I didn’t understand my unsettledness until Jerry and I were both sitting with Tim at the table and somehow he was telling us stories, this time reminiscing about his trip from Moscow to Khabarosk via the Trans-Siberian Railway over 50 years ago.
He had made friends with young Russian men on the train who shared their food and beer with him (“Not vodka?” I asked. “No, with vodka, you’d just pass out after a couple of hours.”) The trip took eight days, crossing seven time zones, a total of more than 5,700 miles. He described day after day of looking out at flat plains, onion-domed buildings and troikas (carts drawn by three horses) and asking his companions, “Yeshcho ve Rossiya? (Is this still Russia?) and they’d all laugh and say as one man, “Yeshcho ve Rossiya!”*
He had learned Russian in the U.S. Army’s Monterey Language School. The men could tell from his accent that he wasn’t Russian but they couldn’t figure out what he was. They finally decided he was Polish. He took that as a compliment. It meant he was close.
At one point he thought, I need to pay them back. I need to buy the drinks this time. So for the first time he left the compartment and wove his way down the train (“There was a samovar at the end of each car so there was a constant input of chai. And there was a dining car! I could have been buying my own food instead of eating theirs!”) and he managed to purchase a big case of Russian wine and stagger back with it to the compartment they all shared. As he carried it through the door the men all made the same terrible face and exclaimed, “Moskovskaya Noch!” So he learned that Moskovskaya Noch wasn’t their wine of choice.
I said, “Tell Jerry about the little old Russian women at the church at the other end of the line, when you were down by the docks where you were going to take the steamer to Japan.” So Tim told about passing a church as they drew up to a station. Someone on board who knew Russian and Japanese pointed it out and told him in Japanese, “Wakai hito mo imasen.’ Tim knew Japanese too. He knew it meant, “Young people aren’t here anymore.”
Tim thought that was sad. When the train stopped he walked back along the tracks to the church, wanting to tell them he was from a country where everyone went to church every Sunday and that it would be all right, it wouldn’t last forever. He went inside and found it almost empty. “There were some little old ladies. The littlest little old lady started yelling at me, ‘Shpyon! Shpyon!’ (Spy! spy!) She was quite savage.
“The others–bigger little old ladies–bundled over and comforted me, apologizing for her. They said she had had a rough time with government spies; it wasn’t her fault she was so mean. We got to talking and I gave them a crucifix someone had given me, which I’d worn for a couple of years. It was sweet–the face had been almost rubbed off by someone’s thumb. They served me tea.”
As Tim talked, I softened, enjoying his limitless supply of stories, and then I understood. It wasn’t that I don’t want to care for him, that is, take care of him. It’s that I don’t want to care for him, that is, care about him. He’s old, there’s no way around it, he’s going to die, and if I care about him, losing him will hurt. I’ve been through that more times than I can count. I’ve cared about (and taken care of) too many people and sooner or later they all die. My mother, my father, my first husband, best friends, an uncle, a brother-in-law, mentors, role models, people I’ve confided in, relationships I’ve invested in emotionally and with time and prayer.
If I let myself care, I’ll be opening myself up to being hurt again.
In trying to work out the transliteration for me, Tim stopped to explain that “What’s his-name the Terrible–yes, Ivan–was such a bad speller, he made 4 spelling errors in a 3-letter word. He spelled Yeshcho as if sh and ch were two letters: ‘Yeh shu chu oh.'”
Bet that’s a factoid you didn’t know.