I’m Building a Heavenly House for My Love…

She was leaving quietly, in the late evening. At first, for a short time, she started breathing loudly, with a sort of wheezing sound. And then her breaths got shorter, shorter and shorter... I was quietly holding her hand. Then the breaths got really rare, she exhaled but didn’t get a chance to breathe in. Everything in her face stopped, her mouth got slightly open and I realized that her soul had left her body.
Julia Voznesenskaya | 28 December 2008

…And so she went far away, to those parts, where there is no more sorrow, no tears, no sickness. She rose from her hospital bed, fresh, young, and of course the first thing she felt is that full and absolute absence of pain. I felt this because I was holding her hand during that mysterious minute, the one which we on earth call “death”. In reality, as I now know, it’s something completely different.

We both knew that she was leaving, that beating the frightening disease was impossible. Sometimes I wanted to run away, hide, and get away from my wife.  To run somewhere far from her horribly quiet white room, from the  IV line, from the busy nurses, from the needless dying flowers in the vase brought by our friends and relatives, from awaiting the excruciatingly painful and inescapable moment of departure, so that I could just be alone, yell, scream, get drunk, and cry out my horror and sorrow. But I could not leave the room.

How hard it is to love when it seems that there is nothing you can do to show or prove your love! She didn’t need any more rare and expensive medications, nutritious meals, and false hope. She didn’t need anything besides my love. I saw this in her heavy eyes. She couldn’t talk anymore; she just moved her lips once in a while and tried to smile at me. If I saw a shadow of her smile I just smiled back and told her I loved her.

A priest came, Father Andrew by name, from the monastery closest to the hospital. He administered Holy Unction to her and she was a little better. At least now she didn’t wait as impatiently for the nurse to come and give her a painkiller shot. Once she even made her own sign of “No shot!”, but the nurse did it anyway, they have their own rules. Father Andrew came once more, reading her prayers. He said something to her, I think encouraging her; but I don’t know what it was because I had left the room at that time. Then he called me in and he gave her communion in my presence. She immediately fell asleep. We went out into the hall.

“Father, is there anything I can do to help her at this point?” I asked.

“You can. Pray.”

“Anything else?”

“Surround her with your love, like with a cloud. Forget about your sorrow, your pain, you can think about that and grieve later. Think only about her right now, encourage her. Remember, dying is difficult! May the Lord be with you,” he blessed me and left.

After that conversation I tried to stop thinking about myself. If grief, pain or despair started to come back to me, I cut myself short and just remembered the priest’s words “Forget about yourself, you can grieve later; think only of her!”

I tried to touch her as often as possible. I wiped the sweat off her forehead, moistened her constantly dry lips, sometimes fixed something. I kissed her as often as possible, her lips, her forehead, her poor bald head, her skinny pale hands… We talked a lot. Actually, I talked and she listened. I remembered cute and funny moments from our lives. I recounted them thoroughly, not rushing, and taking all the little details into account. I even softly sang her songs that we used to like. But when I got tired of talking, I would turn on soothing music or audiobooks. She liked to listen to Pushkin’s “Metel” by Yursky to the music by Sviridov… We listened to it at least 10 times. Father Andrew also left me a CD—monastery songs about Mother Mary.  I hesitated about turning it on, afraid that it might scare her, but I tried anyways. She listened calmly and her face lit up. When the psalms were over she looked at me intently and I knew that she wanted to hear it again from the beginning. Then I bought more CDs from the monastery for her to listen to, with other canticles. Also I read to her prayers, stumbling over unfamiliar words, out of a prayer book that Father Andrew had given me. She listened to them with her face as bright as when she was listening to the music, even though there was nothing special in my unskilled reading. But the prayers clearly helped her and myself.

She was leaving quietly, in the late evening. At first, for a short time, she started breathing loudly, with a sort of wheezing sound. And then her breaths got shorter, shorter and shorter… I was quietly holding her hand. Then the breaths got really rare, she exhaled but didn’t get a chance to breathe in. Everything in her face stopped, her mouth got slightly open and I realized that her soul had left her body. I felt I didn’t know what to do in the silent room, it felt like fear. And then I got the right words or at least someone helped me find them.

“My love, don’t worry. I am with you,” I said quietly. “I know that you’re here, that you can hear me. I love you, darling, as much as I ever did I do love you now. I know that this body is not you. I grew to love it, I was used to it, I will miss it, and I’ll cry over it, forgive me. But I know that the real you are not this poor body, the one we are looking at right now. Don’t be afraid of anything, just pray any way you can. Just say: “God, have mercy!” I will also pray for you. I’ll start now!”

Father Andrew had said earlier that I should get a psalm book in Russian as I did not know the Church Slavonic language then. He said that right after the soul passed away, as he put it, I should read it, read it until the funeral. “It is very important, it will be of great help to her soul!” he said. We had a private ward, we had paid for it in advance, and that’s why the doctors let me stay with my wife until morning, they didn’t take her away at once. I was reading the psalms, and as I was, I could feel her standing over me by my shoulder and listening.

The preparations for the funeral and the funeral itself took a lot of time, they were tiring. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had had any free time for myself. But I didn’t have any. I read the psalm book every free hour I had, but if I only had a minute, I would say a prayer. During the funeral service, I prayed without stopping, and continued constantly telling her that I loved her.

The funeral repast passed by quickly. When my mother and her mother started cleaning up the table after the guests left. I started reading the Requiem Akathist for the Departed as Father Andrew had told me to do every day for forty days. After I was done, I cried, then I dropped and fell into a deep sleep.

On the next day I woke up with an emptiness in my entire body. An emptiness in my brain, my soul, and in my entire life.

“Here it goes.” I thought to myself.

I was on my way to the cemetery but then I changed my mind and drove to the monastery. Luckily Father Andrew was there, and we walked around the monastery paths and talked.

“God gave your wife a Christian death, not a shameful one. And a disease, tolerated with meekness, helped her get cleansed of her sins. Let’s hope that she’s in Heaven. But which of us is holy? That’s why you have to remember, that making a life for her up there is up to you. Help her build her eternal home!”

“With what? How? How can I do this, Father? It’s here I could work for her, I bought an apartment for us…”

“Help her with prayers, giving alms, doing good deeds for the sake of her soul. Order forty days’ requiems and ask for her remembrance in prayers on commemoration sheets you leave in churches and monasteries. You were a good husband for your wife here on earth, don’t stop now that she’s left this temporary life. Remember the fact that you will meet her in the eternity. And how good it will feel when her soul comes near yours, she will light up and say, “Thank you for everything you have done for me, not only on earth, but also here. What a wonderful home you have built for me with your love and kindness.””

I was thinking that entire day, up until the evening. I walked around Moscow, wandered into monasteries and churches, put up candles… Later that night I read the akathist again and decided that I would build her a home, as Father Andrew said!  And I started building a heavenly home for my love. I went to every monastery in Moscow and ordered a year’s requiem for God’s deceased servant Anna. I gave money to the poor, but just small change—these days no one knows if they are really needy. But when I saw a truly poor old woman in the church, I’d come up to her, give her considerable amounts of money and ask her to pray for recently deceased Anna. I found people that helped children who suffered from cancer, and I joined in that just cause. Then I was in great luck. Completely by chance, I found the address of a poor parish building a small chapel in the village of M–ka just outside of Tula. I sent money there with a request to pray for my wife. In summer I had a few weeks off and I traveled there to help the construction with my bare hands. For forty days every day I read the “Akathist for the Departed”, putting in the word ‘her’ every time there was ‘him’ in the text, though Father Andrei had told me nothing about it. It was just my heart’s desire.

O Jesus, give back to her soul its God-sent powers of the original purity

O Jesus, let the good deeds multiply for her soul’s sake.

O Jesus, warm up us the deserted with Your mysterious comfort.

O Jesus, the Merciful Judge, honour Your servant’s soul with the sweet paradise.

Then I read it a bit less often, usually on Saturdays, and also on the anniversary of our wedding and on her birthday.

A year had passed. And as I was leaving the service to her remembrance the first time, I was walking and thinking, a year had passed… Life has once again started to fall back into a steady rhythm. Then I remembered that when my wife died I had wanted to give myself to my grief, to get drunk, scream, cry, and yell, to go on a spree maybe. But none of this happened! Yes, not even once did I remember my ‘delayed despair’…

Yes, there was sorrow, but it blended into my prayers, with constant thoughts about her posthumous fate. I didn’t have the time to go insane from sorrow, I had to help her!  I didn’t have the time to think about my poor self, as I continued thinking about her and her soul this entire year. I was saving her soul, and, without knowing it, I saved my own!

And then I started thinking about the stage of the construction of her heavenly home for my love. Had I built the foundation only, or was it already raised to the roof? I decided that however my life turned out, I wouldn’t stop building it…

And in the church that’s being built in the village of M—ka they are already making the domes and are getting ready to put up the crosses.

Translated from the Russian by Michael Lisnevskiy, edited by Olga Lissenkova

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