The service was spoken in Russian. That was the one thing my mother insisted on. She never really learned how to speak English very well. She didn't have a reason. Uncle Vlad spoke Russian to her, and so did I. She never really spoke with anybody else. Uncle Vlad bought her groceries, paid her servants, did everything he could to protect his sister from the cruel reality of the outside world.
But no matter how hard he tried, or how much money he spent, he couldn't protect her from the cruel advance of cancer.
The officiator droned on and on about her, although it didn't seem like he was talking about her, my mama. Katya Naumenko Tvardovsky. Born May 20, 1964. Died, much, much too soon.
Standing there by her gravesite, I felt numb. It was February, the world was cold and bleak and empty. The one and only light of my life, my mother, had been snuffed out. All that remained of her was an empty husk that only really looked like her in certain lights. Everything that was my mama was gone, gone, gone. But, even though my heart had been ripped out of my chest and was about to be lowered into the ground in a shiny, mahogany casket, all I felt was numb. Numb, numb, numb.
Uncle Vlad stood next to me, his face set in a grim, hard line. He had fought the funeral plans every step of the way. I don't think he meant to be difficult, I think he was in denial about his beloved sister leaving this world to join our ancestors in the next. So, he did what he did best. Argue, fuss, drag his heels. He bickered with the caterer, the florist, the officiator, even me. He would pick a casket one day and then change his mind the next. He went through my mama's wardrobe multiple times to try and pick an outfit for her. He didn't like anything that she had, saying, "My sister should've let me buy her nice clothes! No one should have to be buried in this garbage!" At this point, he would buy her a new outfit, then return it to the store the next day, saying, "This is not my sister. It is too cold, too formal. She would not like this," and with those words he would begin pawing through her wardrobe again, muttering obscenities as he went.
In the end, I picked out her outfit. It took me two minutes to find it. Her favorite dress. It was red satin with a black belt. She would often put it on, the dark red fabric in stark contrast to her milk white skin, and prance around the house in it. "Someday, Dimitri, I will go somewhere nice, and I will wear this dress." Sometimes, I would even come to the house to find her wearing it under an apron while she cooked dinner or vacuumed.
As Vlad and I had our final moment with my mom's body before the casket would be closed, he admired the details. The simple gold band that was her wedding ring. A strand of pearls, a gift from my uncle, was around her neck. The dress was baggy on her twig thin body. She looked insubstantial, light, delicate as glass.
"Katya was a good woman, a kind sister, a loving wife, and a devoted mother," the officiator was saying, "She will be loved and missed by all who knew her. Katya's son takes comfort in the knowledge that his mother and father are reunited in heaven, where they will watch him as he continues to be the best son he can be."
He lied. I took comfort in nothing. I was an orphan, and all alone in the world.
Except for Uncle Vlad.
The eulogy was falling on deaf ears. The officiators voice was like a low, throbbing hum. I was so focused on what was going to happen next, I didn't have the energy in my body to listen, to hear, and to understand. Suddenly, everyone was looking at me. My Uncle Vlad gave me a gentle nudge, and I knew that the time had come.
The part I was dreading more than anything in the world. I took one step toward the coffin, then another, then another. Each step crunched on the frozen ground, as loud as a cannon blast. My ears were ringing, stinging with the bite of the chill air. I had a single red rose, my mama's favorite flower. On it, I had tied a red ribbon and a note. My goodbye.
"Say goodbye to your mama, Vorobyshek," Uncle Vlad whispered in my ear.
That was when the pain came. I had been icy and numb for so long, the heartache sheared through my like fire. The tears pounded, throbbed, forced their way out. The pain was excruciating, and I couldn't help the sounds that came out of my mouth. First, they were just quiet sobs, but as I looked down on the casket that held my world, they turned into moans, than cries, than screams. I held it together long enough to place the rose on it's designated spot on top of the casket, then the anguish weighed so heavily on my heart that my knees buckled and gave out underneath me, and I was lost.
Here is how they indoctrinate you into the Russian mafia: They beat you with sticks until something breaks, either the stick or you, and you can't make a sound. One single peep and you are out. After that, they give you a small job. Running a little cocaine or transporting some AK47s. Something small that involves only a couple of years of jail time. If you succeed, you are in, but even then only conditionally. Of course, your position in the mafia is always conditional.
Failure is not an option. I've known many a man to be shot for screwing up. I know because I'm often the man pulling the trigger.
My uncle's long time hit man was a French man named Remi Lefevre. Remi was good, but he had a lot of what some people call 'quirks'. My uncle just called him a 'pain in the ass lazy fucking Frenchie' or something along those lines. Remi was one of the best hitters in the world, but he had a lot of requirements. Sometimes, I think he just liked seeing my uncle fume as he was forced to jump through hoops. He talked with this slow, lazy drawl and smoked like a freight train. I guess we shouldn't have been so surprised when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and succumbed within 3 months of his diagnosis. At Remi's funeral, my uncle spat in his grave. "Lazy Frenchie bastard! You up and die on me like that! I hope you are roasting in hell right this minute!" I took it as a sign of professional respect that my uncle didn't unzip his pants and piss on Remi's head.
And so, the spot was opened up for a hit man. It was a cushy gig; my uncle paid well for someone else to take care of his dirty business. I was not short on cash by any means, but I was wanting to prove myself to my uncle. I wanted him to look at me like an equal, a member. I was tired of being spoiled and babied. I wanted Uncle Vlad to look at me and see a man, not the little boy I knew he saw now.
I walked into his office one day and announced, "I want Remi's job."
There was a minute of steely silence that stretched into two minutes, three minutes, five minutes...
I hadn't been nervous going in there. I had so much adrenaline pumping hot and fast through my veins that I didn't have time to feel nervous. But, as the minutes stretched, silent and empty between us, the nerves that had been diluted with fear began to fester and bubble inside of me, until I was just at the point of turning around and walking out of his office when he spoke.
"Vorobyshek..." he said slowly, drawing out the word like it was an unfamiliar taste on his tongue. He sat up straight and sighed. "Just tell your Uncle Vlad one thing. Why? Whatever it is that you want I will buy for you."
"I don't want money, or gifts."
"Then you are just testing my patience, yes?"
"No," I gulped back the bile that rose hot and bitter in the back of my throat, "No, Uncle Vlad, this is a serious request."
"I want a bigger role in the brotherhood. I'm a good shot, and I know I have the strength to pull the trigger..."
"Dimitri, stop." This was whispered, but I stopped cold. Uncle Vlad rarely called me by my first name. He continued in a voice that was cold and dead. "You are the only family I have left to me. You have no idea how painful it was for me to bury first your father, my best friend, a man I loved like a brother, and then to have to bury my sister, the only woman I've ever loved. You are all I have left of both of them. You are all I have left of anything. You are the reason I get up in the morning, you are my reason for living. I have no wife, I have no children, I only have you, my Vorobyshek. If I lost you, I would be lost."
"No. The answer is no."
"But, I know I can do it..."
"Absolutely not. Now, leave my office. I will call you when I am calm enough to speak to you again."
I thought for a second about protesting, but it was only a split second. Angry, hurt, I turned and walked out of his office.
Before my mother died, I would have come to her with my grievances regarding my Uncle Vlad. She was the best listener, she never interrupted, never judged, never scolded. She just listened quietly, and would give advice if pressed. Since I couldn't talk to her in person, I did the next best thing.
The gravesite was so new, you could still see the lines of the sod, which was a bright, blinding green compared to the crispy brown that surrounded it. They had just placed the headstone, a grey double heart shaped chunk of marble that bore both of my parent's names. I was told when I was little that my father never had a real funeral, my uncle was so concerned with getting my pregnant mama out of Russia as quickly as possible that he had my father cremated and the ashes scattered somewhere. I found out shortly after my mama's passing that she had kept a ziplock baggie with a couple of handfuls of ashes in the safe. Uncle Vlad put them in a beautiful box and buried that box in my mama's casket, according to her wishes. Under their names was written, "Divisa in terra, resumptionem in Coelis" Divided on earth, reunited in heaven.
I raised my eyes, staring into the depths of the steely grey winter sky. I took a deep breath, and blew it out in a puff of fog. I closed my eyes and sunk to my knees, feeling the dead grass crunch under my legs, feeling the cold, frozen earth spread its chill in tendrils that climbed up my body.
"Mama, papa," I whispered, "Are you there?"
I kept my eyes closed, listening to the stillness around me. Willing with my whole body to hear something, feel something. Some sign that they were there, watching me.
"Mama, papa..." I whispered.
Then, all of a sudden, I felt them. I can't describe it, they were just there. Not around me, but inside me. They were speaking, not with words, but right to my core. I felt limp and woozy with the suddenness of their presence, and overwhelmed by the love and peace they filled me with. I began to weep, not tears of sadness, but tears of something more. Something that was simultaneously sweet and painful.
"Please, please help me," I murmured, "Tell me what to do?"
They didn't leave, but they didn't respond either. I sat for a couple of minutes, just enjoying the bittersweet of the moment. Cherishing the feeling. Then, right before I was about to ask them again, I was interrupted by a hand on my shoulder.