The Shortest Long Year

It has been almost a year since the last time I said the world “mum” and I actually addressed a person with it.

“Hi, mum!”

“Mum, guess what!”

“I love you, mum!”

These are all phrases I had used since I was able to speak and then for 26 more years up until August last year when my mum left this world. Sometimes I miss pronouncing the word so much that I say it out loud in an empty room just to hear the sound of it. I imagine how my mum would respond. She would say “Nik, guess what!” and proceed to tell me the latest news about this or that person and whom from the building she brought food to.

It has been a year and I couldn’t even get through writing one paragraph without crying (which probably explains why I haven’t written about it before). But this is not supposed to be a sad post. This is a post dedicated to my mum’s life and to my own resilience. And if we shall cry, let’s cry from happiness and love.

What a life

My mother, Natalia, was born at the beginning of the 1960ies in Tyumen, Russia. She was the oldest of three children. From what I have heard she was a little bit rebellious and had a sense of style. Her family descended from a guy who was a courtier in one of the Russian kings’ courts. He was a poet. I always attributed my affinity towards writing to this guy.

Anyhow, my mum met my dad in her hometown. Raised in a village in Bulgaria, he was eager to explore the world and grabbed every opportunity even if that meant working the most boring factory job in a big and not particularly charming city in Russia. My mum used to say, with sparkles in her eyes, how he only had eyes for her when they met. When I was little, this whole story sounded like a movie. These facts plus my vivid childhood imagination and my love for writing gave birth to a famous essay in elementary school. I wrote how my mum, almost a royal, had met and fallen in love with my dad, a simple countryside boy (do I hear an “awww”?). This story was the beginning of many jokes in my family. I don’t think my dad was particularly fond of the way I had portrayed him. I can’t think of a reason why…

My mum and dad got pregnant with my sister and then got married. I was told that the opposite happened until I was old enough to do the math. Good try, though! My mum gave birth to my sister in Russia while my dad was in Bulgaria and I always thought that the emotions and the fact she missed him led to my sister being called the female version of my father’s name. They lived between Russia and Bulgaria for a while. My mum, the city girl, had to get used to the village life, to the new culture and language. I often think it is in my blood to live in places where I don’t have roots.

My dad’s desire to travel and to see the world eventually led him to Syria, Zimbabwe and finally South Africa, where my family lived before I was born. My sister had ten blissful years of being an only child and then I, a crying baby with a lot of hair, came around. When I was 9 months old, we all boarded a plane and moved back to Bulgaria.

Welcome home

It took a bit of time for my parents and sister to settle in Bulgaria but it was all done before I could form any lasting memories. One of them is of me riding a small plastic bike back and forth in our flat’s tiny living room (thank god the neighbour downstairs was an elderly guy who did not have the best hearing). This living room and this flat were my home until I graduated from school. Only once I moved away to University and came back for the first time, did I realise how damn tiny that apartment is. During the last year I have often wondered how my mum felt about it – was it small for her, did she dream of a bigger one? Whatever the answer is, I can tell you that she always found ways to make it cosy and I never heard her complain.

My mum lived in our apartment until the very end. “Her spot” was the chair next to the balcony door in the kitchen. I can picture her sitting there, legs crossed, foot rhythmically measuring her own beat. She used to leave her cups of coffee around the house in the morning (like I do now) and used to finish the cold coffee in the afternoon (I don’t do that). She brought up two kids and took care of a working husband in that flat. (My sister’s and my biggest accomplishment there was not killing each other.) She took care of all the stray kittens I brought to her and of one rabbit. She took care of many flowers, many! One time she told me she thought that people who can’t take care of plants probably have bad energy. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her how I kill most of my poor flowers.

Listen to me

My mum used to tell me that when I was young I would come from school and storm into the kitchen where she was be cooking. I would tell her to stop doing what she was doing to sit and listen to me telling her about my day. I don’t remember this but knowing myself, I can see it happening. Imagining this scene always makes me smile. She used to say she was on the brink of burning something in the oven but I would insist on finishing my story first. I don’t know when this magical mother-daughter connection got lost. I guess when I became a teenager. Teenagers are the worst, really!

My mum was a really cool mum. She was super excited when I got my period (and told her girlfriends about it #embarrassing) and laughed when I bought my first bra with cups “secretly”. What did I think? That she will not find it? Come on, Nicole. She was always happy to stop by the bookstore with me and buy me books. She used to sew clothes for me and proudly attended each of my school and piano concerts (they could not have been that great, I can tell you this much). She was kind and loving and silly and shy and funny. She loved music, dancing, arts, jewellery, coffee and her friends. People loved her, and so did I.

Wifi and regrets

Since I left Bulgaria to study abroad our relationship mainly consisted of Viber calls and tight hugs at airports. While I was getting depressed in Sweden, she was getting depressed in Bulgaria. One of us made it out a bit better than the other.

Some years ago my parents separated and the whole thing really affected my mum. She stopped taking care of her health. She became too focused on what other people thought of the whole situation instead of on her inner peace and personal happiness. She started drinking a bit too much. I vividly remember talking to her one evening while travelling with the public transport in Vilnius and she did not sound well. I thought she might take her own life. I got out of the trolley and cried my eyes out on the street. It broke my heart. It was the day I promised myself to do my best to be a good daughter for as much time as we have – to listen to her, not to get angry, to be kind, to send her postcards more often. That evening I tasted the bitterness of what it would be like to lose her and have regrets, so I did my best not to have any when the time came.

The time came way too soon (I guess it always does). I was not prepared to lose my mum at 27. I know there are people who have had even less time with their parents, but that does not make it any easier. The morning when my sister called me to tell me the news, I was sitting on the couch. I was eating Greek yoghurt with blueberries. At first, I didn’t understand what my sister was telling me. Then I couldn’t breathe. I had spoken to my mum the day before. She was in the hospital and I was worried about her. I was planning to call her after breakfast. I did not get that chance. She was gone and my last words to her were “Call me when you get wifi.”.

“Call me when you get wifi”?!

Of all the words in the world… It could have been better. It could have been worse. What I truly meant was “I am worried about you. Call me when you get home. I love you.” But I did not say all of that and as life would have it, I never got that call. She never got that wifi. One less mystery about the afterlife.

One year later

It is difficult to comprehend that is has been a whole year. It felt like such a long time, but it passed so quickly. It has been the shortest long year and I really miss my mum sometimes. I miss telling her things and when I have something I want to share with her, I write to her in my diary. I know it’s stupid but it makes me feel better. It’s like writing a letter that I never get to send (she does not have wifi, I don’t think she has a post box either). Most days, though, she is safely tucked in my heart, which both shattered and expanded drastically in the last 12 months. I used to be able to feel her around me during the first months after she passed away, but now I rarely do. I think she has continued her journey and is happy wherever it had led her.

But I am still here and even though I did my best not to have regrets, I do have some. For example, I cannot believe that in the era we are living in, I couldn’t board a plane and attend the funeral. I had mostly made peace with this but part of me feels guilty about it. She was there for my first hello but I was not there for her last goodbye. Did you really have to go during a global pandemic, mum? I did my best to be loving and kind, however, I did not manage to always show up like that. I just hope what I did was enough and that she never doubted my love. That’s the best I can hope for.

Karma

For some reason, I just checked when our last call was. It was August 18, 6:51 PM and it lasted 8 minutes and 8 seconds. Lately, I have become very mindful of repeating numbers so I googled what 8 stands for. “Number 8 is the number of Karma – the Universal spiritual law of cause and effect.” And isn’t that what life is – the biggest example of cause and effect? You are born and you die. No one has outsmarted this cycle yet.

Another thing no one can outsmart is grief. You cannot schedule a time in your calendar to feel it all and move on. When you think you are done with it, it sneaks up on you and there you are crying over some stupid song, or writing letters that you cannot send. However, with time we can work, and we should, towards turning the grieve back into what it was in the first place – love. Because if you are lucky, in the middle of this being-born-have-to-die cycle, you get to love people. And yes, it sucks when you lose them. But all the pain you feel – that’s just love breaking and expanding your heart so your love can reach even further into the Universe.

At the end of the day, it’s all love, isn’t it?

Happy first afterlife anniversary, mum! Hope there’s coffee and flowers! Call me when you get wifi!

More Stories
4 Lessons From 8 Weeks At My New Job