My parents are among the few best people I know. Inseparable—it’ll be five decades this year—they found each other and created a warm, safe, and joyful family for their children, and they taught us by their very example everything I value about life: how to love unconditionally and how to show love; that faith in great, noble Truths demands devotion, perseverance, sacrifice, and thoughtful action over blind obedience; that homage should be paid not for status but for effort and nobility of spirit; that the most precious treasures in life are carried in our minds and hearts—affection, compassion, loyalty, beauty, and the pursuit of truth. They taught us, their Jewish daughters, how to preserve our dignity as a persecuted minority without resenting the Russian nation we loved, even when leaving it behind meant a choice between liberating hatred and unbearable nostalgia. From our parents we learned to question and debate, to love literature, and to value cause over profit. And, of course, to hug. To hold. To do anything and everything for those who need us.
I grew up a sick child, and my mother stayed home with me often during my endless pneumonias and bronchitides, strep throats and protracted asthma attacks, and we grew close. Medications by the hour. I was little and feverish, and she carried me around the room in her arms, singing a lullaby, and I remember being afraid to go to sleep because I thought, if I fell asleep, she would put me down. I would wake up in the morning with so much chest congestion I couldn’t breathe, and my father massaged me and held me through painful hours of coughing. And then I’d be better, and there’d be summer, and on the beach somewhere by the Black Sea I would ride on my father’s shoulders, holding on to his conveniently round, balding tan head.
From childhood my mother knew she was a musician at heart, but those were hard, post-War times, and she didn’t get to learn to play, so when my gift for music was discovered and I entered professional training as a pianist, my path became her vicariously lived dream. She traveled my road with me—music school and practice and concerts—and we grew closer still. Together, my parents and us their two children left everything we’d known and loved and came to America and survived, laboriously, one minute at a time. They did it so we would be safe, and here, the two engineers worked scrubbing toilets every day until they could work no more.
They sacrificed everything for me. When my turn came, I sacrificed everything for them. Last year I discontinued my discernment of religious life to stay home with my mother, whose health took a turn for the worse. I still believe I had been called to a vowed life, and there’ve been moments in the past year when I wondered if I had said “No” to God, but it seems to me we are called to more than one duty in our lifetimes, and this ministry to my parents is something I was born into. A bit like they were born into their ministry to me. This is a ministry that no one else can do, and it is primary, sacred, and joyous, and painful, and mine.
You must be wondering what any of this has to do with the title of my post. Here’s the thing: it turned out that my parents are the most important people in my life. They are my dearest and most beloved. They are the ones who cared for me (still do), and for whom I now care. Separated from our homeland, we found ourselves alone on a distant continent, and here, I have been their link to the outside world, interpreter and mediator, and they have been my link to my past and my Russian half—nearly the only people who could share my memories, literary quotes, worries about Russia’s future, laughs at Russian comedies, breathtaking Russian poetry, breathtaking sights of our city, tongue-twisters… We are each other’s home and lifeline. And so…
For many years I did not know how—and if—I could survive my parents’ death.
It was a serious, burdensome, ominous question for me. I hoped only that somehow we could die together. I could not—didn’t want to—envision burying my parents and going on living, alone in America. Anywhere, really. I was, after all, in chronic pain and suicidally depressed most of the time, and I went on living for their sake. I got up in the morning and put on a smile because my parents loved me, because I shuddered at the thought of what it would do to them to find me dead. But if they died… I didn’t see the point to continue. In any serious new relationship I asked myself: Would this be the person who could get me through losing my parents? And the answer was always “no.” I didn’t plan to survive my parents’ death.
And then everything changed. Anyone reading this blog for any length of time knows of my conversion: that it was sudden, that it was mystical, that it was ineffable. I am not about to try now to describe what I haven’t been able to describe in the past five years. But at some moment in those first few days, or maybe weeks, of the ecstasy in which I was basking in the early spring of 2010, somewhere in the depth of Love all-permeating I discovered had always been there, a thought occurred to me about my parents: NOW it’s going to be all right! Now, no matter what, I’m going to be all right. Everything is —always will be—all right even when it’s terrible, painful, and hard. I AM NOT ALONE, NEVER ALONE.
My faith is good for many things. It is my Hope for the world and my solution to the Problem of Evil, it is the foundation of my cosmology and an addition to my moral compass, it is my emotional shelter, my daily rhythm, mystery and consolation, and much, much more. It is also this one particular thing, this knowledge that I absolutely need in order to live: When the time comes for my mother or my father (or my mother and my father) to leave this world and me, I will be able to carry them through whatever hardship their deaths entail to the light I know they will see. And I will be able to go on without them, filled with the tenderest memories and with longing, hand in hand with Jesus, until my own time comes. And then I will see my own light, and we will come together in whatever form and way the grander world allows, and we will embrace, whatever that means beyond death. Because I don’t know how the levels of Reality work, but I know that nothing is ever lost. That everything will be all right.