Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Last Salute

From the collection of true stories, Old Trees Die Standing, by Eva M Cybulska.

Music to accompany the piece: Legiony to (Legions, Thus).

Stanisław’s life journey ended in a Polish psychogeriatric unit. According to his son Thomas, this was the safest place for him. After several strokes, the old man could hardly walk, his memory was failing him, and he often behaved as if he were on a battlefield. Nurses accepted his various orders of ‘utmost importance’ with diplomacy and tact. Sometimes he screamed at night, confused and frightened, in a language that was neither Polish nor English.

   Born in Vilnius, Lithuania, of a Polish mother and a Russian father, Stanisław had been bilingual as a child. But when the family moved westwards, as the country’s borders moved, Russian was soon put to one side. Tichon, his father, had loved his wife, Stefania, more than he had loved his native land and by settling down in a land that become Poland, he entered a path of ‘treason’ according to the Bolsheviks. Tichon responded to the accusations by changing his surname to a Polish one and moving deeper into Poland. Stefania worshipped Marshal Piłsudski who defended his country against the overwhelming might of the Red Army in 1920, an event that was later christened The Miracle on the Vistula River. Out of love for his wife, and their shared dislike of communism, the song “Legiony” became one of his favourites. He died of cancer soon after the war ended, in a recently ‘polonised’ city which had been in German hands; a city where everybody felt like an intruder.

   Stanisław, only 18 when the war broke out, had never managed to finish his law degree, a goal that once meant so much to him. Having grown to value honour and duty, he joined the Polish Army and fought for his country on various fronts in Europe. Severely wounded in Italy, he barely escaped death. Once the war was over, he became ‘a displaced person’ and was sent to England. He married Catherine, a Scottish nurse who had nurtured him back to health, and the couple settled in London. Thomas and Eva were born when times were still hard, but a strong will and a harmonious marriage turned adversity into success. “What cannot break me, makes me stronger” was Stanisław’s favourite quotation of Nietzsche.

   Stanisław’s well-paid job made it possible for them to buy a house in Ealing and provide their children with an excellent education. As their children grew independent, they began to enjoy life and would regularly meet friends with whom they shared the same language, culture and a similar history. Displaced or not displaced, life could at last be lived to the full.

   Suddenly, Catherine started fading away, and when her cancer was diagnosed, Stanisław was deeply shaken. She was his emotional rock and such a loyal companion! This must be yet another punishment from God, undeserved and unjust — he reasoned. Although a Catholic, he stopped going to church, isolated himself from his friends and declined any offers of help. Only his hot, red eyes betrayed despair. Catherine died one November evening, peacefully and modestly, just as she had lived.

   Stanisław was a broken man and his son Thomas eventually persuaded him to sell the house and move in with his family. Eva, who had married an American doctor and lived in Chicago, would regularly call to find out how things were going.

   Stanisław’s health deteriorated; his blood pressure was consistently high despite medication and he was often breathless and could no longer enjoy walks in the park that he loved. For the family, however, his periods of confusion were the most difficult to cope with. Stanisław went through phases when he would wake up at night, wander into the garden and hide in the shed thinking that the Germans were coming. A stroke, although it came as no surprise, was a proverbial nail in the coffin; it put a decisive stop to his nocturnal escapades.

   When I visited Stanisław at home, the family was in despair. They knew that they had reached the limit of their ability to care for him, and yet sending him away felt like a betrayal. “It’s like abandoning a wounded friend on a battlefield”, exclaimed his closest friend, a former Battle of Britain pilot.

   In hospital, Stanisław’s condition fluctuated and we thought he might not live until his next birthday. His daughter was expected to come over from America and perhaps he subconsciously waited for her. According to Thomas, she looked like her mother, but in character – with her fierce, fighting spirit and stubbornness – she was so much like her father.

   It was a bright November morning when Thomas and Eva arrived on the ward. My junior doctor and I came to join them at Stanisław’s bedside. We stood in peaceful silence, with Eva holding her father’s hand. No words were needed. Stanisław suddenly looked at his two children, raised a hand to his forehead as if in a salute and whispered commandingly: “Możecie odmaszerować” (Polish for “you can march off, now”). As I was leaving the room, I noticed him turning slowly towards the wall. Perhaps his last battle he wanted to face alone.

   Stanisław died before Thomas and Eva had reached the main gate of the hospital.

This story is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Helena.