It was something like: “Ooooowhoawoahoooo!” The exact sound is impossible to convey in writing, but I can still hear it.
“Ooooowhoawoahoooo! Ooooowhoawoahoooo! Ooooowhoawoahoooo!”
My grandfather – my beloved Degushka -- the strong, stubborn, handsome, well-coiffed, impeccably attired, intimidating and often-argumentative man who I admired and idolized despite his prominent character flaws, was bellowing.
The chaotic chorus of “Ooooowhoawoahoooo!” was thunderous yet muffled. I called for him. In quickfire Russian, he warned me to hide, too. “They are coming! They have killed my sister and my mother! They will kill us all!”
Terrifying, but not delusional. His mother and sister were brutally murdered some seven decades ago in Belarus. Though on a quiet street in a Western Massachusetts suburb in the mid-1980s it would have struck any other passer-by as the ranting of madman, even though nobody else understood what he was saying.
As a tween and young teen, I volleyed between my parents’ house, about a mile-and-a-half away, and my grandparents' house. I forget why I was headed there, that day at that time. It was an otherwise mundane day that had gone -- by any middle-class suburban American standard existing at the time -- mad.
Deugshka was hiding under his car parked in the driveway, supine, legs straight, right arm crossed over left as if he were preparing to accept communion or his body readied for funeral and burial in the Russian Orthodox Church.
It was one of those moments. When I first learned the term posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the TV news, it referred to soldiers in the Vietnam War. As I came to understand it, I realized my grandfather was having a flashback, another term that had taken on a very different meaning in my social education. It wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed something like this, and certainly not the last. But feeling exposed on the driveway, even though nobody reacted, made me self-conscious. Already I was an outsider in this world of WASPs and other people who had no connection to the generation of their family that first arrived in America. Now this.
I was frustrated, scared and worst of all helpless. What could I possibly do? Get the keys and attempt to slowly roll back the car, hoping he didn’t budge? Attempt to drag him out? None of this was feasible. The episode, like all others, passed, but the impact was forever imprinted.
In the last years of her life, my Babushka, my mother’s mother, entered trancelike states where she would moan in a somber, steady stream of cries of and gasps for breath. The sound was similar to her husband’s “Ooooowhoawoahoooo!” but heavier and more sorrowful. In a PTSD flashback, she was mourning the deaths of her three young sons and countless close relatives and friends who died during my mother’s early childhood.
In all the years my maternal grandparents underwent tests for various medical conditions, not a single doctor ever mentioned PTSD.
With my mother, there also is no talk of PTSD, no mention of survivor's guilt or survivor's syndrome, which clearly is the root of her anxiety and stress related to what might otherwise be considered normal circumstances or situations. My mother feels guilty for surviving when her three brothers and peers perished. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, removed survivor guilt as a specific diagnosis and redefined it as a significant symptom of PTSD. Regardless, my mother clearly suffers from both yet has never been treated for either.
So much of what is relived in these PTSD flashbacks manifests in concert with Russian Orthodox rituals and traditions and/or superstitions surrounding the complex mourning process.
Both the deliberate practices and the flashbacks play out like a dark fairytale. As a child I felt that the mourning in these PTSD episodes was a call back for the dead, as if somehow reliving the traumatic experience might reverse the outcome of the tragedy that claimed their lives.
In Russian folk tradition, death can be reversible and is related to sleep, a state in which one can experience the "other world" and return to tell about it. A couple of years after finding my Degushka bellowing under his car, I witnessed what my grandmother described as “crossing over” after a near-death experience. She called my parents’ house in the days of landlines, her voice muted and fading. I knew something was wrong. “Come quickly,” she said calmly. I stormed into the patio and ran into the house. The door was unlocked. She was nowhere. I rushed to the basement, where another time I found her laying in a pool of blood after she cracked her head in a tumble down the stairs. She was nowhere. I panicked. I ran back into the patio. She was laying on a sofa, still but faintly breathing, I think. In shock, I sat there, holding her hand. She awoke, describing how she’d walked through a green meadow and saw her mother, siblings, sons and others who told her “It’s not your time yet, Alexandra Dmitrieva.”
Russian folk tradition considers it a “good” death or “their own” when someone dies in old age surrounded by family, and a “bad” death or “not their own” when they die early, generally from murder, suicide, sickness or in war. My mother and her parents lost nearly every loved one to “bad” death during her early childhood at the hands of Stalin, The Nazis and the Belarusian Partisans. In Russian folklore, the soul is depicted as small and childlike, and sometimes as having wings and flying. It’s unsurprising that mother claims to have seen angels singing above her brother’s body during his funeral.