December 06, 2011 at 21:20 PM EST
Heaven's Tears
New York City Greek Americans"Happy name day, my son," my mother had wished me. She had called me at work on December 6th in 1990. She had gone to church on Saint Nicholas' name day. "There look like tears on the Icon of the blessed Holy Mother," she softly added.

I should have put more importance into what she had just said, but didn’t. We only talked for a little while longer. We would see each other at the annual church dance this coming Saturday. Bertha Zaharakos Philoptochos St. Constantine and Helen Church BrooklynMy mother was the President of the Philoptochos Society (Friends of the Poor) and I was on the Board of Trustees of the Saints Constantine and Helen Cathedral in Brooklyn Heights. I had been living in Manhattan since 1982, after moving out of my parent’s house in Brooklyn a year after my father had passed away. I had joined the Board of Trustees to keep a promise that I had made to my old Sunday school teacher, Mr. Zymaris. It was his widow, Catherine who had nominated me. I certainly enjoyed attending the majestic Byzantine church where I had received the baptismal sacrament. The board meetings were another matter. They would start late and end late. At times, I would find myself riding the subway at one o’clock in the morning during a weekday. My fellow board members were for the most part a lovable lot. They were also a typical bunch of unorganized Greek men. This next Saturday night I would have been far happier to be walking to a museum or art exhibit than traveling by train to a dance that I’m sure would have music that was too loud as the main feature. That’s why I pay an exorbitant rent for a studio apartment in Manhattan; to take advantage of the infinite cultural opportunities available on this small island. My reluctance to going was overcome by the fact that I would be seeing my mother. I was also one of the co-chairmen for the dance journal and I wanted to see how the publication was received. The community was honoring Nicholas Vassilakos a venerable son of one of the 1913 church founders.

The affair was to be held at the Hollywood Terrace Catering Hall in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. It wasn’t that I was consciously aware of trying to get there late, but I did. I even took the wrong train and ended up having to walk a number of extra blocks. I reflected on the one time that I had thought I saw tears on the countenance of the Virgin Mary. Costas Sklitsis, a perennial board member had asked me to help a young girl of about twelve years old to light a large candle in front of the Holy Mother at the iconostasis. She was about to turn back after lighting the candle that I had placed in the candle stand. For some reason I uttered one word and that was “pray!” She made the sign of the cross after making her supplication. I followed her example and then I found myself transfixed by what I thought were a stream of tears. For what felt like an eternity I examined the beautiful Icon to see if the light was playing a trick on my eyes. It didn’t seem that way but I kept what I saw to myself in hopes that others would see it too. My mother’s conversation had revived the memory.

As I continued my walk, I remembered going by a main thoroughfare, and being unsettled upon noticing that all the stores had metal shutters completely blocking any chance of window viewing. Only a few homes had any light decorations for the upcoming Christmas Holiday.

It was after nine-thirty when I finally entered the floor-to-ceiling glass lobby of the Hollywood Terrace. Gus Trataros, a vice-president on the board, came out of a door and told me that my mother was looking for me. The seating chart had me assigned to table number 12. I entered the darkened dance hall. At first, I was disorientated because of the din. Somehow I managed to find my sister, Toni. She told me that my seat had been given away. I had a sip of a scotch sour given to me by the moonlighting bartender who by strange coincidence happened to have worked with my younger brother Peter at Macy’s Flatbush in the electronics department years before (NYSE: M). I muttered that, “I didn’t need this,” about losing my place.

Then it happened!

There was a commotion on the dance floor behind me and to the right. The music stopped. “Nick, it’s your mother!” I heard the voice of Betty Xanthos say clearly. Betty had also been a President of the Philoptochos Society at one time; she and my mother were best friends for many years.

There was my mother lying on the dance floor not breathing at all. Teddy Nicholoudis, one of the few young members of the church board, immediately started to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I heard somebody yell that an ambulance was called. I got on my knees and took over from Teddy, trying to breathe life into my mother. We even tore away her blouse and other things, in hopes that, that would help. I was acting by instinct only. At one point I stood up and I could see across the hall to the dais. His Grace Bishop Philotheos appeared as if he was bearing the weight of the world as he offered the most compassionate silent prayer humanly possible. When the ambulance finally came and they were preparing mom for the hospital, I turned to Peter Rogakos. I clutched his arm and I said, “We’re Greeks, we will get through this.” Peter had lost his mother at a very young age and in only a few years his younger brother, George, would die in a construction accident. I also remember that Elias Seremetis handed me a strong drink to brace for the ordeal to come.

Toni and I followed the ambulance to Maimonides Hospital. They admitted our mother in the emergency ward. She hadn’t regained consciousness. We answered the many questions from the attending doctor, letting him know that mom suffered from high blood pressure and that she was taking medication for it. I started calling my brothers and other sister to let them know what had happened. It was a long night. The diagnosis was an aneurysm.

I had been down this road before, with my father. He had a stroke while I was still living in Brooklyn. The day before I had gone fishing and the only thing I caught was a cold. I stayed home from work that day and was awakened by my mother’s cries. “Wake up Stavros, please wake up!” My father was taken to Kings County Hospital. When he came home he was confined to the hospital bed that we had put into the first floor living room. He never really recovered. He lived barely long enough to see his first grandson, Nicholas, who is also my Godson. I thank God to this day that my parents had seven children because you need that many shoulders and even more to help in times of crisis. You fall into a routine of taking turns at their bedside. When my father had his relapse he ended up in Caledonian Hospital. The afternoon of my father’s last day, I was in his room when the nurses chased me out because the monitors that he was hooked up to indicated that something was terribly wrong. He passed away in a matter of minutes. I waited outside the hospital for my mother and prevented her from going up. “Mom, now, he’s with the others, remember him as he was.”

We had many visitors to the room that she shared with two other patients; there was a petite Irish Lady in her nineties that was recovering nicely from a broken hip, and an elderly Orthodox Jewish man that had been on life support for a long time. His devoted daughter constantly attended to him. Two visitors stand out in my memory. Eva Tsikis, she could have been the younger sister that my mother never had. She was also short and feisty just like mom. Eva told me that her daughter, Maria was in a coma for many days and that she had prayed to the Holy Mother for help. Her daughter made a miraculous recovery. One night while I was in the room with Mom a woman wearing a badge entitled, Catholic Charity Visitor, approached mom’s bed. At first I had tried to shoo her away by saying that, “we are not of your faith,” but then I took a second look at her and her nametag.

“Mary Ann McCabe, is that you?”

"Is that Bertha?"

The McCabe’s were our next-door neighbors on East 23rd Street. Mary Ann’s husband Frank was a fireman. Every time I went to Brooklyn to see my mother, I would look at the tree that he had planted in front of his home. It always brought a smile to see that it was gradually growing taller. They had moved out of the neighborhood about ten years ago but somehow kept in touch with everyone. Now, all the neighbors that had left East 23rd Street found out about Mom. We had visits from the Bambara’s, Spencer’s, and Rubinate’s. The Galletes, a family from Haiti that shared a common driveway on the other side of ours was very supportive. It gave me a warm feeling to remember that Dad when he retired took their son Fritz on his first fishing trip out of Sheepshead Bay just like he did for all his seven children. Mom had treated their Daughter Paula to McDonald’s one time (NYSE: MCD). She enjoyed relating that Paula was thoughtful about her choices so as not to have mom spend too much money.

Because of my mother, my brothers had returned to the large house on East 23rd Street. There was Michael from Grand Rapids, Peter from Pennsylvania, and Jimmy from nearby Queens. At that point, only John and Toni were still living at home. My younger sister Elena also had her own apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey.

The next Saturday afternoon before going to the hospital, I first called home for an update on mom’s condition. Jimmy answered the phone and told me to get to the hospital as fast as I could. I didn’t ask for any details because in my heart I didn’t expect my mother to recover. I simply felt that she was going through the same ordeal that her husband had suffered. When I arrived at Maimonides, Peter standing outside my mother’s room met me. “Nick, sit down,” he said while pulling over a worn wooden backed wheelchair used by patients who are somewhat ambulatory, for trips to X-rays or just sitting in the hallway.

“John has also suffered an aneurysm; it happened this morning. They have him in the emergency room now.” Before Peter could finish these words, I had fallen back into the chair, in disbelief. I listened silently as my sisters explained what had happened.

“John was down in the basement bathroom, and was shaving when we heard him cry, ‘Oh no!’ He had collapsed wedging the door shut. Luckily, Jimmy and Michael were home. They almost had to break down the door to get him out. God bless those two Emergency Medical Service women. They at first wanted to transport John to Kings County Hospital because it was the closest. We begged them to bring him here because of mom, and those angels did.”

Saturday night at a city hospital is usually the worst time and place to view humanity. Many of the injuries are the result of people doing things they shouldn’t or wouldn’t normally be doing. A teenage gang member was brought in draped over the shoulder of one of his companions. Within half an hour he was kicking the walls and doors after recovering from an obvious drug overdose. I was grateful when he ran out of the hospital.

When I finally got in to see John in the emergency room bay they had him on a stretcher in the hallway. He was conscious and talking, but his replies were not making any sense. The aneurysm had affected his speech, but his vital signs were stable. I stayed with him until they had finally had a semi private room for him. Father Calivas had been our priest throughout our boyhood at Saints Constantine and Helen. He had given John and his best friend Chris Sofronis each a silver cross for their service as altar boys. Before I went over to Vietnam in 1969, John had given me his cross for protection. I placed it back into his hands before they wheeled him away to his room.

So, while the rest of the world was preparing for Christmas, we were holding a vigil for our mother on the second floor and visiting our brother John on the fourth floor at Maimonides. We were shown every kindness. Many of the Philoptochos ladies came to the hospital. Fay Anton, a long time member, arranged for Bishop Alexios to hold a service with the family members at the church. This pious hierarch led us in a prayer for God’s will.

One Sunday I went to church to light some candles before going to visit mom and John. It was comforting to breathe in the fragrance of incense and wonderful to witness the faith of two millenniums being practiced by the children and grandchildren of immigrants. My quiet reflection reached a new level of peacefulness when I noticed that standing next to Eva Tsikis was her daughter Maria. This was the young girl that I had accompanied to the Icon of the Holy Mother at the iconostasis. Then I knew that all would happen according to God’s plan not that of man.

John had a successful operation to clip the aneurysm. My mother’s condition hadn’t changed. On December the 22nd, the Irish Lady’s son was there to take him home. He gave me the saddest smile of compassion as we parted. As usual, I stood over my mother’s bed for a while to pray and to whisper to her, that I loved her before going home.

The air was crisp, and the sky was clear that early winter night as I waited on the deserted elevated subway station for the long train ride back home. Below me, I could see Hasidic men in their old world dress talking to each other. I didn’t get back to the apartment until late. I had just finished eating some supper when I started to shiver. Across the blank wall I was facing, a shadow moved. It had no form. But, If, I had to give it a description, I would have to say it made me think of a bird alighting on to a tree.

My sister Elena called within five minutes and announced in a tired voice, “mommy has passed away.”

John was progressing, though I have to admit that for the first few days after his operation he had the scars of Frankenstein across his head. We decided that it would be unfair for him not to be told about his mother. We broke the sad news to him as gently as we could. He accepted it quietly.

At that time, Jimmy had the only grandchildren of our parents. That Christmas was shared only by giving gifts to little Nicholas and Christina. We felt that mom would have wanted it that way.

Mom was waked after Christmas. The weather changed; it became windy with a coating of snow covering city streets. Demetra (Sheila) Kioskerides, the church secretary and a convert to the Orthodox Faith, offered a sweet gesture to my mother’s memory. On mom’s lavender colored blouse she had pinned a small golden medallion; World’s #1 Mom. At her funeral, Father Kile was assisted by two other Archimandrites. I am sure that his Grace Bishop Philotheos arranged for this extra expression of respect.

Nick Zaharakos' parents Stavros and BerthaDespite the slippery roads and falling snow, her companions from the Philoptochos Society were very much in evidence. Quite a few ladies also risked the journey to Cypress Hills Cemetery. I remember Eleni Sofronis, Chris’s wife and Stella Nicholoudis, Teddy’s sister were kind enough to pay their respects. At the gravesite, umbrellas were needed to ward off boughs of snow, wind-shaken off the pine tree by her final resting place with her husband, Stavros. It was as if Mother Nature and mom were working together to shorten our time of grieving at the cemetery.

That New Year’s Eve, I went back to my mother’s house on East 23rd Street. John was still in the hospital. 354 East 23rd Street was the Promised Land to my parents. It was their first real home after we moved in 1967 from the railroad flat apartment that we had on Midwood Street. It had eleven rooms, stained glass windows, parquet floors, and a garden in the front and back.

I had read in the New York Times that there was supposed to be a Blue Moon this night (NYSE: NYT). It is named for the second full moon that occurs in the same calendar month. The paper also had explained that the expression, “Once in a Blue Moon,” has come to mean only on rare occasions.

As the midnight hour approached I was sitting at my mother’s favorite place; a sturdy chair with arms, at the end of the dining room table. I had a window view of the back garden. It was a crystal clear night. The full moon was very visible through the barren branches of the old chestnut tree. The stars were like tears in the heavens. I could hear the beginnings of celebrations in the distance. I was about to turn away in despair, but I also noticed something else in that night sky—it was the sky itself.

It was a particular blue, a cobalt blue just like the color of the bottle of perfume that I remember that my mother kept all by itself in the center on the top of her bureau when we lived at Midwood street. My father worked two and sometimes three restaurant jobs to put food on the table for his children. We were going through 12 quarts of milk a day then. On rare occasions, when he didn’t have to work on a Saturday night dad might take mom to a movie on Flatbush Avenue. She would splash herself with this perfume, and its fragrance would remain in the air for a while after they had left together. For the longest time I had thought that An Evening in Paris, must have been very expensive. Toni set me straight one day. “It’s the cheapest stuff at the 5 and 10.” Somehow, someway that thought brought me out of my melancholy mood.

I started to sum up my mother’s life and the intense experiences of recent days. My mom had a father who became fond of drink and an uneducated mother. They took her out of high school. “You’ll get married and will have children; you work in the restaurant until you do.” She was beaten for letting a pot of soup burn because she had become so engrossed in a Zane Grey western novel. She married Stavros when they had less than twenty-five dollars between them. They had seven children in quick succession. She had the courage to throw dirty dishwater on a group of toughs shooting craps beneath our kitchen window on Midwood Street. She had the tenderness to place my feet that were frozen from playing football in the snow to her belly until they were warm again. She loved to dance. Yes, mom was short and even chunky, especially in her later years, but she was so unbelievably graceful when dancing the Greek dances.

My mother was certainly a person in her own right. I remember her zaniness of doing bicycles on her back in her cotton pajamas to the instruction of Jack Lalane on the television. I remember the time I pretended that I didn’t know her. That is when she carried the lit Resurrection Candle in a lantern on the subway after Easter services. She had a “secret vice,” of tucking away Milky Way candy bars in the freezer as a special treat when she needed a pick-up. I can still see the glow in her eyes when she would often relate; “During the Great Depression some big Irishmen from the Democratic Party made sure that all the poor families in the neighborhood had a Thanksgiving Dinner with all the trimmings.” Mom liked to instill her principals; “people judge you by the company you keep,” I think was her favorite.

When I returned from the army in 1970, I started to go to Brooklyn College at night. I first took some liberal arts classes and told mom that I thought that there were some courses that she might enjoy. However, she needed a high school diploma to attend college. She took and passed the G.E.D. exam for high school on her first attempt. The family joke became; that when I was small she would take me to school and now that I was big, I was taking her. She started to be nicknamed “the professor,” by her husband. She kept at it though and when she was in her sixth decade; I went to her cap and gown graduation. I know in my heart that one of her proudest accomplishments was to be elected president of the Philoptochos. Now, she could help others, especially children.

I went outside to the back garden. I looked up at the cobalt blue night sky to the full moon and the stars. Something else about mom came to mind. Countless times as a little boy, as I am sure little children do, I asked her; “mom who do you love the best?” No matter how tired or preoccupied she might be, her answer never wavered.

“I love all my children equally.”

One last time I gazed up at the eternal heavens, before going back inside. God has given us many wondrous gifts, none as precious as the bond between a mother and her children.

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