Yesterday was Natalya’s and my anniversary. I stayed home sick and I was sick, so it was an odd, uncomfortable, snotty, tired day. It wasn’t an awful day, but it wasn’t a good day. It wasn’t even a day with clear-cut emotions. Just muddy and uneven.
I made her something.
I wanted to do all the normal things one might want to do as a memorial to someone. I wanted to visit her grave. I wanted to buy flowers. I wanted to at least eat gingerbread cookies again to remember the cookies she made one year on Valentine’s Day. And I couldn’t do any of them. I couldn’t visit her grave because she doesn’t have one and I couldn’t do everything else because you can’t do them here, and it was one of those unexpectedly homesick moments. I’m in a remote, developing country where you can’t buy flowers in shops. There are not even any flowers right now. Anywhere. And if you talked about putting ginger in a cookie, people here would look at you very, very strangely. No one has ever tasted a ginger cookie, and I don’t think you could persuade them to try.
So I had to remember: I am here. I am in Country X. And I need to adjust. It is not that I can’t mark a special day in some way. I just need to alter how I do it given the possibilities here.
I made something to look like flowers instead—a card sort of thing. I made it out of old plastic junk food wrappers. I don’t really know what I think of it now: I can’t decide if it’s hideous or not. But it was very important to do it. It gave me a profound sense of completion.
It is sitting on the one shelf in my flat now for me to look at and it says something important. It says I have folded that relationship into my life in the present. There is no longer an intense sense of amputation, because I have not chopped off who I was before October 31, 1986 from who I was after that date. I have stopped attempting to make myself into someone with no history, no past, no childhood, no memory, and no associations. I am someone with both a past and a present and just maybe a future also.
That was the message to myself anyway.
I think we rarely consider how much the past influences our sense of who we are—from our characters to our preferences. Hardly anything is just what we happen to like. Everything is wrapped up in the context of what else was going on when we did that thing. If it doesn’t start out that way, it becomes that way later over years of doing it.
You don’t think about this until you try to chop it all off, and then you realize that it doesn’t leave much of interest behind. It leaves mud.
I have five songs I really, really like. I like them because of what they remind me of. Two are Russian lullabies—all five songs are in Russian—and I think the lullabies are among those that Natalya actually used to sing: first, to me, and later to Veroushka. The other three are contemporary pop. I have other Russian songs, but they don’t have the same powerful associations and don’t help as much.
I end up listening to them repeatedly. I listened to them for comfort first. When Ruthie or Hannah or even I seemed on the verge of a meltdown, the songs were very effective in tamping things down a bit closer to “okay.” I began to realize they could also be used prophylactically. They could prevent meltdowns. Alongside other comforts—smelling shampoo, holding scarves, grasping buttons—they could keep everyone content and calm for a very good part of the day. When sleeping was really a problem, I kept them playing softly all night long.
But I realize they do other things aside from offer comfort. They also validate my identity. They remind me of everything good that has happened to me—they remind me of joy and wonder and miracles and love and all the small moments when I lived those things. They remind me there is a little crack in which what has been the best parts of my life can still exist. They do not need to disappear because so much else was horrifying and unbearable, and neither do I.
I can still be. I can remember the wonder of watching Natalya rock the perfect, newborn Veroushka. I can remember the intensity of my love for her in the times when she was hurting the most. I can remember the magic of falling in love. I can remember there was still beauty and joy in the midst of our degradation and enslavement. I can remember the space we carved out for ourselves in which we managed to be free. I can remember this was still possible. Yuri took so much from us, but there were things he did not take. There were things he could not take.
All of these things I am allowed to keep. All of these things I can have again and again in my mind as I need them. All of these things add richness to my life—they scrape away a bit of the mud and the dreariness and the drudgery of trying to work so hard to heal and to live. And they give me joy.