Saturday, September 17, 2016

Local Writers Recognize Winners of 4th Annual Student Writing Contest at Chantilly Regional Public Library, September 25, 2016

Chantilly, VA (September 15, 2016)—The Writers of Chantilly, a not-for-profit organization of local professional and aspiring writers in Chantilly, VA, will recognize the winners of the 4th Annual Student Writing Contest, sponsored by the Writers of Chantilly and the Chantilly Regional Public Library, at the Chantilly Regional Public Library on Sunday, September 25, 2016.

For this year’s contest, students in Fairfax County, VA, were invited to write an original essay, short story or poem on the theme of “Re-write the Ending to…” The winning entries, along with works by members of the Writers of Chantilly, will be published in an anthology, Re-write the Ending to…, later this year.

1st Place
Ashely Yang – “My Name is Betsy” – Frost Middle School

2nd Place
Katherine Simpson – “My Sister’s Trojan Horse” – Langston Hughes Middle School

3rd Place
Zack Krajnak – “Look Back and Smile on Perils Passed’ – West Springfield High School

4th Place
Aya Khalafalla – “A Permanent Wrong” – West Springfield High School

5th Place
Elin Choe – “Another Chance” – Rocky Run Middle School

Students will be recognized and read their winning entries beginning at 2:00 p.m on September 25, 2016, at the Chantilly Regional Library, 4000 Stringfellow Road, Chantilly, VA, 20151.


About the Writers of ChantillyThe Writers of Chantilly meet twice monthly at the Chantilly Regional Library in Chantilly, VA, to encourage and support writers 18 and over at all levels—newcomers warmly welcomed. WOC has published several anthologies, the most recent being Secrets, Lies and Sighs, available on or through the Fairfax County Public Library system. Contact:; Web:

Monday, May 30, 2016

Writers of Chantilly Published Book List

Here's the comprehensive list of published books by Writers of Chantilly authors and friends:

F. Clifton Berry
Medics at War: Military Medicine From Colonial Times to the 21st Century (2005)--military history
United States Army at War: 9/11 Through Iraq (2003)--military history
Milestones of the First Century of Flight (2002)--history
Inside the CIA: Art, Architecture & Atmosphere of America's Premiere Intelligence Agency (1997)--non-fiction history and art
Spies, Black Ties, and Mango Pies: Stories and Recipes From CIA Families All Over the World (1997)--cookbook
Inventing the Future: How Science and Technology Change Our World--textbook
CNN: War In the Gulf: From the Invasion of Kuwait to the Day of Victory and Beyond (1991)--military history
Strike Aircraft (1988)--military history, Illustrated History of the Vietnam War series
Gadget Warfares (1988)--military history, Illustrated History of the Vietnam War series
Chargerss (1988)--military history, Illustrated History of the Vietnam War series
Air Cav (1988)--military history, Illustrated History of the Vietnam War series
Sky Soldiers (1987)--military history, Illustrated History of the Vietnam War series

Edgar N. Brown
Memoirs (2016)--memoir (not (yet?) available through Amazon)

Karen Brown
A Hard Dry Road (2003)--contemporary novel

Robert Cantrell
Outpacing the Competition: Patent-Based Business Strategy (2009)--business strategic planning
Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War (2004)--military history, philosophy
Art of War: Sun Tzu Strategy Card Deck: 54 Winning Strategies (2004)--card game guide

Loretta Cordova
Five Centuries in Puerto Rico: Portraits and Eras (1993)--history

M A. Florence
Red Flag Warning (2012)--contemporary novel
The Animal Parade (2012)--children's book

Mary Ellen Gavin
Secrets of the Apple Tree Tavern (2014)--family saga, part I of Irish Fires series
Hiding Places at Barrington Hall: Hannelley and Hennessey Investigations (2012)--mystery

Angela Glascock
Locksmith at the End of the World: A Dead Silence Novella (2015)--horror novella, part I of Dead Silence series

Sunny Hersh
Is it HOT in Here, or Am I Just HOT? (2007)--self-help
Midlife Mamas on the Moon: Celebrate Great Health, Friendships, Sex, and Money and Launch Your Second Life (2004)--self-help

Betty Hyland
Benedictine Bloodhounds (2010, paperback edition)--historical mystery novellas
A Thousand Cloudy Days: Three Months In the Life of a Schizophrenic Man (2010)--memoir
Hope in Hell (2007)--mystery thriller
The Girl With the Crazy Brother (2002, paperback edition)--novel

Richard Katchmark
(New!) Dancing With Dolphins (2016)--contemporary novel
Parable of the Three Butterflies (2015)--novella
The Creator--My Friend (2013)--short stories, essays
New Beginnings (2013)--short stories, essays
Quiet Listening (2012)--short stories, essays
You're Invited to More of My World (2012)--short stories, essays
You're Invited to My World (2009)--short stories, essays

Kara Keen
(New!) Romancing Vegas (2015)--contemporary romance, part II of Captain's Orders trilogy
Captain's Orders (2015)--contemporary romance, part I of a Captain's Orders trilogy

Dana King
(New!) A Dangerous Lesson (2016)--hard-boiled crime, part IV of Nick Forte series
The Man in the Window (2015)--hard-boiled crime, part III of Nick Forte series
The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of (2014)--hard-boiled crime, part II of Nick Forte series
A Small Sacrifice (2013)--hard-boiled crime, part I of Nick Forte series
Wild Bill (2011)--hard-boiled crime

Kalyani Kurup
A Journey to Self Publishing (2013)--memoir/non-fiction essays
The Elephant's Trunk and Other Stories (2013)--children's stories, part I of a series
The Elephant's Revenge and Other Stories (2013)--children's stories, part II of a series
The Vanished and Vanquished (2013)--novel

John H. Matthews
(New!) Designated Survivor (2016)--espionage thriller
(New!) Red Grace: A Grace Short Story (2016)--short story, accompanies Designated Survivor
Ballyvaughan (2015)--hard-boiled crime, part II of Eddie Holland series
The South Coast (2013)--hard-boiled crime, part I of Eddie Holland series

Lisa Maxwell
(New!) Unhooked (2016)--YA fantasy
Gathering Deep (2015)--YA fantasy
Sweet Unrest (2014)--YA fantasy

S.C. Megale
Marvelous Mercer: All Paws on Deck (2009)--children's book, Marvelous Mercer series
Marvelous Mercer: The Secret Project (2008)--children's book, Marvelous Mercer series
Marvelous Mercer (2007)--children's book, Marvelous Mercer series

John Stipa
(New!) The Angel Solution (2016)--mystery thriller
The Foiled Knight (2013)--romantic suspense
No Greater Sacrifice (2009)--mystery thriller

Pat Williams
(New!) Say The Right Thing: Everyone's Guide to What to Say in Challenging Situations (2015)--self-help

Writers of Chantilly Anthologies
(New!) Secrets, Lies, and Sighs (2015)--anthology
Unfinished Business (2014)--anthology
Etched in Memory (2013)--anthology
Nana...and Other Grandmothers (2012)--anthology
A Medley of Mischief, Mayhem, and Madness (2011)--anthology
Scales, Tales, and Webbed Feet (2009)--anthology
Childhood Memories of the Writers of Chantilly (2008)--anthology
We're in the Money (2005)--anthology
We Celebrate the Macabre (2002)--anthology
And Still We Celebrate (2001)--anthology

Monday, March 14, 2016

4th Annual Writing Contest for Fairfax County, VA, Middle & High School Students Sponsored by the Chantilly Regional Public Library & The Writers of Chantilly

Deadline: May 15, 2016

The Chantilly Regional Public Library, and the Writers of Chantilly, a not-for-profit organization of local professional and aspiring writers in Chantilly, VA, are sponsoring a free writing contest open to all middle and high school students in Fairfax County.

Students are invited to write an original essay, short story or poem on the theme of “Re-write the ending to...” –about going back and changing history, choosing a new direction, mending past regrets, or any other creative idea.   

First through third place winners in poetry and prose will be chosen to read their work at an author event held on Sunday, September 25, 2016, at the Chantilly Regional Library. Winners also will receive a writing prize package, and have their work published in a future Writers of Chantilly anthology.

·       Only one entry per author may be entered
·       Entries must be postmarked/received by May 15, 2016 to be eligible
·       Works must be written by students, and reflect their own original ideas
·       Pieces will be judged on creativity, content and structure (stories and essays should have a beginning, middle and end; poems may be free verse)
·       Stories can be fiction or nonfiction
·       Only unpublished works are eligible
·       Previous winners of a Writers of Chantilly writing contest are not eligible to enter
·       Entries must be typed in English
·       Maximum word count of 1,500

Include your name, grade, school, mailing address, email address and phone number with your entry (your information will be kept confidential), and note if your piece is fiction or nonfiction. All entries will be acknowledged; winners will be notified by June 10, 2016. Send or email entries to:

About the Writers of Chantilly

The Writers' of Chantilly meets twice monthly at the Chantilly Library to encourage and support writers 18 and over at all levels—newcomers warmly welcomed. WOC has published several anthologies, the most recent being Secrets, Lies & Sighs, available on or through the Fairfax County Public Library system. More info:

This writing contest has been approved by Fairfax County Public Schools.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Secrets, Lies, & Sighs: New Anthology from the Writers of Chantilly Released!

We all have secrets, parts of our pasts we’d rather keep hidden. Inside the pages of this anthology, you’ll find secrets uncovered. A church confessional come to life, who knows what you’ve really been up to. A happily married woman reflecting on a college romance, and the unexpected revelation that ended it. A private school principal who finds kicking a student out of school may lead to public revelations of his own unsavory past. These secrets and more lie hidden in these pages, waiting only for you to discover them.

The new anthology from the Writers of Chantilly, Secrets, Lies, & Sighs, is available now at Amazon.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Writers of Chantilly Announce Winners of 3rd Annual Student Writing Contest

Congratulations to the 1st-3rd place winners in the 3rd Annual Student Writing Contest co-sponsored by the Writers of Chantilly and the Chantilly Regional Public Library.

1st Place: The Time Machine by Stephanie Zhang (Rachel Carson Middle School)
2nd Place: What Lies Below by Jonathan Zheng (Thomas Jefferson High School)
3rd Place: Project: Morgan by Brooklynn Scott (Rachel Carson Middle School)
Honorable Mentions:
Emotion by Maianh Nguyen (Fairfax High School)
Fly by Mia Yang (Rachel Carson Middle School)
One Thing by Amy Epps (Chantilly High School)

For this year’s contest, students submitted stories, poems and essays exploring the theme of “Mysteries and Wonders ”—about a hidden treasure or marvel, a surprise history, or a new discovery. The quality of entries this year was exceptional, making it very difficult for our judges to choose the winners.

The students were recognized and read their winning entries at an author event and open house held on Sunday, September 27, 2015, at the Chantilly Regional Public Library, 4000 Stringfellow Road, Chantilly, VA, 20151. 

The winning stories and poems will also appear in the Writers of Chantilly’s next anthology, Secrets, Lies and Sighs, to be published later this fall. 

Please email with questions about the contest or September 27, 2015 event. 

Photos from the event:

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

CHOKING DOWN FURY By Rebecca Thompson

I circle my brother. He watches me. His eyes promise, I won’t hurt you. Believing him, I stop the wary pacing. Trust him. I am a little girl and I want a nice brother. A white blanket lies on the floor. It is bedtime. I ease under the blanket. His mouth slackens; he comes for me. Terror grips me, I cower.

A looming path appears by me. Gaping, it beckons. I flee down the path, soaring mightily. Running, my body hums and changes. Growing into a woman, lean and strong.

Path ends... a startling, strange dark sea. A vast melting chocolate sea. It gleams, tantalizes, drawing me. I ponder this burnished sea, I listen. It sings of succor. It wants me. Gliding in, I bathe and eat, feeding on waves. But, I am not pleased. I am not full, I want more, I am angry, I am hungry…


Sea fades. Dream ends. I wake in a stifling room. Touching my neck, I sweat. Groping, I hope to find her, lean and strong. Bulging stomach in my palms. Thick arms sag. Swollen legs. My face crumples, tears burn hot. The old familiar voice snickers. You are ugly! It mocks. You are fat! Pathetic. It sneers in disgust. Despair pries at me and I hang my head. My husband lies next to me, I wish he would waken and hold me. Maybe he could scrape away my hate and my fat to find a small pretty woman.

NO, don’t feel, don’t care. Pushing the voice out, I pull away. Uncurling out of bed, I head for the kitchen. 

Squatting at the refrigerator, I hunker close to food. Urgently I rummage. Panic swipes at me. Slamming bowls and bottles aside, I tangle and hunt. Cake. Grabbing the plate, I tear at it. Kneeling, breaking off chunks, I cram cake past lips. I swallow hard. Fast. Mouthful after mouthful I drive in. Insides clench. Churn. They clamor, greedy and grasping. Cake gone, I lick the plate. Undone, I seize whipped cream. Head tipped back, I fill my hands with the cool billow of cream and guzzle down white froth. I am not full, I want more, I am angry, I am hungry. Grabbing a bowl, I punch a hole through the wrap and dig out cold stiff mush. Frenzied clawing and gulping, I gasp for breath. 

Time passes. I finish. Numbness drapes over me, blowing cool the fever. Raspy breaths slow. Long fall ends. Stillness comes. Blessed, I am full. 

Drinking water, I watch the clock. Minutes go by. Clipping back tousled hair I walk to the sink. It must come out. All of it. Bending over, I push out raw, acid rage, it scalds my throat. I heave out the forlorn, the dim, the sorrow. I retch out the brother, muffled nights, my family. Spent and worn, I stop. Battered, I shake.

Cold water on my face, I wash away sins. Rough towel rubs away my shame. Throbbing knuckles crimson raw with the scratch of my teeth and the searing hate of my belly. I soothe my hands with lotion; it smells of lemon. The clean, crisp perfume anoints me clean. My steadfast oath, this will never happen again. Be clean. Be good. The oath comforts. 

3:18 am. I must sleep. Picking up a bowl of food, I clear my secret. In disbelief I watch a hand dig in. The wrath again, it bellows. Fierce, unforgiving, I ram food into me. Biting my hands, the pain scoffs at me. My hands are mauled, eyes swollen. My inside snarl, I snap. Picking up a fistful of cold pulp, I hurl it against the wall. Again and again. I grunt, short and vicious noises. Wrung out, I steady myself, choking down fury. I reign in. Weary, I stand in frays. 

Scraping walls, I clean up hideous secret. No one can know I am crazy, pitiful. Lying in bed, I am tattered and bruised. I rot. Begging to sleep, I drift into dreamy blur. Misty blissful slumber blankets me. 


In scorching haze I look up and out. Sun smoulders. It rides a strange dark sea. A sea of melting chocolate. Shimmering, the enchanted sea waits. I ponder this burnished sea, I listen. It sings of succor. It wants me. Creeping forward,  I look down at bare feet. Toes curl in creamy chocolate. Velvet liquid rises slowly, hoarding me. Ooze reaches my thighs; thick and seductive it coats me warm. Mesmerized, I yield. I stretch arms towards the sun. Languid, I sway and dance. Entranced,  I am thin and beautiful flowing in the sea.

Plunging my arms into the kind and gracious sea, I scoop the dense wet. Holding it high, chocolate silks down my arm.  Arching back, chocolate snakes lazily across my breasts, pooling into the hollow of my neck. Dizzy, I straighten. Craning forward, licking the underside of my arm, I savor the sticky sap. My tongue trails greedily up the wrist, across my palm and up to the tip of my finger. I suck my finger clean. Sensous sweetness coax but I am not full, I want more, I am angry, I am hungry.

Lowering myself, sea swills around me, murmuring. Sinking deeper in, it furls against my stomach, laps against my breasts and tugs at my hair. Swirling, it croons away my dread and steals away my weariness.

Sensing dead and thinning air, I falter, unsure. But the sea whispers, promises. Caressing, it gently cradles me. Immersed in rich molten satin, I am consoled. I want this. Loving the thrum and purr, I let go and ebb. Relief soaks me. I lay back, my face wears a soft, milky look of peace. My eyes, heavy lidded with chocolate, closes. Lips part, syrup pours in. I float down.

All is forgiven. All is known. I slip into where no sound rushes. No giving is taken from me. I hear a cry, it is me. I am free. I lower into a sweet, wet grave with no hunger. No hiding. No sick secrets. It is brother-less. No lamenting here. I am full. Engulfed. Tender, reverent,  I am sanctified…

Saturday, August 8, 2015


"Doh-brey-ah oo-trah," we greeted each other, practicing our Russian. Good morning.
            It was a bitingly cold November day, a Russian public holiday. Soldiers carrying red flags marched up the street outside our seven-story hotel in Ivanovo. Unlike the contemporary Cosmos Hotel in Moscow, where we'd stayed the night before, the Sovietskya hotel was built in the 1950s and hadn't been updated since. The cavernous lobby, where we waited for the translators, was paneled in honey-colored wood, and empty except for the check-in desk, a pay phone, and a green sofa so mid-century modern it was trendy again. An art nouveau chandelier overhead had burned out. Even the air smelled vintage.
            "Spa-see-ba," we practiced. Thank you.
            The day before, we'd been in Moscow, touring the city, visiting the Kremlin and Red Square, shivering in the sub-zero wind gusts in front of St. Basil's Cathedral to have our pictures taken. For lunch, we ate at Sbarro's pizzeria in what once had been an enormous state department store in Soviet times, but now was an upscale mall. I was surprised to see French fries on the menu, learning over the next several days that French fries are a staple of the Russian diet, served everywhere. Another surprise: toilet paper is not provided in Russian public bathrooms. I had to carry my own supply in my purse.
            Raw-cheeked from the cold and weary from sightseeing, we happily boarded a van for a six-hour drive east to Ivanovo, through old-world villages and magnificent birch forests. My travel companions—all in their 40s and 50s—were friendly and fun to be around. Most had been to Ivanovo before; some, like Carol, several times.
            "I keep coming back," she said. "I miss the kids."
             Everyone on the team who had signed up for the trip to visit Orphanage #1 in Ivanovo had done so for unselfish reasons—to cheer up the children, to make a difference in young lives, to be in mission to others. I was there because when our church mailed us a form asking for help with its programs, I joked to my husband, "Well, I could either donate $20 to the church's operating fund or go to Russia."
            "Okay," Steve said.
            "Okay what? I can go to Russia?"
            "But who would watch the boys?"
            "I'll take off work," he said. "We'll be fine."
            This is crazy, I thought, checking the "Ivanovo Orphanage Mission Team" box on the form, my head filling with images of Imperial Easter eggs, onion-domed churches and Byzantine art. I can't just take off to Russia for ten days.
            I couldn't have known then how broken I would be by the time we left; how the impulsive act of checking that little box would be the first step in putting me back together.
           We were paired with our very own Russian translators, all of them women in their early 20s, all of them wearing stiletto boots despite the thin layer of ice on the ground.
           Olga mothered me from the start, though I was ten years older. "Where is your hat?" she scolded in heavily accented English before we left the hotel. She had a round, cherubic face, limp brown hair, and wore the same two sweaters—light blue and beige—throughout the week. Clothes are so expensive in Russia that people wear them over and over between washings.
            "It can get smelly sometimes," Jan, a team member, warned those of us who were new. "Especially in the orphanage. It gets really stuffy in the winter."
            The 15 of us—team members and translators, and Anya, our petite, briskly efficient guide—piled into a van for a ten-minute drive to a Russian Orthodox Church to attend Sunday services.
            The towering red-bricked cathedral with high arched windows, scalloped cornices and three onion domes topped with metal crosses took my breath away. Congregants, the majority of them elderly ladies in long coats and head scarves carrying tote bags, hurried in and out of the massive double doors. I covered my own head with a floral scarf.
           There were no pews inside the church, only a circular, high soaring space with an altar in the middle. Glittering icons of Mary with baby Jesus and religious scenes decorated the walls. Tables around the room were weighed down with hundreds of lit votives. A priest in ornate robes, and several nuns, chanted and sang in Russian, their voices echoing. People in family groups stood in silence.
            At first I thought we'd missed part of the service, but Olga quietly explained that it would go on for hours, with people coming and going. The women bustled around the sanctuary, collecting scraps of paper from worshippers, delivering them to the nuns.
            "Written prayers," Olga whispered.
            There is something about the grandeur of a centuries-old cathedral—the rituals, the incense-scented air, the carvings and stained glass—that moves me, that makes God seem closer. Thousands of miles from home, listening to a sermon in a language I didn't understand, with little Russian ladies scurrying around me, the anger I felt toward God, and the universe, and cancer—and the guilt I carried inside—began to ease.
           My mother passed away three months before I left for Russia, and between the time she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died—just five months—we spoke of death only once.
            “Isn’t it better to go suddenly?” she asked tearfully. “Isn’t it better not to know?”
“No!” I said.
At the time I was thinking of my grandmother who had died suddenly, giving me no chance to say goodbye. Knowing is better, I told myself. I can prepare. I can say what I have to say. Turns out, Mom was right. Sudden is better.
What did I think we were going to talk about? Her fears? She kept them to herself. Relieve my conscience? There was nothing to resolve. Everything that I’d ever wanted to say to Mom had been said. Talking about the past now made her cry. Making funeral plans meant that we had given up, so we didn’t talk about that either. All there was to talk about were her appointments and treatments, the only certain things.
A round of radiation caused Mom's hair to fall out and I'd offered to shave my head in solidarity. “Don’t you dare!” she said.
The floral scarf I wore in the Russian church was hers.
            The sermon was still going on when we left thirty minutes later. After a short drive, we pulled up to Orphanage #1, a plain two-story tan-painted building. The door flew open and children ran out, older ones throwing their arms around team members who had come before, younger children hanging back, shy. I felt shy myself, stepping down from the van, overwhelmed, uncertain how to act.
            In the common room, where all the kids were gathered, Russ, one of the two guys on the team—Scott was the other—led the group in a simple sing-along in English. Afterwards, I had a chance to talk to Dima, an 11-year-old boy with brown hair and eyes, and a sweet smile. The conversation stumbled at first, as we got accustomed to speaking through Olga, but before long Dima was telling me about school and his favorite sport (soccer) and asking me about life in America. Too soon it was time to go, and as the team stood in the hall, saying our good-byes, Dima clung to me like he never wanted me to go, and I looked over his head, blinking to keep tears from falling.
            Lunch was at B-mart, a department store with a cafeteria-style restaurant inside. Along with the ubiquitous French fries, the self-serve buffet featured borsch, potato salad and sausages.
            Eyeing a pan of flat things in a sauce labeled "cutlet," I asked the woman behind the counter what kind of meat it was. She shook her head, not understanding, so I called Anya over.
            "What kind of meat is this?" I asked.
            "It's a cutlet," she said.
            "Is it beef? Pork?" I asked, conscious of the line getting longer behind me
            Anya shrugged. "It's joost meat."
            Resigned, I ladled some on my plate. (It tasted like chicken.)
            An old, gloomy looking apartment building was our next stop. Two 17-year-old female graduates of the orphanage lived there. In Russia, children are forced out of the orphanages at 14, and, if they are lucky, placed in government-subsidized apartments with periodic visits from a "house parent." Essentially adults, they are expected to shop for groceries, do their laundry and cook for themselves, get a job or attend a tech school or, if their grades are high enough, go to college.
             I would have been appalled at the rundown condition of the apartment building if it were any different from the hundreds of other dreary apartment buildings in the city. The stairs to the second floor were covered in moldering trash and paint was chipping off the walls. Yuliya's and Nastya's apartment, however, was clean and tidy. The girls flitted around the tiny space, which I could tell they were proud of, serving tea and store-bought cookies. Being motherless myself, you'd think I'd be able to relate to these girls, but the visit was awkward because of the language barrier, and because I didn't know what to say to teenagers who had lost so much, and who were so childlike and hard-edged at the same time.
            After leaving the apartment, we met the girls and a dozen more graduates at a nearby pizza place with a party room upstairs—a sort of shabby Russian Chuck-E-Cheese—with cartoon characters painted on the walls and coin-operated video games. A bizarre place to bring teenagers who had stopped being children years ago, but Anya had chosen the location.
            The seven team members and our translators split up among the graduates, and thus began ninety excruciating minutes—I secretly checked my watch—of conversing with four teen girls who looked as though they'd rather be anywhere else than sitting here answering my questions—"What are you studying in school?" "Do you have a boyfriend?"—through an exhausted translator, who, for all I knew, could have been telling them, "Sorry you got stuck at this table. It's almost over."
            Back in the hotel room I shared with Carol, alone for a moment, I began to cry. What am I doing here? I can't help these children. I felt completely inadequate to the task I signed up for. I was in a strange country, completely cut off from my family. And I wanted my mother.
            After Mom had been diagnosed in April 2007, I telephoned her every day, like I had before she got sick, but getting her to talk became a struggle. She seemed far away already. It got to the point where I dreaded calling, because I didn’t know what to say and she didn’t either. For the first time, there were uncomfortable stretches on the phone that we didn't know how to fill. I felt shut out of her life. I didn’t know whether to be a cheerleader or listener. I asked her once, what she wanted. "I don't know,” she said. "Just be there."
             She seemed to be tolerating the radiation treatments well, so it was a surprise when she had to be admitted repeatedly to the hospital, once for dehydration, twice for blood clots in her legs. The last time she was admitted, her legs were so swollen she was nearly paralyzed from the waist down. Those heavy puffed-up legs were especially difficult for her to cope with because she’d always been self-conscious of having chubby legs, and never wore shorts.
             Until this point I had lived in complete denial. We lived an hour apart, close enough for me to help in a crisis, but far enough away that I was shielded from the day-to-day realities of her treatment. I would have these rare moments of clarity when the implications of her illness would hit me and I’d fall apart, but most of the time I went on with my life, totally unable even to conceive of a world without her. It was easier that way.
            To address the clots, her doctor inserted a stent. He talked about her going home, but she didn’t want to leave the hospital. I think she must have known what I refused to accept.
            That afternoon, I took the doctor aside to ask, “What now?”
            He looked me straight in the eye. “This is it. It’s over.”
            Numb, I returned to her bedside, told her what a wonderful mother she was, but she turned away. “Leave me alone,” she said. “I don’t have the energy to talk to you right now.”
            The next day she was released to hospice care at home, where I stayed for the next five days. It was astonishing how quickly she deteriorated. This fiercely private woman let me feed her and hold her while she used the toilet. My brother said later that he felt privileged to have been there, part of her inner circle. She refused to see my husband, my brother’s wife, or even the grandchildren. "I don't want them to see me this way."
One day, she struggled to put a pill in her mouth and kept dropping it. “Damn it, what’s wrong with me!”
In that moment of frustration, I caught a glimpse of her spirit, as strong as ever, trapped inside. I’d always struggled with my beliefs of the afterlife. But now I was convinced that her soul wouldn’t just die with her body. It had to go somewhere.
Mom’s legs bothered her, so I did what I could to ease the discomfort, rubbing them, covering them with damp cloths when they burned from lack of oxygen. Hour by hour, it seemed, the purple crept under the skin from her toes, over her feet and up her ankles, like a shadow—like death. If I could just stop it from spreading—make it go away—I could save her.
"Put socks on her feet," the hospice nurse suggested.
I did, hoping it would help, knowing deep inside that the socks were for my benefit, so I wouldn’t have to look at my mom’s feet anymore. I never realized that hospice was as much involved with helping the family let go as caring for the patient.
“We don’t know how to die anymore,” another nurse told me. We started out hating the nurses, ended up loving them.
I administered morphine every four hours, and when the drug wore off, Mom would come around. She was sometimes alert, mostly incoherent, looking at something in the distance only she could see. Overnight, my brother and stepfather slept on the couch and loveseat. Both snored so loudly that I couldn’t have drifted off had I wanted to. Sometime in the night, my brother woke up, glared across the room at my stepfather for making so much noise and fell back asleep. Ten minutes later, it was my stepfather's turn to wake up and complain, “Could your brother snore any louder?”
Near dawn, Mom sat up asking for a dictionary. My heart beat rabbit-fast as I took the stairs two at a time to the office upstairs to scan the shelves. What are you doing?! All I could think of was her downstairs, trying to get out of bed and falling. Grabbing a book at random, I brought it to her. “What do you want me to look up?”
By then she couldn’t remember. She started to get agitated; I panicked. I could have woken my brother and stepfather, but that would just add to the turmoil.
“I forgot…” she moaned. I couldn’t make out the rest. What did the nurse say? I tried to remember, something about just reassuring her.
“No you didn’t,” I said. “You took care of everything.”
“It’s my fault…all my fault.”
“No, no. It's okay.”
I started her on morphine around the clock after that, which kept her in a constant twilight state. I felt like a coward, because I could not say if medicating her was for her benefit or mine, even though the nurses had urged us never to let the morphine wear off. Fluid had filled her lungs, she was suffocating, and the drug helped her relax. We'd resisted, so desperate for those rare moments between doses, when she was Mom again and could speak to us.
Every time I squirted the drug into her half-open mouth, it felt like an assault. I told myself that if the roles were reversed, if I were lying there, I would trust her to do this for me.
            The last twenty-four hours were quiet, long-drawn-out. I watched her suffer, helpless to relieve it. We listened to the soundtrack from the movie, Somewhere in Time. My brother went home to his family. My stepfather made final arrangements. The hospice nurse bathed her, changed her bed linens, called her "Miss Sue." Her breathing, though quick and shallow, was calmer, because she wasn’t panicking anymore about the lack of air. But her body was strained, her back arched and her arms straight. She still fought. I painted her toenails, held her hand. When had I ever been this close to her? Been aware of her every breath and heartbeat?
             She died on a Tuesday morning. I was on the phone in another room, talking to my husband. I felt a change. It was so slight.
             I knew without looking she was gone.
            They say that there is no such thing as time in Heaven. That final week with Mom, it felt like some of the timelessness of Heaven had leaked in, surrounding us. Time passed so slowly. As soon as she was gone, time sped up again, to catch us up to the rest of the world, which had been going on the whole time.
At first, it had been a relief to go to Russia, to outrun grief for a while, to live in the moment and forget about everything. But after the surprise of Dima's hug, the bleak apartment buildings and the disastrous evening with the graduates, sorrow overwhelmed me, and I felt as helpless as I had the last days of my mother's life.
            "It's okay," Carol said kindly when she walked into our room. "It gets to everyone."
The next day we took the children from the orphanage to the zoo. Dima saved a seat for me on the bus and held my hand. What a strange, sad little zoo, with its ramshackle cages and outbuildings, and junk strewn around, including an old rusty van. Despite the zoo's neglected appearance, it had two tigers, three bears and a lion. The kids loved it; most had never been to a zoo before.
Back at the orphanage, we played monkey in the middle in the hallway, and decorated t-shirts. I found out that Dima's favorite toys were Matchbox cars, but that these inevitably ended up stolen or hoarded by other children. My sons had dozens of toy cars to play with and this Russian child did not have even one!
The next four days passed in a whirlwind of activity, with no time to think about Mom, or life back home. We had "spa" day for the girls, turning the common room into a beauty parlor with make-up, nail polish and hair accessories. As expected, the girls loved it, and I found it much easier to talk to them while styling their hair in an elegant up-do. We also decorated keepsake boxes and picture frames, had sing-alongs, indoor scavenger hunts, and a board game challenge. To every child we handed out backpacks filled with school supplies, slippers and new pajamas that had been donated by members of our church. As the week went on, I found myself growing attached not only to Dima, but to two teenage girls—Sveta and Katya—who could not have been more different. Fourteen-year-old Sveta was slender, with brown hair and eyes, and a quiet, shy manner. Katya was a year younger and stockier, blonde and blue-eyed, and as rough and tumble—and belligerent—as the boys. Before coming to Orphanage #1 two months before, she had lived on the streets.
For many days the children had been rehearsing for an evening performance in our honor, and the team had organized a full day's "carnival" activities leading up to it, including face painting. For two hours, Olga and I decorated faces with butterflies and flowers, and for the majority of boys, red and black Batman style masks around the eyes. When it was Katya's turn, she demanded a Batman face, too, but eventually chose cat's eyes and whiskers.
The orphanage caretakers were annoyed with us. Here, the children were supposed to be on stage later that evening, dressed in their best, performing traditional dances, and we had decorated their faces! Any child they could get their hands on was scrubbed clean. I felt bad, until later that night, when a gang of little boys in black vests and Batman faces took the stage for a polka. It was a magical evening that brought the entire team to tears.
We only had two hours with the children the next day before leaving for Moscow. Although we were discouraged from singling out children and giving them gifts, I did manage to smuggle Dima some Matchbox cars I'd bought at the B-mart. "Be a good boy," I told him. "Study hard in school."
The girls—Sveta and Katya—stayed by my side, posing for photographs until it was time to go. Without thinking, I took off the ring and heart necklace I was wearing—gifts from Mom—and gave them to the girls. To see Katya—that tough cookie from the streets—sobbing uncontrollably broke my heart.
"Duh svee-dah-nee-ye," I said, hugging her one last time. "Do svidaniya. Goodbye."
Don't look back, I told myself as we pulled away. Russ, Carol, Jan—they were all crying, too—and I thought, How can they bear this over and over again?
During the long drive back to Moscow, and the flight home, I ached inside, knowing I would probably never see Dima, Katya or Sveta again. At the same time I felt replenished, uplifted in spirit, as if my heart was knitting back together.
"Funny how I go there to help the children," Carol told me. "But I end up receiving so much from them."
            There are lessons we cannot learn without loss. Joys we cannot experience without pain. Grief that hurts and heals at the same time. I'll never forget the suffering I saw during my mother's last days—nothing can erase those images entirely from my mind—but there were also moments of grace. The soft way the light came through the windows at the end of the day. The tranquil, quiet moments we had together. How time—and the world—seemed to stand still.
            Goodbyes wouldn't hurt so much if we didn't love.

The author's mother,  1968