Friday, July 26, 2019

Dyadya Misha and the Holy Archangel Michael



 “I really don’t think I remember much of my childhood except a horrible war. And when the war sort of ended, but it wasn't ended yet, the Germans were still there and they had let us open some churches. My brother Mikhail, Michael, was still alive at that time, and that's when he was baptized in the church, when it opened.”

“Oh, it was a beautiful, big church. I saw angels singing on top of the church, but when I was telling someone that I saw angels, they said I probably just heard people singing.”

Tears well up as a girlish smile emerges and Lubachka unearths some joy from the recesses of a brutal early childhood. Lubachka is affectionate for Luba, which is short for Lubov, which means love. Luba is my mother. Named for a Holy Martyr, who at age 9, was tied to a wheel and beaten with rods until her body was covered with bloody welts.  She and her older sisters, Faith and Hope, survived being burned over an iron grating, then thrown into a red-hot oven, and finally into a cauldron with boiling tar.

Did Lubachka see angels?

Maybe.

Maybe it was the hunger or the dehydration causing hallucinations.

Maybe it’s something none of us can explain and some of us want to believe. The word angel is derived from the Greek word angelos and the Latin word angelus, both meaning messenger. We all hear messages.

I hear voices, though they’re far from divine. I hear voices when I’m asleep. I hear voices when I’m paring down a few thousand words of analysis, emotion, and research into a thousand never-quite perfect words, in an hour before I race out the door to school for pickup, halted suddenly by the slow flow of leisure parents who have been lingering outside the building for hours, complaining that they won’t be able to head “down east” until Thursday this week.

I hear voices when the subway stops between stations for a sick passenger in another car and swim team practice is about to let out and I have to get the puppy and walk her over to the rec center to meet my son.

I’ve heard a voice, just a few times, that told me if I meander into rush hour traffic while an 18-wheeler and a MTA bus blow through a red light, that nobody would suspect suicide when I’m flattened into the pavement.

Sometimes I’m floating or cutting through gentle waves in the Caribbean Sea, or pushed up against a throng in a nostalgic trance on the floor at a show, and the voices stop. They always pick up again when I can’t sort out which anxiety is keeping me awake and there’s few precious hours before daylight.

Maybe it’s my Dyadya Misha, my Uncle Mike, telling me it’s OK. Maybe he’s trying to break through my stubbornness and ego to remind me that I have to be more forgiving of my mom, not because she sees angels or hears voices, but because we all hear voices.

Maybe I should listen. We invoke Saint Michael for protection from invasion by enemies and from civil war, and for the defeat of adversaries on the battlefield. He conquers all spiritual enemies. Over all the Nine Ranks of the Heavenly Powers, the Lord appointed the Holy Archangel Michael (his name in Hebrew means “who is like unto God”), the faithful servitor of God, as Chief Commander.

At least little Michael, Mishinka, lived long enough to be baptized. In the Orthodox faith, babies are baptized about three months after birth. Mishinka was immersed in sanctified water a little later, as there was no escape from holding places in camps to do it secretly. Lubachka’s two younger brothers died in infancy, unbaptized.

Did angels appear when Mishinka’s frail body was tossed into a mass grave?

Most of Lubachka’s loved ones were dumped into unmarked pits, some with limbs mangled and dismembered, genitals violated and mutilated, but essentially in tact to resemble the remains of a human form. Others with brains blown out by the stock of a rifle, to save bullets. Hitler explicitly ordered a surge in ammunition production in early 1940, for fear of the shell crisis that’s widely blamed for toppling the Kaiser’s armies in the autumn of 1914.

The most traumatic memory isn’t the moment of Mishinka’s death, it’s a moment of regret.

Lubachka’s memory impetuously blinks back on, like a light bulb dangling from a frayed wire, to retrieve another visceral early childhood experience, one she’d likely repressed.

“I do remember something which I'm very upset about. My little brother Michael became sick because there was this one room where we lived with four or five families because we all lost our houses and everything. But it was not where I was born in Vitebsk Oblast near the Russian border. It was somewhere farther away, closer to what is now the Polish border. My mother was in quarantine because she had typhoid fever, and my little brother Michael was still breast-fed at that time, and she wasn’t with us and the two of us were left there, and this one woman in another room had a cat, and it was a cold, a very, very cold autumn day.”

“It was very cold outside. And, of course, he wasn't dressed, he only had a shirt, like some kind of an undershirt. The woman with the cat came and threw him outside, and I wasn’t able to pick him up or anything because I was too small. And then that's when he got very sick. For what seemed like a long time, he was very sick, and there was another girl that was my age that lived in that room, and we were playing cards, and my little brother would cry, and I would get very angry at him because he was disturbing me. To this day, it tortures me that I was angry at him. That I did that.”

“The woman with the cat, she was Polish, and her daughter had affairs with the German soldiers, so they had everything. We didn’t have anything.”

Everything, in this instance, means enough clothing to cover a full body or enough food to keep children alive.

The cause of Michael’s death remains unknown, but the timing spurs a rush of atrocious memories. In the mind of a child, Mishinka was ill for a long time, but his feeble breath lingered and his weak heart ticked only a little longer than that of his twin Ivan and their youngest sibling Pyotor.

“When my little brother Michael died, that's when my grandmother, my father's mother, and his sister were very brutally killed.”

Michael died in “either October or November. I don’t know. I don’t know what year it was. Maybe 1944, probably 44. And the thing is, we were living at that time where the German soldiers were, but my grandmother, my father's mother, and his sister that were killed, they were killed in a place the Partisans watched in the daytime, and the Germans would be there at night. The Partisans were there, or the Germans, I don’t remember. But anyway, somehow, I do sort of remember going to the graveyard, and they were all, as far as I know, all killed and just buried in one, unmarked grave. But the graveyard was where we lived before the war started.”

Lubachka can’t recollect how or why they’d returned to the border of Smolensk.

“My aunt, at that time, was in school in Russia where they had to learn German. The German soldiers took her and another 16-year old, and they were asking who is living in this house, and they had a list of people and they were told to burn down their houses.”

“She was 16, so of course, she's going to say whose house it was. She was lucky because her father was also a Partisan, and of course he wasn't there at that time, but he was in their party. And my father was against the Bolsheviks and everything else, and he was in a German zone. And so when the Partisans came after them, they told him whose house it was.”

“They came to get my aunt, they wanted just her. My grandmother, she ran after her daughter. And then they took them a few miles away from there, but they had to cross some kind of a river, and they were going to be interrogated there by the Partisans, where their headquarters were. But what happened, it became close to nighttime, and they had to get out of that region because I guess that's when the Germans were coming or something, so the Partisans said that we know what's going to happen with them. They didn’t want to waste the bullets.”

“So they used the other part of the rifle, the wooden part, and they beat their heads open. That's how they were killed, and when my father saw that, it really affected his mental state for the rest of his life. And so then we had to just, I guess, put them in ground, and we had to leave there because the fighting between the Germans and Russians was about to start.”

“And then when we got back to the place where we lived, and the second day, or I don’t know, maybe it was the same day, I don’t really remember. I was outside. And I saw my brother who was all in white, that's not the way he was buried. I guess I don’t know what he was buried in, that I don’t remember, but I saw him outside and to me he had represented an angel.”

Some two decades before my mother told me this story, I was standing over the open casket of her father, my degushka, my grandfather, at a monastery in rural Herkimer County, New York, a home for decades to the Shastokovich family for two generations.

Maybe I hallucinated. I’m certain there was an apparition in the form of a body outlined in bright light. There wasn’t enough sunshine pouring in through the stained glass windows of the cavernous church to explain what I saw.

I was tired. I had barely slept for days. I rarely sleep enough. Those voices keep me awake.

And when the time of our demise shall approach, and of our liberation from this body of clay, leave us not, O Archangel of God, without defense against the spirits of evil under heaven, who surround us to close off the ascent on high for human souls; so that, guarded by thee, without stumbling we may attain unto those glorious habitations of Paradise, where there is neither sadness nor sighing, but life without end.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Geography Of The Heart: Memory Eternal To My Babushka Alexandra



Далеко. Далеко. (Pronounced “Daleko. Daleko,” it means “Far away. Far away.”)

From my early childhood until my maternal babushka (grandmother) Alexandra Dimitrievna (Dimitrieva) Grishaev lost her ability to speak and was bedridden for nine years until her death 21 years ago, she and I bantered about where she would go when she died. She’s buried alongside my maternal degushka (grandfather) Grigori Ustinovich Grishaev, at the largest of three cemeteries at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, where celebrated Russian composer and pianist Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich and his wife Nina Varzar lived and left a home to their son, conductor and pianist Maxim Dmitrievich Shostakovich.

Born March 3, 1913, in Dubrovka, a village in Vitebsk Oblast, Belarus, my babushka died one day after he 85th birthday on March 4, 1998, in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.

In stark contrast to all of my school and neighborhood peers, I attended countless funerals as a young girl, and visited my grandparents’ mostly older friends confined to some of the most dilapidated, under-staffed, and sometimes unsanitary nursing homes, municipal homes, and municipal and veteran’s hospitals, nearly every Sunday after Liturgy and Orthodox Holy Days. This was the fate of so many forced immigrants from German displaced persons camps who fell ill before they could save enough money working hard labor jobs around the clock to pay for more humane facilities.

Death wasn’t a taboo subject as it was for most of my non-church friends. It was an intrinsic part of daily life, and part of my childhood dialogue along with visceral stories of the countless murders, killings, and untimely deaths of my mother’s three infant brothers, dozens of close family members, and hundreds of dear friends, under Stalin, the Belorussian Partisans, and Hitler. My mother, her parents, and family and friends, were trucked “like cattle,” by my mother’s recollection, from labor camp to labor camp, with the fortunate few surviving to find access to food, clothing, education, and church services at the DP camps in Germany.

Holy Trinity Monastery was some three hours without traffic from my childhood home, mostly along a desolate stretch of I-90. To me that ride always was the future route of my babushka’s final resting place. Somehow, referring to it being “Далеко. Далеко.” made it easier to think about that last drive following a speeding hearse on the fiercely policed interstate.

I was days shy of my 27th birthday when my babushka died at my parents’ home, and thereby expected to drive the car. The Ukrainian-American funeral director, who respected Slavic customs, illegally agreed not to embalm her and not to seal the casket, which would remain open overnight at the Monastery. I feared a State Trooper pulling over the hearse and discovering this carefully rehearsed crime.

Bringing my babushka “home” to Jordanville didn’t seem “Далеко. Далеко.” It seemed endless. She’d been waked, in an open casket, at my parents’ home where she spent the night in my parents’ dining room ahead of the voyage to a hamlet in the town of Warren, Herkimer County, New York, at the intersection of New York State Route 167 and County Route 155. It’s nowhere to most people, but a sacred destination to thousands of Russian Orthodox Christians. Settled by European Americans after the Revolutionary War, the name was derived from the nearby Ocquionis Creek, which was used by settlers for baptisms and likened to the Jordan River. Jordanville is now best known for the Monastery. Most Russians from my grandparents’ and my mother’s wave of immigration in 1950 refer to the Monastery and cemeteries simply as Jordanville.

When taking our son Michael Alexander to his first sleepaway camp on Lake Oneida this summer, I drove past the exit to Jordanville. Guilt poured over me, even as my focus was the pending lifetime adventure for my son and the complex emotions that accompany leaving your child alone for the first time. I had to fight an impulse to make that left-hand turn. It’s been too long since I’ve been to Jordanville. I’ve taken my husband Mike to see the graves of my father and my maternal grandparents, but haven’t, in nearly nine years, taken my son.

Далеко. Далеко. Jordanville is about four hours from my home of two decades in New York City, as I-90 cuts through western Massachusetts making the route from there an hour shorter. It may be far, especially for a family that has to rent a car, but it’s forever close, imprinted on my psyche.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Discovering Joy In Memory Eternal



Roaring laughter and exhilaration breathed new life into my parents’ living room, where a group of my father’s closet friends and professorial colleagues gathered on this day in 1996 to fete his 70th birthday. It was a radical departure from the everyday remorse that created an atmosphere in that room, so heavy that it was like trudging through cement while blinded by fog. 

The small party was a surprise organized by my mother and me to honor my father, Michael William “Brother Mike” Gural. The house where I was raised and where my mother still lives alone, has played host to more memorials, wakes (including my maternal babushka spending the night in an open casket in the dining room), and other rituals focused on death and loss, rather than cheerful festivities. Up until two years ago when my son Michael Alexander guided me back to the church with a commitment to faith that didn’t involve profound and constant sadness, misery, guilt, and mourning, I thought I was “sinning” if I wasn’t constantly lugging a ponderous sense of worthlessness.

Looking back to Oct. 18 22 years ago, I now realize the joy that transformed the living room into a celebration of life was the most truly Orthodox experience I’ve had there, in the house where I was partly raised. (I spent most of my formative years with my maternal babushka and degushka in a very different multi-ethnic urban neighborhood, which made going to school in a very white, very quintessential New England, suburb a culture shock.) My babushka and my father died in that house. My babushka’s death bed remains as a shrine, and my childhood bedroom where my father drew his last breath is where my husband and I sleep when we visit. My mother tempestuously scolded me several years ago when I commented that it was depressing to sleep in that room and eat in that dining room: “Obviously, you didn’t love your grandmother or your father!”


 (This photo was taken in the early 2002, at my 8th floor walk up on 178 Thompson St.. It was my dad's last visit to New York. His pain, walking up 24 tiny pre-WWI flights of stairs, didn't dull that trademark Brother Mike smile.)

I must remind myself to embrace that joyous Oct. 18, 1996, when Brother Mike’s crystal blue eyes glistened and his impeccably white, straight teeth shined as he flashed a fixed (well, for the duration of the celebration) smile. That’s the image of my father I strive to hold dear, every minute. That image reminds me so much of the grandson he never met. My son’s hand gestures, when he begins to wax philosophical about a correlation he’s just discovered, uncannily mimic those of the дідусь (didus) he never met.

Of course my father had a dark side, though the best of it was his black humor and his penchant for classic horror and the occult, which I immediately adopted. He told me, repeatedly over three decades: “If you can accept that life in 99 percent disappointment, you may find happiness.” He joked on Oct. 18, 1996, “You must all know something I don’t. Clearly, I’m about to die.”

Brother Mike, who never took an aspirin or any prescription medication, who swam and exercised every day, who labored outdoors every day, who never smoked, who drank only socially, who ate vegetables he grew, who voraciously studied natural medicine and curated his own supplements, was in fact “dying” on Oct. 18. 1996. Specifically, despite his doctors’ incessant claims that “you’re healthier than any of 30-year-old patients,” my father was dying of cancer that went undiagnosed until four years later, when it was Stage IV and metastasized to every vital organ, and eventually his brain.

In an effort to maintain the joy that permeated Oct. 18, 1996, I won’t rant about the failures of health care in western Massachusetts, where fraud and incompetence are rampant. I will refrain from wallowing in the regret that my parents chose to not seek treatment with top oncologists at Dana-Farber or Memorial Sloan Kettering, where my former colleagues used their influence to score “impossible” appointments.

Memory Eternal, Michael W. "Brother Mike" Gural, who was born in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 18, 1926, and who fell asleep in Wilbraham, Mass., on Friday, June 21, 2002.

“It's life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all.” _ Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky












Thursday, June 21, 2018

On the Path to Humanbecoming

“You’re just like your father,” my mother would say, hundreds, if not thousands, of times, often as a back-handed compliment.

She accused me of “acting like a Communist, drinking from the same glass as others,” even though she accepted Holy Communion from the same cup as others. My father, a card-carrying Social Democrat, imparted his progressive views to me as part of a humanist education. Even though my parents were at odds politically (and, moreover, both politically active), my mother respected my father for his moral and ethical values and actions.

My father was patient (when he wasn’t brimming with the rage that comes from enduring tyranny), a professor who had to thole thousands of pages of poorly written essays which didn’t begin to demonstrate even a basic understanding of the economic theory he so clearly explained, dumbing it down to a level that made his soul quake. There were the exceptions, the scholars who were misled into studying business or finance, who truly understood the underlying value of mastering economic principles and how those principles permeate our greater (or, too often, lesser) existence in an alleged free-market economy and so-called democracy. Fewer were those who embraced Brother Mike’s teaching to better comprehend how unjust life is for the majority of humanity throughout the world. Many of his students weren’t in classrooms. A scholar by spirit and nature, he would lecture to anyone willing to sit and listen. And those who have done so have been captive for hours.

If only my verbosity were layered with Brother Mike’s depth of knowledge and prowess to connect the most sophisticated ideas across disciplines, all rooted in his primary scholarly pursuit: philosophy.



There is so much I didn’t say. So much I did say that I regret. I only hope that the sweeter side of my mother’s sentiment may eke out at an odd moment, elevating me, even for a fleeting second, to the status of “humanbecoming.” He would often say “there are so few human beings,” that to be a “humanbecoming” is an accomplishment in our grossly corrupt and thoughtless society.

We threw an intimate surprise party for my dad’s 70th birthday, where he joked “what do you all know? Am I dying?” Even his most profound and spiritual revelations were peppered with a trademark humor that was lost on some of shuttered mind. He also publicity acknowledged my mom that day as a humanbecoming, which she knew was mighty praise, never doled out carelessly.

At the time, we had no reason to suspect his 80th, 90th, and 100th birthdays would become memorials. Having never swallowed so much as an aspirin, exercising and swimming daily, laboring  every day in the yard, and working as a professor (employed at the time of his death because he had never taken a sick day), Brother Mike’s last physical revealed, in his primary care physician’s words “a man healthier than my 30-year-old patients.”

Diagnostic tests at the time of the physical included a sigmoidoscopy, which the PCP claimed “came back clear.” Just 10 days later, my mother noticed that my father’s extremities were very cold and covered him with blankets as he reclined in his dilapidated chair to read. “Mike,” she insisted, noticing a sudden decline in his vigorous physical activities along with an uncharacteristic loss of appetite. “You have to see a doctor.”

I know I am maligned by some for loathing the area where I grew up, but it had already become a healthcare wasteland, and my “healthier-than-a-30-year-old” father, who never picked up a cigarette and drank only socially, went into surgery the following day to remove “a single tumor from the sigmoid section of his colon.” The former military doctor had been applauded by the insurance-fraud-machine hospital system monopoly in the geographic area, as “precise.” Perhaps the U.S. military taught this surgeon to carefully maneuver a scalpel, but it failed at conveying any need for compassion, empathy or a basic ability to communicate with family and patients. For the record, my father served in two wars for the U.S. Army, and came out as a humanist. This surgeon, who was not approaching humanbecoming, strode into the family waiting room and briskly instructed my mother and I to “go into the private room.”

In that isolation chamber, he gestured for us to sit, and blurted out: “the good news is the surgery went well, and he’s fully conscious. The bad news is the cancer spread to all of his vital organs and he has about six months to live. I have to leave for the long weekend, so one of you has to tell him. Also, tell him he has a colostomy bag.”

As I began to hyperventilate, the surgeon shook his head in disgust and told my mother, “she has to calm down or she’ll faint.” My mother said: “I can’t tell him, and look at her, she obviously can’t do it.” He rolled his eyes and told my mother, “Like I said, I have plans for the long weekend. I’m running late. This is your responsibility.”

“What about my daughter?” my mom asked him.

“As I said, she needs to calm down. I can get someone to get her a chaplain to talk to, but it may take awhile.” Without so much as an attempt at eye contact or a tap on the shoulder, he waltzed out.

I managed to use the phone to call my childhood friend Erica, who somehow interpreted my cry-screams, found a neighbor to watch her then-young children, and disregarded multiple traffic laws to race some 18 miles and hold me.

Erica is one of my dad’s students. Not in a classroom (she and I were undergraduates together at a different school), but during countless hours spent in my parents’ home. “She’s brilliant,” he boasted. His delight was irrepressible when she changed her undergraduate from something called hotel, restaurant, and travel administration, to his primary passion philosophy. No doubt Erica was a humanbecoming in the eyes of Brother Mike.

I hope my mother is right, that I am at least the slightest like my father, save for the (occasional) rage which I fully acknowledge as cultivated on my own. I lack his deep well of expertise across subjects and have fallen so far from scholarship, not only leaving behind graduate degrees despite competing coursework, but failing to read voraciously. I do hope I impart a glimmer of his moral teachings to my son, Michael Alexander, who clearly already has achieved humanbecoming. Like a broken record, I lament every year that the pain of loss stings deeper s he never knew his only grandson or my husband, Mike (Michael Damian), who also would have earned Brother Mike’s designation of humanbecoming.

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