Thursday, February 25, 2010

40 dnei Andreya

The 40th day came and life slowed down to remember a loved one. Since I heard the news of Andrei’s passing, it slowly seeped into me that someone I cared for is truly gone. It took a few days for me to get over the shock and come to terms with this news. If I knew earlier, could I have helped him? Why didn’t I know earlier? Why didn’t I call to find out? These were questions that kept going over in my mind. But in the end, it doesn’t bring him back to life.
On Tuesday, I was feeling pretty down and alone—not around anyone who knew him well. I wished I could transport myself to Russia to gather with his friends and family. So in a small, quiet way I honored the memory of my friend. Of course a few shots of vodka were done (7 to be exact) and words were said (maybe he heard them). In addition I went to a Russian Orthodox church to light a candle and have the priest pray for him (panikhida is what they call it).
Lighting a candle and sitting in the dark church, alone with my thoughts, was a real comfort. I needed to do something a little more serious and heartfelt than down 7 shots of vodka to a friend and a panikhida, as recommended by my friend Liz, was just the thing. I wrote Andrei’s name (first name only, no last names) on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope with $17 (suggested donation). With the change from a $20, I lit a big $3 candle and placed it at the designated spot in front of an icon of Jesus on the cross. It’s like a little stand, always on the right side when you first walk in to any Russian Orthodox church. I stood in the growing darkness of this small church, the sweet smell of beeswax candles, the rustling of people in the lobby and the pitter patter of rain on the roof. In my own quiet way, I said goodbye to Andrei and knew that his soul was in good hands. This small ritual may seem silly, but it brought much peace to my heart.
As I left the church on my way to teach, I felt a huge release of energy off me. The sadness was gone and I was embraced by a sense of comfort and goodness. On one hand it wasn’t so much that I was saying goodbye to a friend on the day when his soul leaves this earth and ascends into heaven, as the Russians believe, but rather that I was upholding a tradition I learned in Russia, and after all these years of not living there, still found value in it. This act reaffirmed how accultured I became in Russia and how much of Russian traditions, values and ideas are still in me. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, it is a part of who I am—an added layer to my way of thinking and feeling. And on a cold, rainy February afternoon in a small Russian church on a busy street in Brooklyn, it was the most important thing I did all day.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

V Traure (In mourning)

I got some sad news the other day. Andrei, a friend of mine from Russia died last month. I’ve been emailing him and trying to Skype him for the past few months and no answer. I thought maybe he was busy or mad at me. So I called him yesterday only to find out that the news wasn’t good. He died on January 15th at age 35. This was not the news I expected to hear nor wanted to hear. My Andrei dead? How could this be? Apparently he died of AIDS-related pneumonia. Had I known about this, I could have got something to him to save his life. No one with AIDS dies of pneumonia anymore, not in this country at least. There’s profylaxsis for that, it’s treatable. I can just imagine the treatment he got once the doctors found out he was HIV+. Nothing they could do except judge and isolate him. His friend Yura told me all the details about his sickness, death and funeral. All his friends are in shock and grief. I’ve been in shock too. I can’t believe I won’t see him anymore or hear his voice over Skype. Now he lies in Kushva, a small town north of Ekaterinburg, six feet under the snow and ice.
Andrei was more than a friend, more of a boyfriend, who came into my life around 1995. What I liked about him is he was simple. He had no expectations from me nor looked at me as the rich American who would be his meal ticket (like so many other guys did). He was in the travel business which opened up his world to places to go and see. He came to visit me twice in New York and I would make the trek out to Ekaterinburg to see him when I was in Russia or nearby in Kazakhstan. The last time I saw him was 3 years ago. By then we weren’t really boyfriends anymore, but the love and friendship was still there. There was always a desire to rekindle the flame but the big question was where. We tried to meet up in places around the world but the timing was off. He took his vacation in September just as I was getting home from my 2 months overseas. This year would have been different, we were definitely going to meet up somewhere in Europe. Alas it will not be. Our timing was off again, and one month to the day after Andrei’s death, my Christmas card arrived and I phoned to get the sad, sad news.
I can’t go over to Ekaterinburg and bring him back to life. I can only remember my sweet, fun friend who made me laugh and was always a pleasure to be with. A picture of him and me sits now on a table in the living room. I can celebrate what was, and will try not to mourn what could have been. Next week will be the 40th day since his passing. According to the Russians, that’s when his soul will ascend up into heaven. As tradition has it, that is when we gather and remember the departed and send him on his way. The vodka will be flowing in Ekaterinburg as well as New York that day. A nice tribute to a small-town boy with an international flair.
Poka Andrei, do novykh vstrech.