A Hospital Home

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Writing Exercise: An Account of An Ancestor in a Frightening Place

Antonija died of tuberculosis aged 31, but it was her four-year-old her daughter, Ksenija, who would bear the brunt of the disease for the rest of her life.

Ksenija had been diagnosed with a spinal injury which required attention, but as her family was in the grip of grief, she was kept quietly at home until her mother died. In her weakened state, however, exposure to tuberculosis was to have serious consequences. It was only after her mother’s funeral that her grandmother took her to the City Hospital in Riga for further tests.

It was a visit, she remembered well. To a small child, it was an ominous place. The rooms were huge, the windows, enormous, the beds impossibly high, and thunderous footsteps echoed through the halls. But most of all, she remembered the fear. In her child’s mind, the doctors were white giants who spoke words she didn’t understand.

The test results confirmed a diagnosis no-one wanted to hear: tuberculosis of the spine, a crippling illness which required long-term treatment in an isolation ward. She was then five years old, but in the 1920’s there was no gentle easing into an extended hospital stay. One day she just didn’t go home.

She entered hospital a confused little girl, and left, nine long years later, an insecure teenager. She had lost her mother, the safety of her home, and the loving kisses and hugs that only her family could give her. The hospital, a bleak, loveless environment, became her home, one from which she couldn’t escape.

In her own words: “The days turned into weeks, the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years”.

(276 words)

© Inara Hawley 2017

Dreams Do Come True

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Do you believe that dreams can come true? I’m not talking about those special goals we make and aim for ~ I’m talking about the miracles we wish for. In this busy world of ours where everything moves so fast, many of us don’t have time to sit and dream about miracles. But miracles do occur, and it’s when we hold tight to a burning desire with passion, that they come true.

So let me tell you a story about a miracle. In1936, a few short years before the Second World War broke out, a desolate and very unhappy young girl was living a miserable existence in an orphanage. Her legs were scratched and bleeding from the rough woollen socks she wore, her feet were wet because she had no gumboots, she was lonely, and she was sick. For you see she had spent most of her life in hospital suffering from tuberculosis of the spine. When it was time to leave she had no family to go to. Her parents and her grandmother had long since died, and her only close relative, her grandfather, had fallen on hard times. He lived in a rented attic crammed full of memorabilia, and the authorities would not allow him to take her, so the only place left was the state orphanage.

The safe refuge of the hospital was gone, and daily life was now about the survival of the fittest. But unfortunately her lungs and spine were badly damaged and still very weak, and having to fend for herself and deal with the harsh daily regime was not easy. She slept in a twenty-bed dormitory, and her life was dominated by bells. There was a bell for everything; for washing, for dressing, for eating, for school, and for sleeping. Bell after bell controlled her every movement. There was never a moment to recover. She had to be sharp and fast, something which was very difficult for a girl who was not physically strong. She even had to fight for her food ~ breakfast was a case of the quick or the dead, and she was not quick.

Getting around was also very difficult. There were lots of steps and it was slow going. She didn’t walk like other children, nor could she run or play as she still wore a spinal brace. And because her gait was different, the other children made fun of her and pushed her over. Years of living in an institution had left its mark ~ she was insecure, fearful, and lacked self-esteem. So she spoke with no one, and no one spoke to her. Her only respite was school ~ she loved it. Learning became her sanctuary and she excelled. It gave her something to hang on to and feel proud of.

When she was discharged from the hospital and moved to the orphanage she was given a parting gift ~ a book of her favourite stories, and the one she loved the most, was about an angel who was sent to earth at Christmas to do a good deed. The angel’s mission was to find a child for a broken-hearted mother whose baby had gone to heaven. The angel searched and searched, and on Christmas Eve, found the child he was looking for ~ a destitute orphan who desperately needed a mother. And in the words of the book, ‘by the love in the light of a candle flame’, the angel brought them together.

With heart and soul this little girl believed it to be a true story, and with burning faith, believed it was also her story. She slept with the book under her pillow and knew the words by heart, whispering them to herself every single night and praying to God and the angels for her miracle to come. So deep and intense was her belief that she was convinced her prayers would be answered with the coming of Christmas, only weeks away. Just like the story, the angels would send her a mother, exactly the right mother, to fill her life with love.

In this lonely existence, one day she had an unexpected visitor ~ her grandfather. And what he found not only shocked him, it made him very angry. He may have lost his wealth, but he was not about to let his granddaughter get lost in a world of poverty and struggle. He was still owed money from the days when he was a wealthy man, and if he couldn’t get the money, he was going to make damn sure those who owed it to him met his granddaughter’s needs. And so without ceremony he made his way to the doorstep of the man who owed him the most.

His actions set some very powerful wheels in motion ~ the wife of the man he visited decided to go to the orphanage and see for herself this child he was so passionate about. She was a kind and loving woman, and it was with a caring heart that she sat down beside a frail little girl in the dormitory. And as if it was heaven sent, the child beside her instantly knew this was the miracle she had been praying for. This kind lady with the loving eyes was her mother ~ she was certain of it. And without a second’s thought, she looked into her eyes and said, ‘Mother, when are we going home?’ These words were the turning point in both their lives.

Dreams Do Come TrueSo yes, dreams do come true. This was the miracle she had been longing for. The young girl was my mother and the kind stranger was the only grandmother I ever knew. And so it was that my mother spent her first Christmas in ten years in the care of a loving family. And as time went by their bond grew. With the blessing of my mother’s grandfather, within a few months they adopted her, and Omi and Opaps, as we always called them, became my grandparents. Omi did everything in her power to bring my mother back to health and Opaps lived up to his responsibility and gave her everything she needed, and more. Omi saved her life after years of illness and Opaps kept her safe during the war.

My two siblings and I became much loved grandchildren to our Omi and Opaps. Even though they had a natural granddaughter of their own, we were a loving part of their family, and many years later, when the meagre proceeds of their estate was distributed, it was divided equally amongst their four grandchildren. So their debt was finally paid, both in honour and in obligation, and the miracle of love lives on.

Inara Hawley © 2013

*This story is an abridged extract from my book, ‘Conversations With My Mother’, published for the family in 2010*