I arrived back in the US in mid-August 2007, but I returned to the old Silver Spring home for a few days only. It may have been only two or three days. Officially I was on home leave, the time that the State Department gives Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) between assignments so that they can re-acculturate into U.S. society. I had three weeks before I needed to report to the Foreign Service Institute, and I told my spouse I needed to get away to absorb the events of recent months. I boarded a plane, flew to Bangor, Maine, and began a two week driving and camping trip through Maine and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.
It was a time to make decisions. I had not been in the US since February, and I still needed to come to terms with that earlier visit. Ma had passed away on February 15, surrounded by my four sisters and me, my spouse, my son, and as many grandchildren as could drop everything to rush to Maryland. Like all who have gone through the experience of losing their second parent, I suddenly felt old. I was 53 and could no longer pretend that most of my life was still ahead of me. My own mortality was no longer a distant unknown.
This is what I was thinking about as I drove north from Bangor, camping that first night in the shadow of Katahdin. It had all happened so quickly. The previous September my two sisters and I were visiting my friends Zh* and V* in Petersburg when my spouse called. I was shocked, because my spouse almost never called. "Ma is in the emergency room," she said. It was gallstones, nothing more, something Ma had ignored for years and years. Now she was in pain, and she finally allowed the surgeon to go ahead and remove her gall bladder. The operation was a success, and Ma was home within a week.
Ma's surgery may have been a success, but she was not the same person. Could it have been the anesthesia? When I returned home at Christmas 2006, she was a scared, pale shell of the strong woman who had polished my thrift store coffee percolator in 2005. She had lost weight but could not eat, refused to eat. She could remember the past in detail, but she could no longer remember what had happened five minutes ago. The cold hand of dementia had taken my mother's mind, and she knew it. You could hear it in every word. You could feel it in her fear. "Please don't leave me," she would say again and again and again.
My sisters had borne the brunt of caring for Ma after their return from Russia, but they could no longer do it even with the help of a live-in nurse. They were exhausted from 24 hour shifts. Ma no longer slept. Assisted living seemed the only option. Surely Ma will rebound in a few weeks or months if only she has the help she needs, won't she? We celebrated Christmas with Ma in her own home . . . and the next day began moving her to an assisted living facility just a few miles away. I spent the first night with her, comforting but not able to comfort her in the strangeness.
I flew back to Moscow after the New Year, hoping against hope that I would see Ma in full health when I returned in the summer. In February I traveled to a provincial town to sit in on hearings for a new nuclear power plant. I wrote my report on the train ride home and polished it the following day, a Friday. Just as I was preparing to call it quits for the day, the phone rang. It was my sister Irene. "Come home," she said, "Ma was taken to the hospital. She's non-responsive." I was on the plane to the US the following morning.
Ma lingered for a week. Then, as so often happens, she rallied. I was the one with her that evening as she ordered me around her room asking for this and that, her mind clearer than it had been in months. I kissed and hugged her goodnight, convinced that I would have to reimburse for the State Department for the emergency travel ticket that had brought me home in such great haste.
Ma did not wake up the following morning. We all gathered around her and made our final goodbyes before she breathed her last shallow breath. She was gone.
Two more weeks went into the funeral and into closing Ma and Dad's home. As anyone who has been through this knows, there is nothing quite as final in its finality as closing the door of your mother and father's home for the last time, knowing you will never open it again. I arrived back in Moscow on a Wednesday but was not able to compose myself to return to work until the following Monday. . . .
|From the Hills of Cape Breton|
|A Newfoundland Fjord and Rain, Rain, Rain|
Then I arrived in Gros Morne National Park. The sun was shining as I pulled into the visitors' center around noon. I inquired about hiking to the top and was told, "You can make it to the top and back before sunset if you start now." I replied that I thought I would do the hike the next day. "The sun is shining now, you know," was the reply. I took the hint and put on my hiking boots. After a two hour rock scramble I was on the top, above the tree line, looking out on the Saint Lawrence valley. I put my camera on a rock, set the self timer, and forced a smile.
On that sunny, windy top, looking into the distance, I moved to a decision. Years of compromise and accommodation had led to a fruitless dead end and pain all around. It was time to break from the past even knowing that the pain of the break would more intense than anything I had yet experienced.
|A Last Tranquil Night in Maine|
"We need to talk," I said by telephone from Bangor. "I want to live my own life. That's the way it's been for two years. I want to make it official." The response was consternation and disbelief. First one phone call and then another were followed by a sleepless night.
The conversations continued painfully face-to-face in Maryland. A week later I had moved into an apartment in Greenbelt, a long walk from Goddard Space Flight Center where I had spent so many happy years.
On the first Monday in September I returned to the Foreign Service Institute to begin six months of Uzbek language training. Several FSOs I had worked with on the Russia Desk and in Moscow were there, and they all asked how I was doing. "I'm asking for a divorce," was my reply. "I've asked for a divorce," I would repeat quietly to myself, amazed that I had said it first to my spouse and now to friends.
Would I have the strength to see it through? I had changed careers at age 50, had done well in three radically different jobs in three years, and had rediscovered an independent life. "If I could do all that," I thought, "Surely I can see this through to the end?" Little did I know just how difficult the months ahead, the years ahead, would be. It would prove to be the hardest thing I had ever done.
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Follow these links for more of the retrospective story:
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