leg were broken - because the leg snapped when I let it out of the broken arm. Nothing out of the ordinary; just my normal life. I had to say goodbye to the time outside on a camp bed and spend the rest of my stay inside, in a stuffy room, where the rattling fan, which was now running day and night, was my only relief from the heat. Also I had to replace bath times by being sponged over with a wet towel.
* * *
Sometimes, while outside of the cabin, I could see clear skies. I looked up and kept thinking, thinking. I looked up at the floating clouds. I wanted to fly away with them, to fly away from everything, and from my Mom and Dad, too. Perhaps, away from them most of all. At the same time, I knew - they were the only people in the whole world, to whom I was still connected to, by blood, by attachment, by habit. Who else would even care, besides my parents - I was clearly a shameful burden to them, but still, I was their burden, not someone else's?
Our return from the dacha happened after dark, too, but this time Dad carried me throughout the door. The bench in front of the house was empty.
In a similar fashion after dark he took me over to Grandma, when one week later, after the dacha, my Mom and my little sister went for vacation in Truskavets. Dad was working, so I was a nuisance for him. Before Mother's return, they handed me over to my Grandma.
Copyright © 1998-2003 Anton M. Borissov. Astrakhan. Russia.
Portland, OR, USA