It happened a long time ago in a small town of Kotovsk, located in Eastern Ukraine, which belonged to the Soviet Union. Mama, Papa, and I sat in the back of the menacing looking, Khrushchev Era, four-story building in front of our ground floor apartment's window. The three of us enjoyed the last few days of the good weather. It was pleasantly warm for an October evening. We watched the splash of sun rays paint the sky with brilliant colors before it disappeared from our view and laughed at Papa's jokes. Suddenly, as we got up to leave, a muddy, disheveled-looking mutt appeared out of nowhere by some kind of magic.
Unlike some other strays roaming the neighborhood, this particular canine didn't announce his presence with a bark. He did not even make a sound as he cautiously approached and poked his nose at the outstretched arms that greeted him. The dog sniffed them all and decided to stay after liking our scents.
Remembering the day, I often think that this mutt was sent on a secret mission to Earth by some invisible force to protect our family and Papa in particular. I still cannot explain his appearance logically. All I remember is that suddenly we had a pet, another mouth to feed, and that I was ecstatic.
As the floodgates of memories open up and nostalgia rushes in, I think of the first time I met the stray. There was nothing extraordinary about this dog. Small in size, he was an average, scruffy mutt with a strong, muscular body. His brownish-black colored coat was dense and lacked the shiny luster of a purebred.
Despite being ordinary, something about the dog’s appearance had immediately caught my attention, making him unique. He had remarkably earnest, big brown eyes. Through those dark, heartwarming windows to his untainted soul, I could tell his life was not easy.
I stroked the dog's rough, coarse coat and felt the scars of his old wounds. I did not know how he acquired them and could only guess that the most visible were caused by previously lost or won battles, while the unseen belonged to human neglect or abuse. However, the stray still trusted people because he adopted our family without hesitation that night.
Pedigree experts say it is possible to tell the true breed by looking into a puppy's eyes. They say the eyes don't lie and that the gentle warmth emanating from the depth within is often an indication of the purity of the breed. I do not necessarily agree with this statement because our mutt would have to be placed near the top of his family tree if it were true. Still, I believe our dog had a heart of gold, and his sweet little soul was of the purest kind.
That fateful evening as the sun went down, Rex quietly walked into our lives and irrevocably changed them. Shortly after making his acquaintance, we got up, and the dog followed us inside the building. Mama and Papa tried to shoo him away. They worried about being reported to the government for having a pet by the ever-watchful neighbors. The stray refused to leave. He trailed behind us from the back of the structure to its front and then into the entryway.
As Papa unlocked the door, the dog ran happily inside. He carefully maneuvered his lithe body around the overcrowded, furniture-packed dwelling. The mutt kept his sensitive nose close to the ground, examining every nook and cranny of our limited quarters. He managed to scare the living daylights out of my two somewhat domesticated cats. The felines hissed, snarled, and clawed at him each time he encroached on their territory.
The three of them played this game until he lost interest in cats. Soon after, the stray shook his body, regrouped, and slowly approached Papa. He sat himself down perfectly still in front of my father, lifted his tiny front paw, placed it on Papa's leg, raised his little head, and looked intently at my dad as if begging for something.
Somehow, Papa understood what the mutt wanted. He got up from his seat and walked over to the small refrigerator in the corner of the room that served our family as either living, dining, or bedroom throughout the day. A few seconds later, my dad took some food scraps and fed them to the dog. The stray was hungry because he devoured them in no time.
Silently and intently, I observed their interaction, and in my diligence, I witnessed the exact moment Papa became the dog's master. I watched the stray's transformation from a mutt into a beloved family pet. The simple act of sharing our food with the animal made all of those things possible, and shortly after, Papa addressed him as Rex.
Almost an hour later, Rex asked to go out. He approached the front door and turned his head to look at us. Begrudgingly, I went to let him out. That night, he did not come back. His primal instinct to be free and run wild in the coolness of the dark, star-filled night had proved to be impossible to break. He, after all, was a stray.
I went to bed disappointed, assuming that I would never see our pet again. But in the morning, as I woke up and got ready for school, I saw Rex standing in front of our ground-floor apartment window, in the exact spot he had befriended our family the previous evening. Seeing him made me happy, and deep inside my heart, I knew that this was the beginning of a beautiful and long-lasting friendship.
Approximately a year before Rex's mysterious appearance, Papa became ill. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor and needed surgery. The local hospital could not perform the craniotomy, and therefore, both of my parents went to Odessa for his operation. His prognosis was grim. We had no idea how long it would take Papa to recover, and none of us knew if he would make it out alive.
With a heavy heart and tears in her eyes, Mama said her goodbyes to me and went with Papa. In a blink of an eye, I became an orphan. Sad and dejected, I felt the raw pain of separation. It was the most challenging day of my life. I went from being the family's baby to a responsible adult in a moment. I was left behind to take care of my two cats and continue going to school. There were no other options available to our family. The Soviets did not give our family any. They did not provide accommodations for the relatives of a patient from out of town, who was terminally ill, and whose complete recovery had depended on a lengthy hospital stay and the mercy of strangers solely.
I still don't know how I managed to survive this ordeal, but somehow, I understood Papa's condition was a matter of life and death. The harsh realities of the USSR made us, the proletariat children, grow up faster and mature quicker. Barely a teenager myself, fifteen at the time, I was scared of being alone, but despite my fears, I knew that I had to do it for the sake of my parents. I had to be brave, so Mama would not worry about me.
In the USSR, socialized medicine did not work per its proposed plan most of the time. Even though everyone was insured, which was a good thing, the health care quality left a lot to be desired. The lengthy waits and the mediocre medical attention people received from the doctors had become a part of everyone's life.
Bribery was the unwritten rule of the Communist regime. It had flourished behind the Iron Curtain, and most citizens who had the money commonly practiced it. People who had some rubles to spare bribed the doctors and nurses. They used the money to "buy" a necessary and imperative "aftercare insurance" for the loved ones and peace of mind for themselves. Whoever couldn't afford it had to learn how to become a caregiver to the loved one's post-op needs in a hurry. Otherwise, the patient would die, most likely from lack of medical attention. It was the truth and the ugly veracity of the socialized medicine I grew up with.
I clearly remember the day our extended family had an impromptu family reunion in Odessa for the sole purpose of creating Papa's recovery fund. Mama had to quit her job to take care of my father while he recuperated at the hospital because our family was poor and did not have any extra money to bribe. Most of the extended family on Papa's side was well off and could afford to part with some of their savings. Still, there was a lot of yelling and discussion before each clan member agreed to contribute a specific amount of money to Papa's medical needs.
The entire donation collected that day went to bribe the neurosurgeon to ensure my Papa would not die on the operating table. If our family did not bribe the doctor before the surgery, he probably would not leave the operating room alive.
It took Papa ten days to come out of the coma. A day before he opened his eyes, the neurosurgeon warned Mama about the possibility that her husband would not pull through.
"If by tomorrow he is not awake, we've lost him," he said.
"Is there anything, anything at all you could do for him?" Mama was frantic.
"You must find a medicine, which our hospital does not stock, and which is impossible to get from a pharmacy by a prescription," the surgeon replied.
Seriously?! I do not recall the exact name of this medication now, but I remember it was supposed to force my father to come out of the medically induced coma.
Mama desperately searched inside the hospital for someone who might have it. She asked every nurse and caregiver, and as luck may have it, a lady whose son was recovering from brain surgery offered to sell Mama the needed injection at an inflated price. Once again, our extended family gathered together to cover the black-market cost. Because of their generosity, Papa received the shot that ultimately saved his life.
It took him almost a year to recover from his ordeal. Arduously and slowly, Mama nursed Papa back to health, spending each day attending to his needs by his bedside. I visited my parents once a week, taking a three-hour train ride to the clinic. I missed them terribly.
There was nothing in the world that would've stopped me from seeing them. Like a finely tuned clock, I boarded that train every Friday afternoon on my way from school. Once I got to the hospital, I stayed with Mama and Papa for the weekend. I slept sitting on a stool next to his bed and did my homework there as well.
At least three other patients plus their relatives and friends shared the space with Papa at any given time. This room was overcrowded and stuffy. It was loud too. The visitors, demanding better care for the relatives, caused the noise, while the patients recovering from a specific brain surgery were usually quiet. Every Sunday afternoon, I took the train back. Mine was a lonely life until my parents came home.
Upon their return, my dad was officially disabled. He spent most of his days alone, trying to get better and stronger. Since the mysterious appearance of our beloved pet, Papa was not lonely anymore. Rex proved to be a dedicated companion and a loyal friend. Wherever my dad went, the dog followed. He became Papa's shadow, his extension as he lagged behind him on his way to a kiosk or a supermarket.
On my way home from school, weather permitting, I often found them basking together in the warm rays of the afternoon sun, each content in the other's presence. Rex slept peacefully at his master's feet while Papa gratefully acknowledged the dog's presence. Over time, with Rex spending a significant amount of time in his company, they grew inseparable, and their togetherness became almost ceremonial.
In the morning, upon Papa's verbal command, Rex ran to the front door of our apartment. Once inside, he had his meal consisting of the leftovers from the previous night. There was hardly ever enough food available in the stores to satisfy people's demands. Pet food was unheard of in the USSR.
The long, physically and emotionally draining queues became the bleak reality of the miserable life of the Soviet Union. People joined these lines automatically without even asking what was available for sale because they were almost one hundred percent sure it was something they needed. After spending hours in line, some left the queue empty-handed, disappointed, and frustrated because, by the time their turn came, the salesperson had sold out all the goods.
Papa and Rex usually went for their daily neighborhood walk upon completing their morning meals. In the end, they both returned to the same spot behind our apartment building where they initially had met.
Rex joined us inside to have his dinner and cuddle and play with me in the evening, only to disappear into the night, to either socialize with the other strays or do what the canines did best — hunt for a new game or rummage through garbage. On bitter cold winter nights, the mutt stayed home to the great displeasure of our two cats.
For over a year, Rex was a part of our family, and then one day, something terrible happened. When I came home from school, I did not see Papa and Rex together in their favorite spot. The feeling of dread overwhelmed me, and I ran as quickly as I could inside the entryway, up the short stairway to ring the doorbell.
Impatiently, I waited for Papa to unlock the door. This time it took him longer than usual to let me in. I heard the slow, heavy shuffle of his feet and his struggle to unlock the front door. I pulled the outside handle towards me with all of my might to make it easier for him to turn the little knob.
Once inside, I asked Papa what was wrong. He did not answer until he stumbled from the short walk between the hallway and the living room and before he slumped his big body into the nearby wooden chair. Only then I heard him whisper, "Hurry up and call Mama. I do not feel good." I immediately dialed her work number and asked to speak to her. Upon hearing such disturbing news, Mama told me that she was leaving.
I replaced the receiver into its cradle and slowly walked over to Papa's seat. Pulling up another chair in front of his, I grabbed his beautiful, soft hand with both of mine and gently stroked it as my eyes filled with tears. I could not stop crying. The horrible feeling of foreboding engulfed my soul and shook me to the very core of my being. I sat in the same position, silently weeping and holding my Papa's hand until Mama walked into the room.
Mama called an ambulance and stood by Papa's side while waiting for its arrival. Seeing how distressed I was, she instantly took over. It was apparent to me how overwhelmed and petrified Mama was by the prospect of losing the only man she had ever loved, but she stayed courageous for my sake.
It seemed like hours had passed before the ambulance finally arrived. They carried Papa on a stretcher. It was the last time I ever saw him conscious. Mama went with Papa to the hospital after instructing me to go to the extra curriculum class, for which I'd signed up at the beginning of the school year.
It was Friday, October 16, 1970, when the ambulance drove them away. Papa had slipped into a coma. He never came out of it and died on Monday, October 19, 1970. He was forty-eight years old, missing his November 11 birthday by a few weeks.
Papa was a practicing Jew before the Soviets took control over the part of Romania where both of my parents grew up. Even though religious burials were not allowed, my father wanted to be buried as a Jew. Underneath his business suit, they washed his body and wrapped it in a white shroud according to the Jewish ritual.
Papa’s funeral took place a week after he died. We could not bury him the following day as the Jewish tradition required because he died during the Jewish holiday, and burials were prohibited while it lasted. Plus, we had to wait for my two older siblings, who were not living at home, to arrive. Mama and I wanted them to say goodbye to Papa before he went to rest.
My brother Yitzhak served as a sailor on a strategic vessel in the Soviet Navy, which floated somewhere in the Baltic Sea. My sister Charna worked as an attendant on a cruise ship, which occasionally docked in the port of Odessa, located on the Black Sea.
Despite the concerted efforts, both my sister and my brother missed Papa's burial due to the bureaucracy of the totalitarian establishment. Yitzhak's commanders gave him a "well-deserved" leave from duty. They were indecisive, and it took them longer than one day to allow my brother to go to his father's funeral. It was not until Yitzhak boarded the plane that he discovered the real reason for his "well-deserved" leave.
As my brother sat waiting for the aircraft to take off, he remembered his commanding officer slipping something inside his uniform pocket. Yitzhak pulled out a slip of folded paper, and as he unraveled it, my brother read the telegram addressed to his navy commanders by our mother. Upon discovering the horrifying news, I could only imagine my brother's emotional distress. He arrived home a day late.
On the other hand, Charna missed the burial by only an hour. In her case, just like in my brother's, the superiors delayed the decision to let her go. My sister arrived home when our small group of mourners returned from the cemetery.
My siblings' disappointment and grief about missing Papa's funeral were indescribable. Neither had the chance to see Papa’s body or witness their father put to rest.
I often wonder which one is better for closure—to have a parent's memory of being alive and vibrant or replaying the retrospect of their untimely and poignant death in one's mind? Years later, I continue to search for the correct answer.
Fifty years have passed since the death of my beloved Papa. Still, I grieve. I think about him with fondness and love every day. I carry the memory of him in my heart and soul. I do not doubt that Papa's spirit lives on in my children and grandchildren. My unstoppable recollections make his legacy alive. Of that, I am certain.
On the day of Papa's passing, our Rex grieved the loss of his cherished master in his peculiar canine way. As the evening approached, he sat motionless in the same spot where the two of them met. The high sound of his whiney pitch penetrated the cold air of the dark and starless night, making the inhabitants of the tall, ugly apartment building painfully aware of the mutt's poignant presence. Rex's loyalty and compassion, exhibited in such a visceral and profound way, touched every living occupant in our building.
Time went on. We finished sitting Shiva—the seven days of formal mourning observed by close relatives of a deceased Jew during which they sit on low stools and do not go out, work, bathe, or shave. It was then that I realized I hadn't seen Rex in a while.
Worried, I went around the neighborhood looking for my beloved pet. I looked for Rex in the usual places where the rest of the strays hung out in packs. I asked my neighbors about his whereabouts. But, no one seemed to know where the dog had gone, and no matter how long I searched, I could not find him.
In my mind, Rex’s desertion did not make sense until the marvel of his disappearance became clear one day. The nagging thought kept telling me Rex was not an ordinary dog. He came to Earth to help a family in need. With Papa’s death, our beloved mutt had accomplished his mission. Rex had mysteriously vanished into a place unknown to me. The same place he had magically appeared from and befriended us on that memorable October evening. Life is full of unexplained mysteries, and Papa’s Rex belongs to them.