Time of death: six thirty a.m.

Awoken with a start from a restless sleep, I grope not for my watch or the battery-operated alarm clock. I do not reach for my smudged glasses, either, but instead, fumble for the switch on the floor to turn on the Christmas tree lights. The miniature lights twinkle. The early, frigid darkness sparkles like counterfeit jewels. Tears dry then moisten as another surge of recognition consumes me.

My mother is going to die.

Save the three days I slept in the ICU waiting room still dressed in the suit I wore when the call from the emergency room about my mother’s hemorrhagic stroke came, this sofa has been my bed. Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room. I stack the pillows on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, piling worn blankets and duvets and stray clothing on the lumpy mattress.
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I read by the light of Christmas tree lights. The lights glow day and night, trying to stave off a sense of impending doom boiling in the pit of my empty stomach. Against the winter darkness, the lights twinkle and sparkle without devotion. Still, without the soft glow and the lights catching the blushing ornaments, I cannot drift off, even if it’s only for a single hour or two.

Drained of sleep and faith, I drift to the living room window and tentatively reach out to touch the frozen glass. Last night, the wind blew in from the north, squealing and moaning, creaking and wailing like me. Snow tendrils creep across the roads. The slender cobwebs braid an icy lair. More than a foot of fresh snow has fallen in the night. My mother’s apartment building has lived for over thirty years is incarcerated in an ice prison. The sky, still pregnant with winter, belies the tempered blizzard, which will likely rage on for a few more hours.

Though a snowplow breaks the path of winter, pushing back the night and the snow’s accumulation, I still wonder if it will be possible to drive to the hospital once the anemic sun rises.

I wander into the galley kitchen. Turn on the electric kettle. Toss a tea bag in a mug. Collect the cream a few days past its expiration date from the refrigerator. Wait. When the pot boils, I pour the water into the cup, watching the teabag bleed ginger brown against the white bone china. Absently, I press and push against the pouch urging it to steep a little faster—lists cascade across my mind.

Setting the steaming mug on the dining room table, I push back the week’s mail: bills that need to be paid, Letters to be answered. Christmas cards have arrived from people who are oblivious to my mother’s condition. Pulling my ‘master’ list of To-Dos, I grasp a pen and start adding tasks to a clean page. Visit the bank manager. Make an appointment with the investment administrator. Buy multiple expandable files and a label maker. Return a page worth of phone calls. Buy more international phone cards.​​

Day Nine: another day of shuttling between my mother’s bedside and hunting down elusive doctors in the maze of hospital hallways. Another day of waiting for updates about my mother’s condition that are few and far between. Her medical situation is not improving, nor is it markedly shifting into the positive column either. Though the bleed in her head shows a mild retraction, its absorption into her brain matter has stalled.

I am lost in the perfunctory world of list-making when the phone rings. I glance at the mantel clock on the piano – 6:20 a.m. The shrill ring of the telephone at this time of the day does not unnerve me. The phone rings until after midnight most evenings with daily calls from or to England or Australia, often commencing by 5:30 a.m. I am juggling four time zones leaving me stretched like a taut drum around the world’s circumference. I pick up the telephone receiver and mumble a distracted hello.

“Is this Anna So Coc E?” The voice is unfamiliar. When I do not answer immediately, the hesitant voice repeats the question—my mind’s roll-a-dex grinds. No accent.

“Yes. I am Anna Sochocky,” I respond, crisply refusing to allow a tone of gloom seep into my voice. Still, my hands begin to shake like a person struck down by tremors. I put the pen down and wait.

“Ms. So Coc E. This is a member of the nursing staff on your mother’s ward. Your mother went into respiratory arrest at six a.m. We have been executing chest compressions for twenty minutes, but your mother is unresponsive. Would you like us to continue with chest compressions and intubate her,” the anonymous nurse’s question hangs by a thread in the silence? The nurse persists. “Did you sign a hospital medical directive? Does your mother have a resuscitation order,” the nurses fire off companion questions.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead. For a few seconds, I cannot speak, do not speak. I stare out the window into the black morning. The wind grows fierce. The invisible squall’s direction changes and tosses the snow into somersaults. I have grieved for nine days. From the moment I walked into the ICU unit, I knew that my mother was gone. Why does death always arrive in the darkest part of the night or early morning? I gaze into the blizzard wind.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead.

I return to the present with a vengeance. “I gave you copies of the medical power of attorney stating that my mother did not want extraordinary measures taken. I signed the medical directive that you gave me three days ago, specifically not to do any chest compressions or intubation. Don’t you have these instructions noted on her chart or in a file somewhere?”

I march around the tiny living room, desperate to be focused through the rapid onset of tears, tripping over the corner legs of the unmade sofa bed, looking for my clothes, my shoes, my watch, my heart.

“Stop compressions now. DO NOT intubate my mother. Mom wouldn’t want any of this! You’ve probably broken her ribs pounding on her chest! Stop breaking her! I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I can be.”

“Ok. We will stop all resuscitative efforts,” confirming my answer. I am sorry,” the nurse adds before the receiver tone clicks in my ear.

Half-dressed and stunned, I dial Janet’s number. When she answers, I cannot speak. I cannot breathe. I must breathe.

“What’s happened,” Janet whispers.

“She’s gone, Janet. Mom is gone.” Leaping to my feet and weaving around the bed, the chairs, the loss, I race to the kitchen sink and try to spit, expecting to find acidic bile in the basin. My stomach is empty. I emit dry heaves, instead. I nod mutely into the phone, listening to panicked noises on the other end of the line. A chair’s legs scrape across the floor. Boots are selected and quickly discarded. Affronted grunts from Janet’s two dogs register their displeasure with being disturbed in the pre-dawn dark.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. It will take me a few minutes to warm up the truck, and it’s snowing hard again, but I’ll be there as soon as I can. I am so sorry. We’ll get through this together, ok,” but Janet’s weak declaration dissolves amidst choking sobs on both ends of the line.

With nothing left to say, I hang up the phone and aimlessly begin to throw the pillows off the sofa bed and fold blankets. Halfway through pushing the mattress into the hidden compartment, the frame refuses to collapse. The sofa bed is stuck. I am stuck, too.

Do I get on the phone or finish getting dressed? I crumble to the carpet and lean against the bent steel frame. Who do I call next? My husband, of course, but should I call the funeral home before we get to the hospital? Will anyone even answer the phone at this time of day? Should I post a notice on the website that I have been using to update people about Mom’s condition?

The tree lights fuse. The ornaments bleed color into a watery pool. I cannot breathe. I must breathe. Struggling to my feet, I shove the bed violently into place and reconstruct the sofa, cramming pillows onto the frame and fluffing the accent ones into place. The phone rings a second time.

Believing it is Janet to tell me her truck has skidded into a snowdrift, I answer the phone with a question – are you stuck? The person on the other end of the line is not Janet, but the hospital again tells me that one of the nurses found my mother’s pulse. Sign of life is thready, but there is a pulse.

My mother is being transported to the ICU. How can this be? Is she alive after all? My mother’s still alive.

I hang up the phone and toss the receiver onto the sofa. Wriggling into another sweater, I am zipping up my boots when the phone rings a third time. Once again, an anonymous nurse asks me to confirm my name and follows with an apology. “We are sorry, but we were mistaken. Your mother does not have a pulse. Time of death six-thirty.”

By now, any tears of mine have evaporated. Dulled and confused by the hospital’s conflicting messages, I scream without a hint of grace into the phone receiver. “What the hell are you people doing? You violate my mother’s wishes and ignore or cannot FIND the directive I signed, the PDA you asked me to bring to the hospital. She’s dead. She’s alive. Now she’s dead. Are you sure this time, or do you want to check again? Leave my mother alone, for Christ’s sake. You have done more than enough.”

Racing on the edge of madness, I slam the receiver down on its cradle.

After nine days of ambiguity, my mother is dead, and I have moved up a generation.

Human equivalent of GMT

Greenwich Mean Time -- Foot in Two Hemispheres

Under the shadow of the domed Greenwich telescopes, I lean over a thin, black line bordered with twinkling red lights, the geographical collision I have longed to see for years. When I was a child, I ardently scoured my grandmother’s Suffolk garden for evidence, convinced that the slender furrow snaking through the carrots and runner beans was actually the Prime Meridian Line in dusty disguise.

I am still on the hunt to understand the line that has divided me from birth.

In front of me, a little sign points in opposite directions towards the eastern and western hemispheres. I glance around quickly to make sure no one is looking before I begin to play childish games with myself hopping back and forth over the embedded black ribbon. One minute I am standing with both feet planted in the western hemisphere. I scamper over to the other side, dipping my toes back over its edge like I am Goldilocks trying to find a porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold. Eastern hemisphere. I was born on this side of the line. I stand quietly for a few minutes, looking at the side of the world. I cross the line. Western hemisphere. This is the side of the world in which I have lived most of my life. The story behind this geographical split in my life may not be evident to many others, but as the Prime Meridian Line, the line’s divide, like my own, has always been irrefutable to me.

In a photograph taken of my mother at age thirteen, she does not see a hint of the divide to come. Around this time the photograph was taken, my mother and her classmates from the East Anglican girls’ school in Bury St. Edmunds climbed on a bus twice a week to travel to another school for swimming lessons. The bus rambled past a processing camp. The men behind barbed wire were not English but Ukrainian prisoners-of-war waiting to be granted legal status as newly arrived immigrants by British government authorities. With naïve and youthful enthusiasm, my mother and her classmates waved madly to the anonymous men hovering near the fences of the Surrendered Enemy Personnel Camp 231, Redgrave Park.

The year before my father died, when I was thirteen years, my parents and I visited the camp remains. The buildings looked like giant mushrooms. Their arching, corrugated iron roofs stretched across broken concrete floors marooned in acres of wild grass and farmland. The remnants of these shelters were the only buildings protruding through the landscape. The only artifacts left. All the medical tents, sleeping quarters, and wire fencing had been torn down decades ago.

My father had wanted me to see Redgrave so that I would understand a part of him, but instead, he stayed silent, and I was still the spectator. I remember gazing at the colony of prefabricated Nissan huts that remained, trying to imagine my father living in this camp, looking over his shoulder to see if soldiers followed him to the farm so he could steal a farmer’s cabbages to make soup. I could not picture my father’s face, gaunt from hunger, or the barricades circling the tents. I was looking at a photograph in the history book of a stranger.

Camp 231 Redgrave Park -- Redgrave Park, England, WWII

That day, I watched my father’s mind travel across decades, seeing each family member he lost, recreating the barracks and the barbed wire. He was both out of place and at home. He stood with arms crossed, rocking back and forth on his heels, nodding, as if reconciling the English countryside with his memory. The water tower withered beneath choking ivy vines. Moonbeams had replaced the searchlights long since extinguished on the lake’s surface. Only a silent orbit of a wild swan disturbed the horizon of liquid glass.

Abruptly, my father turned and looked right through me to the other side of his history.

I was born to one of the men living behind barbed wire and the woman who sailed past him in a battered school bus. Indeed, their marriage assured me that my life would always be tethered to another part of the world. I am not responsible for the history that continues to unravel on both sides of this invisible line; yet, this legacy the fates have dealt me is mine. I have not always known these truths. Decades isolate the adult woman I am now from the teenage girl when I crossed over this line. Told by my parents for as long as I can remember that I was English, I believed this to be true. Yet, our family joked that my true lineage not unlike Heinz 57 steak sauce: a tablespoon of English and Ukrainian, several teaspoons of Polish and Scottish, a pinch of Irish, and a third of a cup of American by experience.

The Heinz 57 metaphor became my truth. Perhaps I have always been Anna, from America.

Part of me believes that today I must choose one side of the line over the other. If I had to decide at this exact moment, if I could not reverse my choice once made, on which side would I claim as my own, on which side of the ocean would I call home? I place one foot in the western hemisphere and leave the other one on the eastern side. I straddle over the line, a position with which I am most familiar.

Partitioned like the human equivalent of 0 degrees Longitude and 0 degrees Latitude, I came of age looking not forwards but backward.

My mother crossed this line for love. She stayed on the western side of the line for the same reason after my father died, believing that my future and, therefore, hers was in America. My grandmother expected us to return to England after the funeral and could not understand why her daughter would not come to return home. Yet, my mother’s friends said that she made the best decision for both of us. Years later, I am not so sure.

I stare at the line before moving to the eastern side. Do I imagine I have caught a glimpse of a place called home? Or am I simply trying to imagine the life I might have had if my family had not come to America but stayed in England? How would my past have unfolded differently if all the pages of my parents’ history and lives had stayed intact?

What does it mean to be ‘from’ somewhere anyway? Does this reference mean a dot on a map? A culture? A family lineage? Four walls in a particular house? A landscape of a continent? A time in history?

I am more committed to the four walls I live in rather than an actual geographic location. My grandmother’s house, the apartment at the Veterans Administration, my mother’s own haven in Sioux Falls. I write about the English four walls, the walls I write in, the house I imagine buying in England. Maybe the home left behind is more accurate in one’s imagination. Was it my intolerable grief over my father’s death that forced my mother to choose to stay in America?

Did I ever really choose one country over the other?

In the brilliant and sweltering late afternoon sun, so uncharacteristic of an English summer day, history wells up inside of me once more. I am still divided, still learning to live with the burden of my own survival, which I inherited, one that almost broke me. I remain lured by the magnetic pull between what might have been with what is still hungry for a place to call home.

Death keeps you busy

I climb the stairs and duck under the canopy shielded entrance. The plum-colored tarp bends and twists from the force of the thirty-mile an hour wind. With effort, I heave the glass door open, lodging it with my elbow until I manage to scuttle into the foyer. I step out of the subzero temperatures. Only 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and all the steps have been shoveled; pellets sprinkled like breadcrumbs across the pavement melt the ice.

British rail car London to Cambridge

The Miller Funeral Home hums with a buzz of foreign activity. Funeral directors, older men with graying temples, glide silently across the carpet, their silence, and presence as pronounced as helpful monks. The earliest hours on a Saturday morning, yet each man is dressed in full suits, their crisp white or cream shirts ironed and unblemished by the day. Ready to attend to the business of grief, a receptionist, seated at a weighted mahogany desk, crouches over a phone receiver. She wedges hushed tones of sympathy between scheduling a new appointment.

The parlor revolves with the air of an airport terminal’s baggage conveyor belt. Arrivals of the living, departures of the dead, the motion of loss infinite. As my swollen eyes adjust to the muted light thrown off by small lamps peppered around the foyer and track lighting sequestered in the ceiling, another wave of shock and horror sweeps over me, and I burst into tears. With a hint of my knees giving way, a funeral attendant materializes and gathers me into his muscled, aged arms.

“I am so sorry for your loss; weep as long as necessary. We are here to help in any way we can. The shock is still fresh. Don’t feel like you have to make any decisions right now,” he murmurs. His hand rubs my back in a circular motion, and with each move of his hands, my breath settles. After a few minutes, as the wave subsides, he asks, “Who in your life has passed on?”

Passed on. Such a strange, perfunctory, predictable phrase. Passed on where, when, how, why, passed on, uttered to reassure, to console, perhaps even to obfuscate a pain that is often more physical than emotional. With so little sleep, I find it difficult to silence my ping pong mind, my thoughts scuttling across my mind. One minute I am contemplating what the phase ‘passed on’ means, and seconds later, my head is in another plane entirely listing people I need to phone and in which country.

Questions rather than answers flood my mind. Should I schedule a religious service? Why does death always seem to come in the darkness? Why is my mother gone? I cannot silence my philosophical paradigm. First, I am numb, then suddenly analytic. Every activity, every thought I observe and record, then promptly forget. As quickly as my emotional breakers recede, I am clear-eyed. I gaze over the funeral attendant’s broad shoulder noting the natural choreographed entrances and exits of funeral staff into the reception area. All move across the stage of loss as naturally as breathing.

“My mother. My mother has died. Someone found her slumped over her steering wheel in a Walgreen’s parking lot, the one on Minnesota Avenue. Who found her, I wonder? When I was in Sioux Falls in August, I thought our visit might be the last time I saw her alive. Why did I know? Did I know she was going to die,” I string question after nonsensical question together, praying that I will find the focus to stop talking? “Mom lived for nine days after her hemorrhagic stroke. I knew she was going to die from the moment I saw her in ICU,” I babble without limit or effort. For someone who could barely string a sentence together at the hospital, I have reverted to my chronic habit of providing too much information in answer to a question.

“I am indeed very sorry for your loss,” he responds, nonplussed by my verbal incontinence. “Your mother is at peace, and our job is to help you assure that she rests in eternal peace. Why don’t I get you a cup of coffee,” signaling to a second man hovering on the edge of our conversation? “Would you like cream and sugar,” he asks, reaching for a packet of tissues his wingman offers; my clenched hand releases long enough for me to accept the offering.

I shake my head no but quickly change my mind. “Cream, please. I’d like some cream. Thank you.” Every pore of my body wilts, and though I have ingested little more than coffee in the past few days, the prospect of a warm, Styrofoam cup shimmers like a cairn in the mountains, guiding me to certain safety.

“Did you phone from the hospital a couple of hours ago,” the old ‘monk’ inquires, gently turning my shoulders, guiding me to a well-positioned chair. When I mutely nod yes, he suggests that I sit down and he will inquire as to whom I will be meeting with to make final arrangements for my mother, bowing ever so slightly before moving away towards the receptionist’s desk. Like the man with gentle eyes who caught me before I kissed the ground, the younger man with coffee appears like a specter, and I slump into the chair’s warm, plump, floral fabric. Plucking two tissues from the plastic packet, I blow on the coffee’s surface. Sensing the burning heat, I set the cup on the square faux wood accent table on my left.

Thirty years have passed since I have been in this building for my father’s visitation and his meager funeral, and little seems to have changed. Or has it? Stunned by grief at the age of fourteen, I really wouldn’t have noticed if the décor had been deep, tonal wood paneling or bright blue linoleum. But now, with the cold comfort of coffee, my eyes swivel around the foyer and across the passageway’s entrance. Every surface – pedestals with potted chrysanthemums or deep crimson Christmas poinsettias, corner tables and chairs, the receptionist’s central desk, the sideboard against the pinstriped wallpaper in the hall – is populated with clusters of travel tissue compacts.

Slumping further into the chair, I watch the funeral staff navigate unchartered waters for the newly bereft. I reach for the thick notebook I have carried for nine days like a worn talisman and absently begin to turn pages of penciled lists, lists that have come to define not only by days and nights but my new self. I tick items off the bloated list. Cremation – yes. Private funeral; only close friends. Open visitation. Timing should be over the lunch hour; friends and co-workers can dash out of their jobs and drop by to pay their own respects and grieve. Small sandwiches and cookies? Definitely. With the cold winter wind, people must be fed.

Questions of religious services stump me. Faithful but not religious, my mother opted never to join a congregation. Religion is different in this country; she frequently declared. After my father’s death, attending church services became my mother’s lifeline, but as the years waned, her commitment diminished as well. Instead, she clung to a country lost, past lost, dreams lost until she was incapable of moving forward and taking up the reins of her life for a time. I never saw my mother pray; my mother kept her faith to herself as well.

With my father’s death, decisions that were not my own to make seeped through the telephone and under the front door, peppered our mail, and masked our emotions. Now, it was my time to make all the decisions. Making choices and facing facts is my forte. I sip the cooled coffee – how much better if it were it laced with brandy.

Perhaps I dozed in the warm foyer, I don’t know, but when Janet finally walks in the building, I startle at her voice. “So, we’re parked in the Starbucks parking lot. None of the roads have been plowed yet, and Starbucks is the only lot that has been cleared. It’s about a block and a half from here. Have you talked to funeral staff yet,” she asks, stomping her snow-caked boots on the entry rug.

“Monks,” I replied. “I spoke to one of the ‘monks.’ Someone should be ready to meet with us soon.”

“Monks? What are you talking about? Are you alright, well as alright as you can be right now.”? Janet brushes the snow from her down jacket and stamps her boots once more.

“The funeral attendants. They seem to glide across the carpet like ‘monks.’ Look at these men,” I insist, “all of them dressed in suits and ties. I heard the receptionist tell a caller that the funeral home is open twenty-four hours a day. And it’s so busy, even though it’s barely nine o’clock,” my voice trailing into an unexpected wave of tears.

My body absorbs shock from my mother’s death like a violent contusion. Unable to hold my limbs up with intentional will, my body crumbles, as if my bones are disintegrating into dust. Efforts at conversation, normally as clear as a winter sky, have become a foreign language.

The call from the hospital three hours ago fades into the funeral home’s floral carpet and is absorbed by other families’ arrivals, stunned into silence by loss. Fresh coffee percolates somewhere, the smell benignly drifting into the belly of equally fresh grief.

Long minutes pass before Janet asks, “Did you phone people in England? Not everyone needs to be called today, Anna. Can others make calls for you?” I nod mutely into my coffee cup. Sobs that had once been violent have transposed into a few seconds of quiet tears.

Janet’s question dangles, unanswered, and she does not repeat it.

Death keeps you busy. I have inherited my mother’s penchant for manufactured control over capricious situations, a mistress of the list. Meticulous, organized, and prioritized, enslavement comes from the pen as well as the phone.

I do not have time to grieve. I am drowning, simply drowning.

Legal definition of home

With three probate attorneys in my employ, I grimace, my index finger hesitating, before clicking on the mouse to open an email marked Probate Inquiry from my English solicitor. The sky outside my study sluggishly lightens, yet I lost all sense of day and night weeks ago.

An insomniac driven not by an inability to sleep but by emails laden with documents to sign, notarize, and express mail return, I compile records requested by my English lawyer. Today’s list is the most overwhelming one to date:

  • an original death certificate;
  • original U.S. court-certified copy of my mother’s handwritten will;
  • original U.S. and Canadian court orders admitting my mother’s will to formal probate;
  • original U.S. and Canadian court orders appointing Steve and me as executors;
  • copies of my mother’s most recent British savings and checking account statements;
  • statements of the income and expenses for the bungalow in Bury St. Edmunds

As the moon ascends, I print out a lengthy document to read. The mini-tome, produced by the inheritance tax office of the HM Revenue and Customs department, meant to guide British citizens’ taxation responsibilities and/or working abroad, neglects to elucidate any answers to my frenzied questions. On the page, I scribble another set of words and definitions cited in the document.

Domicile: the place where a person has his/her permanent principal home to which he/she intends to return. Where a person has several “residences,” it may be a matter of proof as to which is considered a person’s permanent state of domicile;

Resident: person residing 183 or more days in the UK in the tax year; owned, rented, or lived in a home for at least 91 days in total or at least 30 days in a tax year;

Non-resident: a person spending less than 16 days in the UK (or 46 days if not classed as UK resident for the 3 previous tax years) or working abroad full-time (averaging at least 35 hours a week) and spending less than 91 days in the UK, of which less than 31 days were spent working;

Visitor: a person who visits, as for reasons of friendship, business, duty, travel, or the like.

“You and I are English, Anna,” my mother once maintained to me in a crowded Chicago terminal. England is the country in which you and I were born, and it is the country we are going to return to one day to live,” she insisted for decades, yet her bi-annual journeys of return to visit cast a shadow posthumously on my mother’s life.

Indeed, the question of her domicile, the nexus of not only my mother’s estate but also the definition of her life, pricked the interest of my attorney.

“I have been giving a lot of further thought to matters, particularly the domicile issue,” solicitor number three wrote. “The only possible stumbling blocks here are the visits your mother made to the UK, and the fact that she owned a property over here,” the man nearing retirement, who preferred handling our interactions by email rather than by phone, mused.

“I will need to know the frequency of your mother’s visits, whether she visited other countries other than England, and the duration of her visits,” he added, his inquiry confirming the amorphous and shifting boundaries of my mother’s and, as a consequence of her choices, my own life. “Playing devil’s advocate: it could be that our Revenue and Customs could say that your mother had not severed all ties with this country. All I can do is put everything forward and await the outcome,” he wrote after his email with a not so subtle tone of ambivalence.

West Road, Bury St. Edmunds, SuffolkIf my mother’s domicile were classified as England due to her regular visits and a bungalow encumbered with structural weaknesses, the estate worldwide would be subject to an inheritance tax, a third of which would land in the Queen’s coffers. A person has several “residencies,” it may be a matter of proof as to which is considered a person’s permanent state of domicile; the legal definition is about as clear as a pea fog. One person’s proof is another person’s obfuscation.

Has my mother’s life and mine been permanently tainted by the muddied question of domicile? As my mother neared her death, she referred to her Sioux Falls apartment as her ‘home’ embracing the protection of the only four walls she could claim, yet, nowhere in the Revenue and Customs definitions is a definition of ‘home,’ the only word that ever mattered to both my parents and to me.

Last will and testament

In my effort to categorize my mother’s world, I discover that my mother still has her instinct to hide envelopes of money around the apartment. Burying bills between the folds of her bras and underwear, underneath my grandmother’s pearls in her jewelry case, on the lower shelf of her closet in an old Tiffany’s box, in every pocket of her purses and wallets, she maintained her obsession to save every dollar for an emergency. At first, I count the found envelopes’ contents, marking the totals on the adhesive flaps, and occasionally cram a twenty or two into my own wallet to pay for hospital parking or gas, but rarely to pay for food. A week since my mother’s stroke, I am still not eating.

Turning a blind eye to the paper maze on the bed and envelopes of money, another web of questions that cannot be answered arises. At lunch earlier today, my mother’s friend, Margaret, asked me if I had found my mother’s handwritten will recalling that she had witnessed my mother’s signature. To shield my shock and growing unease, I lied, saying that though I had not found this will, my mother had told me that she had written it.

I turn away from the closet and survey the room. Why did my mother handwrite a second will? What does it say, and in a silhouette of Ukrainian paranoia, I wonder if she has sliced me out of her will like an amputation? Where did she bury it? Why did she hide it, to begin with, and fail to tell me that it existed in the first place? The will my mother had prepared by an attorney thirty years ago after my father died was the only will I knew existed.

To say that my mother is private is an understatement, but there is an uncomfortable undercurrent to her behavior. A lack of trust between us budded before my father died and bloomed with the glory of spring after his death when my answer to a question she asked to set our course for the next twenty years.

Do you want to return to England to live? Even in the tenderness of grief, I realized the question had only one correct answer to assuage my mother’s brittle state. Yes. But, in a flood of tears, I answered incorrectly. My mother created a mythology of her England in time, subsisting on a diet of remorse, bitterness, and longing until she became a reluctant American.

Only when I read the condolence letters my mother received after my father died did I realize that I might have put myself in the invisible prison as well. Living straddled between two countries and cultures, with no steady footing in either one, I considered that I really did deserve the subtle punishment my mother unwittingly inflicted upon me when I said I did not want to return to England to live. In the end, however, the decision she made to stay in South Dakota, a decision she made in a spinning world of crisis, built an impenetrable wall between us long into my adulthood.

Frantic to replace all that I believed I stole from my mother, I read the same books as she did, all about England, all about the Second World War, trying to understand her England. As before, when I was a child, I listened to the intonations of her accent, trying to mimic each syllable. Each morning, I scoured British newspapers and websites, searching for a common thread to discuss with my mother with authority. Television programs written with a British lens of self-deprecation or shrewd and dry humor became my cultural lifeline, severing connection to the culture and country in which I lived.

Over time, I metamorphosed into a life that did not belong to me.

A show pony that just wanted to be pastured, I obediently produced hollow success, too. Ribbons and trophies when I was in high school, excellent grades, for the most part, scholarships and awards, my reputation in my mother’s eyes improved when I succeeded, but plummeted when I stumbled. Knowing that errors in practice or judgment would compromise a scholarship or, more likely, her respect, I denigrated myself for every mistake I made, blaming myself for every failure, real or perceived. The undercurrent of her sacrifice subsumed me; though my mother relinquished her country for me, to be anything less than worthy of the decision, she forced herself to make would be tantamount to betrayal.

Writing cases. I should have thought to look for the other will in her two writing cases. The newer ones, a dark wood box with her initials engraved on a piece of metal, is the one she uses most often, but where is the scarlet red, leather box my mother received for her twenty-first birthday? Crouching on my knees, my hands tap the dark space of her desk touching emptiness until…leaning deeper into the cavity my index finger rubs against a hardened object. Inching the unknown object closer to me, the abandoned, forgotten writing case emerges.

With my mother’s writing box under my arm and a wine glass in my left hand, I clear enough space on the bed to sit and lay the case beside me. Once always firmly clasped to prevent curious eyes, the lock releases with a press of a button. Contents spill over the sides onto the floor. Clippings detail the demise of the local coop in Bury St. Edmunds, and the latest innovation in heart treatment at Papworth Hospital, the fateful location where my parents met working on the medical ward.

Turquoise colored airmail letters in my grandmother’s handwriting leak with regret she felt for being unsuccessful in her attempts to discourage my mother’s marriage. Dozens upon dozens of obituaries recap my sixth-grade teacher’s life, my riding instructor’s father, long past doctors, and nurses that comprised my father’s daily life, librarians who my mother worked with over seventeen years, and one of my mother’s first boyfriends. To feed the inclination, to sum up, decades of life, but abbreviated entries in any local paper neglect to verify a history of spent dreams or devastating loss or joyful moments peeking through the too familiar clouds of disappointment.

The fact that my mother kept each obituary, refusing to throw away memory or history failed to surprise me. All these years, ever since I was a small child, my mother kept track of all those who entered her circle, even those whose stay was brief. I did not inherit her commitment to keeping track of those crossing into my life over the years. I severe connections with employers, lovers, and friends alike, placing the memory in a chest that remains unopened like her writing box once did.

Buried between the pages, I find a letter written in my own hand at the age of ten, imploring my mother to return from England. Upon my great aunt Stella’s death, my mother returned home, leaving me at the age of ten to care for my father.

In a child’s handwriting, the letters cascade into a steeper slant with each desperate line. In places, the paper puckers. Our dog was dying before my eyes. Why couldn’t my father see the dog was dying, I wrote? How long did the letter take to arrive in my mother’s hands? Was the dog still alive when she read my pleas? Memory fails me on that score, but I remember hiding in my bedroom closet. Wedged between a dented wagon and Barbie’s pumpkin orange mobile camper, writing. I hid from my father for fear that he would see my letter as a betrayal. Even at the tender age of ten, I feared the consequences of speaking uncomfortable truths, burying my voice in the silence.

After two hours reading faded newspaper clippings, opening each envelope including the one I penned, scanning the lines of each letter, I acquiesced to the knowledge that the writing case did not hide the secret will.

Something else portended my mother’s fate, however.

When I go to close the lid, a passport-sized, black and white photo of my mother, wedged between the folds of a leather pocket, catches my eye. Sliding it out of the compartment, I stare at the image of my mother clad in a turtleneck sweater, her everyday hairpiece perfectly coiffed. A thought as faint as her ambiguous expression in the image crosses my mind.

I have found the photo to use for her obituary, the obituary I know I will have to write. Tucking the unfamiliar photograph in my wallet, the last of my faith in my mother’s recovery slip away.

As investigation unfolds, more questions

I click the green button to accept the call. The faint connection grows stronger until an image of a forty-something-year-old man with closely cropped hair and wire-rim glasses comes into focus. I am aware that my unwashed hair pulled back into a barrette coupled with a repeated bout of neurotic eyebrow rubbing probably does not make the best first impression.

“Hello,” the voice announces in a deep-throated Eastern European accent. Aside from his greeting, the only sound coming from the other side of the world is shuffling books and papers splayed around his desk. He pauses before speaking once more, “My name is Roman Pinyazhko, and you are Anna Sochocky.”

I nod a little too enthusiastically. Out of sight of the screen, my fingers alternate between drumming patterns on the desk’s surface and smoothing the wrinkles creased in the thigh of my gym pants.

“I am glad you and I have an opportunity to speak,” I begin clearing my throat more than once. Before I have an opportunity to continue, Roman seizes the nascent conversation with authority.

“My mother works at L’viv Medical University with your cousin, Yaroslava. Yaroslava searches for you many years.” His English, broken into fragments, proceeds his meticulous outline of each element of his dogged investigation.

“Your father’s name was Serhij. He was a member of the Polish Army and later, the Ukrainian Division Galicia. He was born in the village Krugeiv. His father’s name was Michael. He was a lawyer. His mother, your grandmother’s name, was Irena. Your grandfather was a priest. Your father’s sister’s name is Olga. You have three cousins – Yaraslava, Zaraslavia, and Lydia.” (Zaraslava, my oldest cousin pictured)

Roman pauses to shuffle through the labyrinth of papers in front of him. The pause evaporates into another round of facts always known to me. “Your father was in Rimini camp? Roman does not wait for my ascent and continues. “After his detention in Rimini, he traveled to England.”

Sensing an opportunity to respond, I interject that after my father’s detention in Rimini, he was transferred to a processing camp at Redgrave Park, where he remained for two more years. Roman pauses to take in this information. “I can email you a photograph if you like,” reminded of the fragments I still had in my own possession.

“Your father worked as a doctor in Cambridge. He worked at a sanatorium in North Carolina and then South Dakota,” Roman regains his footing. “There is much I have to tell you.”

Ronan continues. “Your father died of a heart attack. You and your mother were in England, yes?”

I swallow. Hard. Our benign conversation has shifted. So few people knew that my mother and I were in England when my father passed. How on earth would a man I do not know have this information?

Yet, Roman’s next statement will rewrite the reasons why contact with my father’s family did not simply evaporate but was unknowingly severed by a woman who claimed to be a friend.

Serhij Sochocky with sister Olga, western Ukraine

I have much to tell you

A photograph of me dressed in my third-grade school uniform materializes. Only then do I truly understand that the urgent emails and Facebook messages are not fiction but fact.

Do I remember the child in the photograph? The girl appears happy enough, but like most of my school photographs, each one tells a secret story of anxiety, household discord, and, most of all, isolation.

Was this photograph taken the year I first believed that the twin afflictions of war and immigration would subsume me?

Nursing my private pathos for decades, I did not question the absence of half my history, half my family, half my self, yet the genetic chasm left behind a burn scar in my psyche.

The next message jolts me back from the throes of history and sends a chill down the length of my spine. Each lick of my lips accentuates the dryness in my throat. I dial the number, but the call does not connect. I text, please send me your country code. A curt message is immediate admonishing me that I have all that I need.

I try placing the call once more, only to be met with a digitized message of failure. Your call cannot be connected. Please check the number and dial again. After the third failed attempt, I toss the phone across my desk. Running my fingers through my hair, my thumb finds my familiar spot of anxiety above my left eyebrow. Now what?

Apparently, the world isn’t as connected as the technological genies suggest, I grunt. Abandoning my neurotic eyebrow rubbing, I choose another obsessive activity — refreshing the Facebook page again and again.

The Skype ring tone breaks my reverie. I watch the answer and reject items flash on my screen.

History has come calling. Am I ready to answer?

Serhij Sochocky, registration papers, Chief Medical Officer, Redgrave Park, England

A riddle I could never solve

Great grandfather, Greek Orthodox priestTiny morsels of my father’s life have always appeared without warning, a crumb here, a mystery unraveled there, only to be followed by a dead end, pieces that leave unanswered questions in their wake. The unwritten residue from which I built my account about my father’s life over the years usually came by accident – a weighted remark at the dinner table or a story surreptitiously overheard – shocking and unexpected.

From time to time,, when I was tiny, I crawled out of bed and lay curled up on the floor of my bedroom,, pressing my ear to the space between the door frame and the carpet and waited. Waiting for what, I was never quite sure, but when wrinkled summer light bled stubbornly through the Venetian blinds of my room, I hoped that my nightly missions might produce clues about my father. My father hunted for his own clues, too. Every evening, he sat crouched forward,, fiddling with the knobs on the radio,, searching for a report from behind something called the Iron Curtain. My father was a puppeteer trying to drive the gravel out of the foreign voices.

The walls in our small apartment were thin. I lay in bed with my ear pressed to the wall, straining to hear my mother turn into the living room from the hallway after she closed my bedroom door. When I thought it was safe, I climbed out of bed and padded across the bedroom floor. Once the sound of voices rumbling from my father’s radio and the chimes of their teacups on saucers seeped through the narrow opening, I knew I would not be discovered.

Some nights, when I did not make a discovery, I lay quietly,, clutching my teddy bear before falling asleep on the floor. I have not made a discovery for several evenings,, and this evening does not look promising.

Gingerly, I ease my coloring book off the bookshelf and hold my breath when the crayons spill out onto the white, worn carpet. I lay still for a minute until I convince myself my mother has not heard my accident.

My father has turned the radio off,, and my parents are not talking. Another evening without a discovery, I sigh when I unexpectedly hear my father’s voice, low and distant.

“All of the soldiers were shot. Shot. Point blank. On the train. I overslept and missed the train. Pure luck. Luck and God. God kept me off that train. I, too, would have been killed if…,” my father’s voice fades.

Where was my father going on a train? What does my father mean by point-blank? I am glad that God kept my father off that train and that my father was so lucky.

“What happened after the ambush,” my mother asks my father in the gentle and soothing voice she has when I have skinned my knee.

“Ah…it was a long time ago. It does not matter. It does not matter anymore,” my father answers. I hear his chair flying back into the bookshelf and his footsteps moving quickly towards the kitchen. The click, click, click of my mother’s knitting needles fills the space.

The sun has finally gone down, and my toy wagon and dresser shapes shapes have taken on scary forms. My eyes dart around the room. Is that a witch peaking out at me from behind my dresser? Is there a monster behind my toy wagon? If I can just run quickly from the floor to my bed, I can be safe. I scamper to my bed and burrow down under the covers to hide from the monster I am sure is behind my toy wagon. I fall asleep dreaming of a train moving fast through dark forests…Serhij Sochocky with Polish soldiers, World War Two

…in my dream, it is frigid. The finely falling snow has made a damp halo of my father’s head. He is smoking. He glances at his watch before tossing his burning cigarette on the hard, gray ground. Dozens of men walk around my father,,, but I cannot see their noses or lips, eyes,,, or cheeks. My father does not notice these faceless men but boards the waiting train with them, the train steaming and snorting like an anxious horse. Why is he getting on the train? Doesn’t he know it isn’t safe? Wait, Daddy…no…do not get on the train. From the window, he presses his face to the glass, as if searching for a distant glimpse of something familiar. He seems to look directly at me,, but when I wave and cry, “Daddy!” he does not respond. The wheels grind sharply against the steel rails,, and the train, once eager to lunge forward, now strains to move, creeping ahead with the sound of metal on metal. Wait. Wait. Don’t go, Daddy. Wait for the next train. This one is not safe. But my cries are too late…

Years after I fell asleep on the floor of my bedroom dreaming about this murderous train, I learned the true context of this story. During the years Poland ruled western Ukraine, my father, a member of the Polish army, was to travel from Lviv with hundreds of other soldiers to fight the Soviets after the invasion of eastern Poland but missed his train. Word soon filtered back to Lviv that the Soviet army had intercepted the train and murdered all the soldiers aboard before closing off the Eastern Front.

On my bedroom floor, I did not simply learn snippets of history. I also gathered stories like a small bird collecting discarded objects for its fragile nest.

I was always the family archaeologist. Beginning with the nugget about the train, over the years, I built my own private inventory from fragments I collected:

      • a country called Ukraine that none of my family could visit;
      • a sister, my aunt, and her children, my cousins, whom my father could never contact directly living behind the Iron Curtain;
      • a brother murdered by the hand of a Nazi soldier for being a member of the anti-German resistance and left to die on the family farm;
      • soup my father made from stolen cabbages and grass in a string of prisoner-of-war camps;
      • a daring escape from a Soviet camp in the throes of a bitter winter;
      • the leather prayer book my father smuggled through multiple detentions;
      • a handful of gold rubles hidden deep within the base of a shaving stick, rubles my father had made into an exquisite bracelet for me;
      • photographs of prisoner-of-war camps in Rimini, Italy,, and Redgrave Park, England.

Many years would pass before I told anyone about my inventory. At the time of my father’s death, even though my commitment to uncovering these stories had been unwavering for years, my inventory was painfully thin. My father was not unlike the country of his birth to me – a riddle I could never solve.

I understood that my father was not born in America but in Ukraine and had lived in England before coming to South Dakota. Yet, my father’s Ukraine was never like my mother’s England to me. While England seemed like a jewel in the middle of a cold ocean, infused with brilliant light, Ukraine was dark and terrifying, a place I was never be allowed to visit. There was a weight connected to the country’s name – Ukraine – as if the entire landscape shouldered a devastating burden it could never discard.

Ukraine was consigned to my imagination, a place with dangerous forests and unfamiliar faces, a country where everyone was always hungry. There were no heirlooms from my father’s family on the bookshelves or on the coffee table in our apartment. I never knew anything about any member of his family, by experience or by anecdote, only by fiction and myths I created.

A life interrupted

I did not need CT results to view a life interrupted. The evidence met me when I turned the key in my mother’s apartment’s lock for thirty years and entered.

A handwritten grocery list for the week hung from a magnet on the refrigerator. In my adolescent bedroom, wrapped presents without name tags but labeled with tiny yellow post-it notes instead lined the floor. Addressed but unwritten Christmas cards to friends and family remained where she had left them in neatly stacked piles next to sheets of international stamps on the dining room table.

A lavender scent lingered on her pillows. Tucked under the one closest to her bedroom door, a book she was reading at the time of her stroke suggested a life still being lived. The dust ruffle, unmoved since the last morning she made the bed, gathered in all the right places along the floor. A change of clothes, neatly piled on the chair by her desk, would never be worn again. Organization, not disarray, resonated with each list, in the stillness of each object, in each room.

Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.

As evening hours ticked into another day, I frantically culled and filed, sorted, and discarded objects, letters, and magazines often over ‘dinners’ of sherry and bowls of nuts and crackers that remained uneaten. Most nights, I wandered through the apartment, absently entering and exiting each room and mentally sifted through my mother’s belongings to save and pack, which to give away or discard. I silently categorized the paintings on the wall she had collected with care, the china figurines of a nurse and a woman dressed in hunt attire that had sat on the bookshelves since I was in high school, the paperweights on the piano that was never played, and assorted mementos from my grandmother’s house in England that my mother cleared and sold when I was in college.

Once upon a time, my mother’s job was to sort through her own family’s belongings. The candlesticks from the front room mantelpiece, the silver hairbrush, comb, and dimpled mirror engraved with my grandmother’s initials, the brass turtle and maiden handbell, an original watercolor of Westminster Abbey, painted from the Dean’s Yard, a couple of pins belonging to her Aunt Stella, Shetland wool throws, the hand-carved mahogany bellows from the front hall and a small collection of books by the Bronte sisters. Diligently she sorted linens and china from bustles and pearls, emptying each drawer and wardrobe of cardigans, cotton nightgowns, handkerchiefs, and blouses. There were blankets and comforters, cast iron pots, and crystal vases to sort through. In an old cedar trunk, she found brand new sweaters from a woolen shop in Scotland, still sealed in the original plastic bags.

Sixteen years later, these hints of her family home blended into my mother’s apartment. The hand-carved wooden bellows hung in her hallway, retired from duty, silent and breathless. The mahogany chest of drawers stored her winter sweaters and the local telephone book. My grandmother’s silver hairbrush, comb, and mirror laid on the dresser, unused.

I don’t live in the past, yet, I was still trying to measure the beauty of lost articles, too.

From room to room, I wandered plucking random objects infused with invisible memory my mother and I both understood, hers perhaps more indelible like a scar, mine skating on the surface like a blemish. Objects I lived with through high school and college, and still, others that my mother added after I left home, I recognized. Others appeared during the years when I tried to put my own life in order are ones in which no memory resonated for me. No perception of security echoed in my fingertips when I held an unfamiliar vase or a silver salt savor. Instead, my hand stroked objects like worry beads, desperately attempting to drive the pit of impending loss away from my mind.

With a routine, I savagely carved through a maze of sleep deprivation and grief; slowly, I dismantled my mother’s life. My mother never returned to her apartment to live, the four walls she once called home.

Mounds of paper I handled with aplomb, but the thought of stripping the walls bare and folding and stacking sweaters still smelling of her hair and perfume crippled me. I moved without focus, hunting through one drawer – boxes and garbage bags beside me – before leaving the room and starting another unfocused search for what I did not know in another room.

One night, I shuffled into my mother’s bedroom and surveyed the contents on her bed’s surface. Decades of annuity and investment records, brown-edged deeds to overseas properties, crisp cream bank statements, tax filings dating back to my father’s death thirty years ago crowded the corners of the floral duvet. A colony of her American and British passports, my father’s too, as well as my own, jumbled our collective web of identity. To sleep in my mother’s bedroom seemed sacrilegious, but to clear her past seemed like I defiled my mother’s waning life, too.

Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.