“Προσεξε τα κοριτσια, και πες τους οτι τις αγαπω πολυ…φιλακια!”
(Take care of the girls, and tell them I love them very much…kisses!)
Those turned out to be the last words my mother spoke to me over the phone a little over a year ago. Soon afterwards, I booked a ticket and flew to Greece to see her one more time. It was Friday, 13 April 2012, Good Friday for the Greek Orthodox.
She was still alive when I arrived. She was breathing mechanically, slowly drifting away. I spoke to her, but there was no response. Some of her breaths were labored, and some of them seemed like they would be her last. She lived another whole day. Holy Saturday is a celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, and is arguably the single most important date on the church calendar. She always went to the Resurrection service at midnight, and stayed for the entire liturgy, coming home around 2 am. She would be very happy. She would have received Holy Communion and she was at peace. She had not made it to that service for the last few years, and it weighed heavily on her. I would call her on Easter Sunday and she would complain that she didn’t make it to church again for the Resurrection.
Well, the Resurrection of 2012 came and went. She was still alive—barely. She held on for one more time. With the celebratory ringing of the church bells and all the noise and commotion from the parish churches, she slipped away. Quietly. One of those labored breaths was, in fact, her last. On Greek Easter Sunday, 15 April 2012.
I never liked the 15th of April. Maybe because it is Tax day and it is a stressful time for everyone. Well, I now have a much better reason to dislike that date.
My mother was a very remarkable woman. She grew up in a farming family of seven in the 20s and 30s. Those were hard times. In the 40s she saw people starving under the German occupation of Greece, and she saw our hometown burn to the ground by the occupying forces. She was also physically weak, and was not cut out for the fields. So my grandpa sent her to the teaching academy, so she could become an Elementary school teacher. She loved teaching.
Many, many years later, during one of her visits to the States, she spoke of how satisfying her life was. Many of her students did very well. “Good kids” she would say. “They just needed a little direction, and that’s what I was for”. One of them was the priest that conducted her burial service. He thanked her for being his best teacher. She simply loved children. She would be so amazed at how wide open their eyes were during the first day of school, how they were like sponges absorbing everything.
Those early days were not easy for a young female schoolteacher. She traveled to villages ‘far away’, crossing waterways swelled by rain water in the winter time to go to her posts. She was the teacher in single classroom schools, and she held her own. Fiercely independent and proud, she carried on. Later on, she met and married a man from one of those villages. They worked hard, living apart for the first few years in order to make ends meet, and started a family of their own. My mother continued teaching at those ‘far away villages’ and took my brother along. After I came along, we settled in my mom’s hometown where we built our own house, and where my parents continued to live after they became ‘empty nesters’ and took care of each other.
My brother and I were very lucky. My parents’ love was truly endless. They both sacrificed so much to help and support us. Now that I have two children of my own, I cannot fathom being brave enough to make some of the decisions my mother and father made for me, for us. My mother’s eyes lit up every time she would see her grandchildren. She was blessed with five of them. She loved all of them so very much. She was so proud of all five of them. But because ‘life happens’, she could not be close to them. So she did what she did for the 35 years she taught elementary school: she looked at other children and treated them like her own children and grandchildren. She truly loved them. She would stand by the front door of our house to see them going to school in the morning. She continued to marvel at how pure they all were.
She missed my brother and me. She missed our wives. She missed hugging her grandchildren. She missed being around them during Christmas or Easter. She was happiest when she had a house full of grandchildren during the summer. She was ecstatic after every long airplane trip to the States because she spent time with ‘the girls’ again. Saying good bye was never easy. “A piece of my heart leaves me when I see you all leave”, she would say. I now know what she meant. My daughters are out of the house. One is less than an hour’s drive away. The other is a little further. No matter, I miss them dearly, and I spend many nights worrying about them.
“When you grow up and have children of your own, you’ll understand”. I heard that a lot. I wish she was still around. I wish I could hug her one more time, look at her straight in the eye, and tell her “I understand, mom”.
It’s been an entire year since she’s gone. I still miss her terribly. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. She may be gone, but none of us that knew her will ever forget her.