In the evening, another fragment of the memory of Natalya’s death floats up. There had been a gap in it before that I hadn’t realized was significant.
Before, I remembered being on the stairs with her as she is being dragged down them. And then suddenly I was standing at a distance, being held by the arm so that I could not go to her. There was nothing in between, and I didn’t know how I had gotten there.
I hadn’t known either, who was holding me. In the last week, I have realized the girls were holding me—it was not my dad. My dad was on the other side of the parking lot watching, and I saw him watching, but I was not standing with him. I was standing with the girls.
But last evening, that piece in between the stairs and being restrained popped into my head.
For a minute, I was with Natalya. The men were beating her, and I was with her trying to hold her close and shield her with my body, but she wouldn’t let me. She was pushing me away. There was a lot of shouting. Everyone was shouting, but what Nata was shouting amounts to, “Get her away from me.” So they did. The girls pulled me away and made me stand at a distance from her.
Now, it highlights for me how naïve I was in comparison to Natalya. Natalya knew very well she was going to die, but I did not. I didn’t know this was different than anything that I had seen before. I didn’t know the danger wasn’t broken bones or a concussion or even an accidental death, and I didn’t know I wasn’t watching punishment but an execution. And so I was terribly confused. I had no idea why she pushed me away. The dots were all there but I couldn’t connect them.
I didn’t know that Yuri’s men didn’t care where I was. If I had been in the way, they might have killed me too. Maybe they wouldn’t have—there was the slip of paper, the address. There was whatever Natalya managed to tell the police about me. Maybe it would have mattered. Maybe it didn’t.
I didn’t know she pushed me away because she did not want me to die with her. I didn’t know that in her last minutes on this earth, she was protecting me still. I didn’t know she was looking at her own death, but thinking about how to keep me safe.
She was extraordinary.
The fragment of memory opens up a window on an entire set of memories though—not so much on a set of events as an attitude that runs through them. Because Natalya’s view was always that I was worth protecting. On the one hand, I had so much value as a person for her. And on the other, she had so much confidence in my ability to survive. I was worth protecting both because of who she thought I was and because she thought I could do it. I was never a lost cause for her.
It is hard to describe how it feels to have this window open up for me in my memory. It is like realizing I have a cheering section in my head. That is what that is. It has been there all along, but I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t recognize it. It is someone who believes in me.