Lioness in the Winter

I decided to deliver my first daughter in Serbia rather than in the U.S., which might sound like an illogical choice. But Father was an ObGyn, Mother would be there to take care of me and the baby when it arrived, and my friends would fill my batteries depleted of energy after the months of my voluntary exile.

In America I was a perfectly legal alien, a proud owner of a pink green card, able to work and pay taxes, but unable to vote and get social help. As we could not afford any type of medical insurance and I could not apply for Medicare, the most practical choice was to go overseas.

Everything was as I predicted: Mother pampered me and prepared my favorite meals; Father sequestered me into a room with the door closed to advise me on pregnancy matters; my friends took turns accompanying me on long walks in the park that inevitably ended with a short rest in one of the outside caf├ęs, drinking Schweppes Bitter Lemon or tasty European Iced Coffee.

When she finally decided to emerge, my baby girl was more beautiful than I hoped, and everyone doted on her. I heard from my (first) husband in America that the phone had been cut off, that he could not pay the bills, that it was not fair of me to have abandoned him. I listened, bit my lips, shrugged my shoulders, and decided to stay where we were safe until he grew up. Once I became a mother, my priorities shifted.

I started teaching English in a high school, all those pounds that miraculously appeared in the last two months of pregnancy started to melt away, and I attended my tenth high school reunion illuminated by the halo of new motherhood, happy, excited, and looking forward to each new day.

In June the rumors of UN Sanctions and NATO bombing started, and I was scared. The panic was spreading, and even though I knew I was going back to uncertainty and hardship, I bought the train tickets to Germany, where my sister lived with her husband, and left my country again, watching my family and friends run after the speeding train and waived, drowning in tears.

I borrowed enough money from my sister for a one-way ticket to America, and arrived in Detroit on a hot, muggy night in August, with nine-month-old Nina strapped to my body, hauling two suitcases behind me, barely able to keep my eyes open from exhaustion. My husband waited for me at the airport, and after we embraced and he got a good look at this new creature in his life, perplexed in thought that it belonged to him, asked me for $5.00 for airport parking.

That night I just dropped the suitcases at home and went to the store to buy milk and diapers. If my heart had not already been broken into a thousand pieces, I would have panicked. For the next three months I moved as if in a dream, answered the calls from collection companies and learned what happens when you stop paying the bills. I often went to the store and bought one apple and a container of chicken livers, the best I could afford for my daughter, and I ate broccoli from the garden my sister-in-law planted while I was away.

We still could not get any help as I was not a citizen. I could not work, because we could not afford to pay a baby-sitter, and what little money I managed to earn on the weekend working in a restaurant was not even enough to keep the light on and diapers coming. And then, in November, Mother arrived, and like a fairy, spread her magic dust all over me and Nina. I went to work full force, six, seven days a week, pulling double shifts and marathons, comforted in thought that my baby was in safe hands. I lived in the restaurant, coming home only to shed the food grime off my body in the shower and lay prostrate on the floor, while Mother massaged my cramped legs and shoulders, but no one was hungry any more.

Years went by, and those days are living in my memory like anecdotes. My ex-husband is a chef in a nice seafood restaurant in Southern Florida and he often sends crates of crabs to us. He loves his daughter, but I brought us up from the bottom, running on pure instinct and thinking only of her survival.

For a long time I forgot about hunger and the moments of desperation that kept me awake night after night. And then the recession struck and in one horrifying swipe erased our life in Ohio as we knew it. Everything we had disappeared almost overnight, and we showed up in California on a beautiful August day penniless, in a rented SUV, as our van died in western Illinois, just before the St.Louis arch appeared. Our kids got on the bus available only to poor kids and ate subsidized lunches. We barely had any household items as we could not afford to bring them over from the storage unit in Ohio.

Unable to cope up with the incessant barrage of bad luck, Husband fumbled and lost his footing, allowing despair to take over. Day after day, I woke up at 5:45, donned my uniform, and walk through the mall to a diner, hiding my tears and worries behind smiles as I greeted my customers and made them feel like the world was one happy place, one pancake at a time. And even though money was not really rolling in, in a few months we bought the car, brought our furniture from Ohio, and fed not only our girls, but their little Mexican friends whose father left them with a mother who could not speak English.

The pressure was still on, but that gnawing feeling right below my sternum stopped from time to time and I allowed myself to relax. For three years I made the same trek through the mall and back, not looking around, aware that all of those beautiful clothes and shiny boots were out of my reach. But we were not hungry.

I left for Serbia last summer only to find out the night I arrived that Mother is seriously ill. I spent four months there taking care of her, crying hidden in the corners, not ready to see her so weak and fragile, this woman who carried my whole world on her back for years. It broke my hart to have to leave her, but my girls were in America way too long without me. A month after I returned we moved again to this beautiful town on the ocean, and I felt that I finally belonged for the first time since we arrived to the west coast.

The girls liked their new school and I started making friends and exploring ethnic stores and farmers' markets. We bought bikes and I oiled an old pair of rollerblades. I placed badminton, tennis rackets, and volley ball in the corner of the kids' room for easy access and made daily pilgrimages to the beach just a few blocks away. Life could not look rosier from where I stood, perched on the wall overlooking the blue expanse of the majestic ocean.

But the Fates were not done with us. It happened again, the panic, the despair, the sleepless nights, the feeling as if a baby elephant were taking a nap on my chest. The hunger looms again, showing its ugly head between fluffy stuffed animals, grinning victoriously, as if challenging me to a duel. But all I need to do is look at the two pairs of differently shaped blue eyes to know that I will prevail once again. And this time I intend to fight to the end, to press the "delete" button and erase completely that sneering impostor that threatens my little family.

Yesterday I watched a video of Anthony Robbins interviewing a Holocaust survivor, a 107 year-old woman who came alive from the Terezin concentration camp smiling, holding her young son by the hand. She continues to smile every day. She finds life beautiful and considers it a present. She does not perceive her hardships in the camp as terrible, but as an experience which only made her richer. She thinks that when she laughed with her son in the barracks, he forgot there was no food.  She does not hate anyone, but greets each morning with a sense of wonderment. And then she goes on to practice piano for three hours.

For a long time I just sat there, unable to form a cohesive thought, embarrassed by the moments of self-pity I allowed to creep into my stream of consciousness. And then I decided that I will not let my girls see worry in my eyes, that I will greet them with a wide-open smile reaching all the way to my eyes every day they burst through the door, filled with teen excitement and angst. I will go out into the world and once again conquer the ugly with the indomitable strength of motherly love. And we will never be hungry again.

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