Orthodox America

  "A death ... painless, blameless, peaceful"

Reader Alexei Aksionov

In December 11/24, my mother Tatiana reposed. Grief always attends the death of those close to us, but the sorrow I feel is in no way heavy or burdensome. On the contrary, my heart feels light; I feel a certainty that my mother found mercy with the Lord, and a tender emotion as she has become somehow nearer to me than she was in life. I feel that she is praying for me, and I am so grateful. Now I know the meaning of the words, "O death, where is thy sting? O hell, where is thy victory?"

For most of her life, my mother was not a churchly person, although as a child she had been baptized and she always spoke respectfully of believers. Her life was art, culture. She was gifted with an artistic nature, with refined taste and a love of elegance. She loved poetry and frequently recited poems from memory: Pushkin, Tiutchev, Blok, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, and especially Pasternak. She was a woman of great intellect and good judgment, particularly in regards to art, dress, interior design. That is how she was remembered by the relatives and friends who gathered after the funeral for the memorial meal. Few understood and appreciated the significance of her final illness and sufferings, but it was precisely this that defined who she was when she departed this life, her soul cleansed and prepared-as we all pray to be-to meet the Lord.

In 1988 my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Her condition progressively worsened but she was still able to walk. Then, on the Feast of Nativity, 1995, she suddenly lost consciousness, fell, and broke her thigh. From that day until she died-three years-she was completely bed-ridden. After such a cultured and intellectually stimulating life, these years of debilitating illness and confinement were a daily struggle. She suffered considerably from bedsores, in spite of being frequently turned and lying on inflated rubber rings, but I never heard her complain. Her illness became a time for filling her life with divine content, opening the way for intense spiritual growth. It is difficult to speak about this time, about the mystery of a soul's turning to God, about the cleansing of a soul and its ascent to the heights; one can sense this, but it is not possible to really understand it.

In my icon corner I had a mounted copy of the myrrh-streaming Iveron icon. Even before hearing its story, my mother was particularly attracted to it, and when I was out she used to go into my room and pray before it. Later, on some occasion, I gave it to her as a present, and when she became bedridden she asked me to put it every night by her bed, which I did, together with icons of Saint Seraphim of Sarov and Saint John of San Francisco. Every night I anointed her either with myrrh or with oil from Saint John, from Diveyevo or from Optina. Once or twice, when we read the Akathist to the Iveron icon in her room, we both sensed a subtle fragrance. Together we read the Letters from Captivity, written by the Royal Family. These impressed my mother and she developed a deep veneration for the Tsar-Martyr and his family. At her request, I put a picture of the

Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II in her room. We also read Lubov Millar's biography of the martyred Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who likewise became very special to my mother.

Every day we read together morning prayers, the daily Gospel and Epistle readings, Bishop Theophan's commentary on these readings, short lives of the saints from Bulgakov, and then some sermons or other spiritual writings. In this way we read through the first two volumes of Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov's Ascetical Works, the first volume of Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky), various texts by Archbishop Averky (I remember several occasions when she insisted on reading Archbishop Averky), sermons of Priest-Martyr Sergius Mechev from Nadezhda, and other books, too numerous to mention here. Her favorite was Abba Dorotheos, and she returned to this book many times.

My mother became a conscious member of the Russian Church Abroad after reading Fr. Michael's Polsky's book, The State of the Soviet Russian Church (1931); we read it twice in succession. She had a special respect for Metropolitan Vitaly, whose sermons and epistles we read, and whom she saw serving in the video film of Saint John's glorification.

Her last communion, a week before her repose, was a special one; she was noticeably strengthened by it. After partaking of the Holy Mysteries, she dozed off for a few minutes. When I returned to her room, her face glowed with a sweet and joyous expression. She told me that when she awoke she felt an immediate impulse to rise and walk, and she felt herself able to do so. I am well, she said, I am well.

Later that week she developed pneumonia. She was overcome by a feeling of utter weakness; that evening she developed a fever and became unconscious. At ten o'clock the next morning, when we began to change her shirt in anticipation of the arrival of the doctor and the priest, she simply stopped breathing. Before her final breath, her face became illumined with a look of wonder. She had suffered a great deal, but her death was "painless, blameless, peaceful." The priest arrived just minutes later and straightway read the prayers and canon for the departure of the soul. The funeral was served here at home. There was a noticeable lack of heaviness. Indeed, one elderly woman, a neighbor, said afterwards that she had attended many funerals, and that she could not recall one that was so bright and joyful. Surely this was a sign that the Lord had granted my mother His mercy. Her past life, as rich as it was culturally and intellectually, grows dim in comparison with these last years of suffering and illness, which provided for so much spiritual growth.  It is thanks to this "severe mercy" that I think one can justly apply to my mother the comforting words of the Psalmist: Blessed is he whom Thou hast chosen and taken to Thyself, O Lord (Ps. 64:4).

Moscow Compiled and translated from Russian