Tuesday, July 3, 2007


On May 9, 2003, I got a horrible phone call. My only uncle, my mom’s brother Valera, had passed away. There were three circumstances that made this waaaaaay more painful than any of the previous deaths. The first was the fact that he was 45. The second was that he died in his mother’s arms from acute alcohol poisoning that basically stopped his heart. The third was that there was no way I could fly there for the funeral, not in time, not that summer, all because my employer did not file my visa renewal in time. I was stuck in Boston with my grief, and a complete inability to do something about it. Moreover, I was so fucking angry at my uncle. Angry for being selfish, for going out drinking with his friends before the holiday (V-E Day, a huge holiday in Russia), for knowing what alcohol can do to him (the man was a fucking doctor, ok? A radiologist!), for not calling the ambulance fast enough. Angry for the ambulance for dilly-dallying, for making him get dressed before they tried to take him away, for treating him just like another alcoholic, instead of a man with a medical degree who self-diagnosed. Angry for the broken-down social systems in Russia that turn a talented doctor into a depressive alcoholic because his salary is not enough to live on apart from his mother, because every day he doled out 4th Stage lung cancer diagnoses to teenage girls and working men in a dark office with ancient equipment and complete inability to help his patients, because life is just too fucking depressing and needs to be escaped. So he did. In a major way.

In Russia we bury our dead in their physical bodies. Cremation is against the tenets of the Orthodox Church. It is believed that when the day of Judgment comes, the dead will walk among the living, and they need their bodies for that. The soul also is believed to not leave the body until the 9th day after the passing, so you kinda need the body for that as well. On the 9th day it is good to go to the cemetery and talk to the decedent, giving them a shot of vodka covered in a slice of black bread. This usually gets drunk and eaten by the bums who hang out at cemeteries after you leave. On the 40th day, the soul leaves this world, having corrected all its earthly sins and mistakes. It is also necessary to go the cemetery then. So this very natural system for grieving is built in, a gradual way to let go of your loved one, a way of communication that is both consoling and reassuring. My grandmother went to the cemetery every week that year, rain or snow. It helped her to not lose her mind completely. Helped my mom too. They buried Valera next to his father. Most cemetery plots have little tables and benches installed, if you wish. It’s oddly comforting to visit their graves with my mom and grandmother, and have a meal with them, telling them about the events of last week/month/year. I just wish I could do it more often, because not being able to tell the dead you love them is a terrible burden.

However, I can tell Jasmine I love her almost all the time. In June 2005 my pretty blue-eyed Tonkinese seal-point princess Jasmine, aged 11, was lying on the cool tile in front of the fireplace, and panting like a fish out of the water. She was diagnosed with a malignant lymphoma in August 2004. One day I was scratching her throat, and felt a lump. In a few days it was the size of a golf ball. My original idiotic vet put her on antibiotics, which only spurred the cancer. Once in oncology, they excised the growth and put her on chemo. The chemo made her so sick, she stopped eating and sleeping. By Christmas she was in complete remission, but literally starving to death. LK and I spoonfed her every four hours. I was exhausted and scared. I’ve had her longer than any other cat ever. She was my friend and my baby. She had the most intense blue eyes, and the most annoying, endearing meow. She did this thing, where when you were sad (and I’ve been sad a lot!) she would lie on the pillow next to your head and pet your face with her paw. She would literally stroke your cheek or forehead, as if to say “it will be ok, you can stop crying now” which of course made me cry even more sometimes. When LK came to my apartment for the first time years ago, Jasmine sat on her chest, stared in her eyes, and said “you are ok, you can stay.” So when at Christmas we knew she was suffering so much we had to put her down, we still couldn’t do it. It would’ve been akin to euthanizing a fucking person.

On the morning of January 6, 2004 (which happens to be Orthodox Christmas) Jasmine walked up to her food bowl and ate solid food. She continued to eat and gain strength and generally behave normally all through the spring, testing in remission, until we found another lump on her throat in May. By early June she couldn’t breathe. The look in her eyes as she laid on that cool tile said “I’ve done all I can, please help me now.” LK cradled her while our friend drove to the hospital. We kissed her, and held her paws while she was given her injection. When she was still, she was the smallest, most precious lump of fur I have ever seen. She was warm and supple as her life was no longer there. They took her away, and I got on the plane to Russia the next day, leaving LK to receive the cremains. We still haven’t decided where to scatter her. It’s as if while she is still here, in a pretty red box, she is with us. The Russians have a point. You need physical reminders of the dead, because once you stop thinking about the dead, they stop existing.

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