Faith’s Little Deaths
“Tell me, Jack, what you think is better?” he’ll say in my grandmother’s languorous accent. “To have your legs torn off in gulag and die like dog in ditch like Uncle Vladislavomiroslav? Or be burned alive slowly by laughing German soldier like Cousin Jiroslavomiravova?” Far from being offended, my mother will laugh until tears smear her thick mascara. My grandmother – smoke curling from her bottom lip – will wave her 120 cigarette and say, “Oh, you!”
Or at least she used to, God rest her soul.
It’s easier to laugh about the big tragedies sometimes – the ones cartoonish in their proportions.
I know Jack and I had some of our heartiest, clutching our sides and nearly falling to the floor laughs when our youngest daughter was really, really sick. Especially when we didn’t know if she would live or die. Laughs like that lighten the load and help keep you in love despite the storm raging around you.
Although I’ve laughed like a hyena at things like Biliary Atresia (or Biliary Atrocious, as we started calling it when our daughter was – wrongly, thank God – diagnosed with this condition), and all manner of afflictions and possible syndromes, I still can’t laugh about a nurse I’ll call Tatiana.
She was the nurse who neglected to feed my sick daughter through her feeding tube before heading off to her own cozy lunch. The same nurse who I overheard on the phone telling one of her friends that she thought she was too good for her job. That perhaps medical school was where she belonged.
I remember thinking – You are so wrong. Trust me, as the daughter of not just a good, but a great doctor, medical school is not where you belong, girlfriend. And nursing, on the contrary, is way too good for you.
She performed her job with a boredom that bordered on contempt, and I detested listening to the way she would sigh when she actually had to get up off her bony a** and do something.
To this day, if I saw this nurse on the street my stomach would churn and my fists would clench in rage. I’m sure my face would contort into a mask of scorn and this young woman – who probably wouldn’t even remember me – might say,What’s your problem, lady?.
You might think I’m overreacting. It was just a little vial of baby formula and it’s not like my kid didn’t get fed eventually.
She didn’t starve.
But it was so much more than that. In that moment, under those circumstances, blowing off my daughter’s feeding was not only careless, but cruel. My baby was doped up on morphine, hooked up to all sorts of machines, fighting for her life, and I wasn’t even allowed to hold and comfort her. The only good thing in her whole existence right then was that her little tummy was getting filled on a regular basis and she didn’t have to lie there being both hungry and in pain.
Honestly, in my mind, this nurse was on par with Hitler and Stalin. And that’s saying something. I shudder to think this careless, selfish brat ever went on to medical school. To this day, I hate the idea of her caring for patients in any capacity. I wonder what else she’s forgotten to do, and if she was smart enough to cover it up. I know she thought she was.
In those situations – the BIG situations that come up in life sooner or later – it’s the little deaths that can be hard to have a sense of humor about. The ones that reveal an ugly side of human nature instead of merely a case of bum luck – no matter how bum that luck turns out to be.
My mother, a Czech political refugee, will tell a story over and over again of a little girl she was teaching how to knit after school. I think my mom was about twelve or thirteen and the girl was a couple of years younger.
At that time, my mom didn’t have a lot of friends. Given her political situation, most of the other kids treated her like toxic sludge.
And she loved hanging out with this girl, getting a chance to share a laugh, and treat her like a little sister. Knit one, pearl two.
Turned out the girl was reporting everything my mother said, or didn’t say, to the local authorities for a few coins.
My mom was devastated when she found out, and even though she’s had so many worse things happen to her in her life – she remembers how she felt about this betrayal in technicolor. Not even her abusive first marriage can evoke the kind of sadness that this little friend of hers can arouse to this day.
All of those hours they spent together. And none of them were real.
These are faiths little deaths.
They can happen anywhere, and don’t have to be accompanied by the fog of Nazis and the pollution of Communists. Or the horror and helplessness of watching someone you love suffer.
It may be, in fact, the more ambiguous tragedies that are the most devastating. They can ripple slowly through time like a single raindrop in placid waters.