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VALENTINA MIHAILOVIC 1928-2020

The night before last, my mum passed away. My small family has been made that much smaller, and an enormous amount of gentle kindness and love has gone from this world.
My mum’s life was hard. From beginning to end. But not once did she permit this to affect the way she lived and saw the world. Her eyes always sparkled with kindness (there’s that word again) and love for me, my son, and my wife, and people in general, which always broke my heart a little.
How could she look at the world the way she did after what she had been through?
I actually lack the skill to communicate how caring, gentle, and kind she truly was. I have never in my life encountered such a person, and I never will. There are very few genuinely good people on this earth – and I am not one of them – but I know one when I see one. And my mum was certainly one.
She had every right to be a bitter, hard, and flinty woman. But she was not. Everyday of her life, she was nothing but gentle, she was nothing but kind, and she never spoke a bad word about anyone, no matter what harm they had caused her.
She never spoke ill of my father – and she had every cause to. She simply referred to him as a hard-working but “rude” man, though the Russian word she used means both rude and rough – more in terms of manners than physical abuse.
She was born in 1928 in Bela Crkva – a border town in the Banat region of Serbia that looks with endless concern at its Romanian neighbour. Her mother, my grandmother, had come there fleeing communist persecution. She had left Russia with one young daughter, my late aunt, Irene, and was barely pregnant with my mum. Her husband died enroute to the west.
My mum grew up in Bela Crkva and well remembered the arrival of the Nazis. My restless and rebellious aunt had run away, but grandmother and my mum were used as slave labour by the occupiers. She recalled squatting in the freezing snow, plucking chickens for their meals, doing their laundry, and being kicked and abused. Tough times for a 12-year-old.
She came to Australia in 1952. She met and married my father shortly afterwards, and had me in 1961.
We were not well off. Mum worked every day of her life. Hard work. She had no education to speak of and no qualifications. She sewed in the immigrant-filled sweat-shops near Central Station, she worked on a process line in a pharmaceutical company, and she cleaned the mental hospital at Callan Park, where a patient broke her arm one day. She refused to seek any compensation because she didn’t want to “cause any trouble” for anyone, and she new full well how troublesome immigrants were treated in Australia.
She kept an immaculate home, cooked amazing meals, and adored me. I was her only son, and after a very difficult 40-odd hour birth, with no emotional support from an indifferent and conflicted husband with his own post-war issues, she devoted herself to me with a fierce dedication that did not flag until she breathed her last two nights ago.
My mum never got over the death of her mum, my babushka, in 1968. She mourned her mother every day of her life. They were very close. Yet her mourning was simply the ache of an irreplaceable loss which became part of her, but did not prevent her from working, keeping house, and raising me.
She had battled her way through four bouts of various cancers, which first began to afflict her 30 years ago, and which, ultimately, she succumbed to. But at the age of 92, it was an epic battle. The outcome was always going to be what it was going to be; it is how the battle is fought that counts. And she fought it with a stoicism I simply cannot fathom. Her battle inspired my wife’s own on-going battle with the bastard disease.
She lived independently up until about three years ago, when this was no longer possible, and she could no longer properly care for herself. At her request, because she never wanted to trouble anyone or saddle me with her care, she was moved into a Russian care facility in Cabramatta – her people, her food, her languages (and she spoke three), and surroundings which were at least familiar.
These ethnically-based care homes offer so much more to people like my mum, it’s hard to see how she could have survived for very long in an all-Aussie situation. She had been yelled at her entire life by Australians who felt that if they raised the volume, the dumb wog-lady might understand what it is they wanted.
I’m not really sure why I’m writing this. Maybe it’s just to get it off my chest and to address the impossible hole in my life her passing has left. And maybe so some record of this amazing woman will exist somewhere on a medium she could never understand or accept.
She would certainly not want to be eulogised in any way. My mum was a simple woman, who lived frugally and gave freely – even though she had next to nothing material to give. All she had to give was love and kindness.
She’d never had anything extravagant or expensive in her life. She made a lot of her own clothes, and her only handbag was a tattered and battered affair she refused to let me replace. But she would always ask that I bring her chocolates so she could give them to the staff at the care home.
She had been asking God to take her for a while now. It had been a recurring theme in my weekly visits. Her monthly check-ups at the hospital, where I would wheel her down endless corridors for endless invasive tests were very hard on her. And after her beloved sister passed a few years ago, she really didn’t see any point in going on. Yet, on she went.
Three weeks ago, her left lung once again began to fill with fluid. She refused to be taken to hospital. I pleaded with her. The nurses pleaded with her. The ambulance crew pleaded with her. But she was not going.
We had arrived at the End Game. We both knew what this was about.
A week ago, she took to her bed, and when I came to visit her – a wonder in and of itself, since I had only been able to speak to her through a closed glass window since the Plague had come – she told me she was dying. I knew that, but I think she just wanted me to understand she knew it as well.
Four days ago was the last time we spoke. She was not in any pain, and she hugged me and kissed me and she smiled at me, her eyes sparkling with a depth of love only a mother can show.
Two days ago, when I went to visit her, she was virtually unresponsive. I tried to rouse her, gently saying: “Mum, mum, mum”, and squeezing her frail, little shoulder. She opened her eyes a little, smiled again, and breathed my name. It was to be for the last time.
That evening the facility called me to tell me she had stopped breathing. The doctor wrote her Death Certificate out an hour later.
Yesterday, I collected her meagre belongings – four plastic garbage bags and her tattered old handbag stuffed with paper icons, little boxes of sultanas, and notes she had written to herself so she wouldn’t forget important dates like her grandson’s birthday.
Her journey had come to an end.
May the earth lay as gently upon her as she had walked upon it all these long, hard years.

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Boris Mihailovic

Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.

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