I first learned to cope with death as I walked away from a Russian orphanage with my new daughter, shrieking in my arms. Of all the places I could have been when the door burst open and spewed out the contents of a plague from the past, it turned out to be right after I descended the steps from the Partizansk Baby Hospital while taking a daughter home to add to my family.
I was fourteen when my maternal grandfather was lying on a bed in a hospital room, waiting for his lungs to fill to the point that would finally end his life. He was only sixty four; too young to die. I was furious. His family had given up and decided that his heart was damaged to the point where he couldn’t have a life, even if he lived. They had determined to “let him die.”
If they truly had faith, why didn’t they use it? Why should we cope with death if we can stop it?
I was baffled. These were the same faith-filled people who had taught me that God could heal people. These were people from a Christian background, who believed in miracles! How could they walk away from my grandpa? Why didn’t they care about him enough to invoke the faith they had taught me about for my entire life? If they truly believed it, if they truly had faith, why didn’t they use it? Why should we cope with death if we can stop it?
A year-and-a-half later, we buried my paternal grandfather and I felt that God had only added insult to my injury by bringing more death to our family; more sorrow to our home. For the next several years, my feelings for God could only be described as contempt. God could do His thing, and I would do mine. There was no reason that our paths needed to cross. Neither He, nor anyone else would force me to cope with death.
I had come from a long history of men’s men. I just shoved the feelings down inside and left them there. Whenever family or anyone else tried to encourage me to confront them, I lashed out. Hate and anger are lots simpler to deal with than sadness and they feel far less impotent. Men’s men believe that you control situations, you don’t cope with them. No one needs to cope with death if they control it.
Eventually my family left me alone about my feelings and death. I ignored what I had buried long enough that I eventually included myself with others of my family in religious settings; though it was instant rejection anytime a family member or religious leader tried to get me to commit; to express faith.
I knew that others had learned to cope with death, but I had no interest in doing the same, no matter how much peace it seemed to bring them.
I had just turned thirty-three when an untimely death hit home again and burst the festering boil I had been concealing. My little brother, who was not-yet thirty, was killed in a tragic work accident; an explosion. It took another year for me to get everything back behind the door before slamming it closed, again.
From all appearances, it looked like my life would be a carousel of death, anger, struggling with feelings until I could lock them away, then awkward acquiescence until someone else close to me was taken. I knew that others had learned to cope with death, but I had no interest in doing the same, no matter how much peace it seemed to bring my friends and family.
Then I met Luba. She was two-and-a-half when I first saw her. It was close to her third birthday when I took her away from her “mama.” It wasn’t the first time that Luba had been taken from a mother. Social Services in the Primorsky region of Russia removed her and an older sister from a home shack where her life was in constant danger from a brutally abusive, alcoholic mother. Luba latched on to the director of her orphanage, a doctor, who she called “Mama Olga.” In fact, Olga had planned on adopting the little girl and adding her to her own family right up until a family medical tragedy rendered her plan moot. That tragedy allowed my wife and me the opportunity to adopt Luba and her older sister, Katya, together and to bring them into our home.
All she wanted was to return to the only life she knew and to those who loved and had cared for her.
On the day that we dressed Luba to take her away from the orphanage, she screamed and cried. Olga’s assistance was needed to put the cute little clothes on the child, who was somewhat comforted by the soothing shas, skas and shkas of Russian baby talk that came from the voice of the one she recognized as her mother. When we tried to put the coat on her she lost it. She knew the coat meant that we would take her away from the only home she knew. Even Olga struggled to get the coat on Luba.
Olga held little Luba for the last time on the steps of the Partizansk Baby Hospital while she and other orphanage workers told her goodbye. Then Olga pried Luba’s fingers from her sweater one by one and handed the child to me while she shrieked and screamed for someone to save her. All she wanted was to return to the only life and home she knew and to those who loved and had cared for her; the only family she understood. Her friends and caregivers longed for her to stay even though they knew it had been a temporary arrangement. Is our understanding of life any different?
If only you realized what I will give you and the life I am taking you to. If only you had the smallest idea of what awaits you, you would run away from this place and never look back.
Her friends were heartbroken to see her go, too. Had they asked for one more day or even several, to say goodbye, I would have understood. Had they asked for more; had they begged, pleaded, bargained, threatened, or anything else, it would have done no good. I knew what was best for Luba. I would take her home. I would give her the family she deserved and needed.
As I carried my shrieking daughter away from the orphanage, my heart broke for her, though it only strengthened my resolve and increase my haste. “If only you understood where I am taking you,” I thought. “If only you realized what I will give you and the life I am taking you to. If only you had the smallest idea of what awaits you, you would run away from this place, to the home where you belong, and never look back.”
And then I paused as those thoughts transformed into words to my heart from a Perfect Father; words that taught me how to cope with death. If only we could grasp the smallest realization of the home He takes his children to, of what He gives them, and the life He provides for them… If we had the slightest understanding, when it came time for them to go, I am convinced that we would shed a few tears and then cheer as we encouraged them along, with instructions to go home and never look back.
I had to travel to an atheist country, half a world away, before I learned what my friends and family had always prayed I would. I hope that if you struggle to cope with death, as I did, that you find success. I hope that it doesn’t take you as long as it did me and that you don’t need to go so far. Most of all, I hope that you find peace, as you learn to cope with death and come to understand that it is only a journey home.
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