Angel in Disguise

October 20, 2011

The summer of 2004 was the first time we met. I had just become the owner of a brand new bike and was giving it a try in our new neighborhood, one we had moved into two months earlier. She was watering her front lawn bushes. The same bushes that later became my first job, paid in popsicles. She commented on my bike and asked a few questions about where I was from. Keeping my distance from this new stranger, I politely answered and went on my way. That chat was the beginning of something incredible one can never forget.
Throughout the rest of the summer, we had gotten to know each other in the same way we met: her on one side of the bushes, I on the other. I had told her that I am the sixth of nine children in my family and English was not our first language, but our second. My parents had decided to move to the U.S. in the year of 1998. I found out her name was Linda, a retired woman who had never gotten married nor had any children. On top of that, she was disconnected from what was left of her family: two sisters of which she had no idea still existed. Her father had served in WWII and died her freshmen year of high school. Her mother, a beautiful woman known for her amazing apples pies, died a number of years later. Linda was a baby-boomer, who had retired at a young age due to her diabetes and several other health issues. Not knowing the danger at the time, she had become a continuous smoker at the age of 14. Little did she know, that was the beginning of her end.
Linda became a very good family friend of ours, as well as very good friend of our cousins who were also our next door neighbors. She was like a grandmother to any kid that entered her home. She’d invite all the neighborhood kids to her house for bonfires and slumber parties. She would let us have as much junk food as our young hearts desired and would let us stay up all night if we wanted to. She took us out for ice cream and spoiled us with presents like we were her own grandchildren. We had nicknamed her Babushka, Russian for grandmother. She not only loved it, but started referring to herself as that.
Although we had lived in America for quite some time before meeting her, Linda taught us everything there is to know about the American culture and the American ways. Phrases we would say wrong, she would correct us. Things misunderstood, she would explain to us. Foods we’d never eaten, she introduced to us. In return, we taught her basic Russian words and shared with her traditional Russian foods. She’d say she was in Heaven whenever she ate my mom’s “piroshki”, a sweet Danish-type roll.
Times spent with Linda were a blast. We would find any excuse we could to go to her house. We would help Linda feed her squirrels and her cats. We helped her paint her fence or wash her car. We would do anything to be with our Babushka. More and more often came times when we would begin to do these things by ourselves because Linda would not want to come outside.
Days that I later learned were due to her depression spells that came around the death anniversaries of friends. Linda had her moments with pain and depression but she was still so kind in every way.
As age caught up with her, so did her bad health. Days came when she couldn’t get up out of bed due to body aches and pains. Eventually she had started having trouble breathing. Assuming that her seasonal asthma was getting worse, she went to the doctor. Never will I forget the moment I found out that Linda had cancer. I was at home working on a homework assignment when the phone rang. It was my cousin. She was bawling on the other end of the line. Understanding only bits and pieces of what she was trying to say, I managed to recognize these words: lung cancer, six months to a year to live. That was it. I didn’t have a reaction. I didn’t even cry. Part of me wanted to blame Linda and tell her that it was her fault because she had been smoking for the majority of her life. Granted, she tried many times to quit, but still I saw it as her fault. Within weeks Linda was bald and weighed almost nothing. Feeling guilty for my nasty thoughts, I felt sorry for her and did everything I could to make her feel comfortable and happy. With the help of my cousins and siblings, I would keep up with Linda’s lawn, mail, cats, and whatever it is she needed getting done.
She would be embarrassed about her inability to do things. She would resist the help, saying she can do these things by herself. At first she would try to pay us as if we were doing this to get something out of her. Of course, we would never take the money. It was a bit offensive to us that she thought we did this for the money. We didn’t understand why she always felt obligated to give us something in return. And it wasn’t until I asked that she told us why.
Scarred by her sisters’ greedy ways of living, Linda swore them off and promised she would never let anyone take advantage of her again. I don’t know all the details of their story, but that was enough for me. It became obvious to me that Linda had spent most of her life alone and was used to getting everything done by herself. She wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being dependent on someone after all these years of living alone. Towards the end, she had no choice. We refused to leave her alone in her suffering. We explained to her that we were doing this because this is the way our parents taught us. If someone is in need of help, help them with good intentions. Being Christian, we lived by the Golden Rule in our family: “Treat others the way you would like to be treated.” It was just the Christian thing to do. It was up to us to be there for her. She had no one else. So it came to be that the more we were there to help her, the more she got used to the idea.
Checking up on her became a daily routine after school. There were days when I would find her haven fallen asleep over the sink with the water running. Most times she’d forget where she was when I’d wake her up. I would reassure her and lead her back to her room. I remember one time when two of my sisters found Linda lying unconsciously on the floor. They awoke her and found her to be completely out of her mind. She screamed at them, confused at her whereabouts.
Not knowing what to do, they called the paramedics. They immediately came and calmed her down.
She was overwhelmed at what this cancer brought her. She was becoming more depressed and eventually signed a DNR that was hung on the refrigerator door. Do Not Resuscitate: Do Not Save, Do Not Revive. I couldn’t wrap my hand around it. I asked myself why she wouldn’t want her life to be saved. I didn’t understand for the longest time why. Why would someone not want another chance at life? I was in shock at first seeing the sign, so I mentioned it to Linda. She told me that is was misery what she was living. She asked me to put myself in her shoes and try to imagine my life with cancer. Chemotherapy, throwing up, hospitals, hair loss, you name it. Who wants to live like that? Just hearing those words made me sick. But I understood. I also understood that with the signing of the DNR, she was signing her life away. Walking home that night, tears streaming down my face, I realized that that was the first time I cried since finding out about Linda’s cancer. It hit me that her life was coming to an end. It hit me hard. Linda was dying.
Hospice came three times a week to check up on her. Every time they left they would warn us that there’s not much time left. By this time, Linda was bed ridden with an oxygen tank by her side. My last real memory of her was before she lost her memory and started talking nonsense, which was the last two weeks of her life. I was lying next to her in bed, talking to her and trying to distract her away from the pain. Although being a sophomore at the time, we were talking about my graduation. Out of nowhere, Linda asked me if I believed in angels. I was confused for a second and with slight hesitation said, “I do.” In return, I asked her the same thing. Tears forming in her eyes, she said, “I do, now.”
She continued saying, “I never believed in angels until I met your family. No one has shown as much care and love for me as you all have. God must have sent you here to watch over me. Who knows, maybe you’re my guardian angel. An angel in disguise.”
With these words she went to sleep, not knowing that I now carry these words with me wherever I go.
Linda died a short week later. She died at one in the morning on the last day of my sophomore year in high school. Although I still had to go to school, I got up and walked over to see her for the last time. I had always wanted her to be there for me when I graduate. And with her death, a result of lung cancer, I believed she wouldn’t be. Now, with graduation day soon approaching, I know she’ll be there for me. Right in the very first row.
Yelizaveta Baydak