In which I encounter a troubled woman, and glimpse her briefly transformed.
Her full name was Goulzhan, and she was from Kazakhstan. Her eyes were distant and remote as the snow-capped mountains of her country, empty as its barren deserts, cold and blue as the icy lakes that ringed her city. She seemed somehow not quite present, drifting somewhere far from the moment. I could sense the pain lodged deep in her damaged heart, a crushing hurt that had driven her to seek refuge behind the barriers of her soul’s defenses.
She entered my classroom silently, and took a seat in the back, isolated and aloof amidst the carefree, humorous chatter of my Latino students. When she spoke to me for the first time, the occasional tremors in her voice were a clue to the suffering behind her tightly-controlled façade. As she talked, she nervously fingered her cellular phone which was set to an English-Russian dictionary ap. I guessed that she was perhaps a victim of abuse, perhaps scarred by some significant emotional distress.
For the first few days she kept to herself, responding only when directly addressed, yet little by little, touched perhaps by the warmth of her fellow students, she began to thaw. Brief almost imperceptible traces of the woman that had once existed were revealed in fleeting flashes of wry humor.
Sometimes a flickering flame of defiant dignity would momentarily illuminate those fathomless eyes.
She came seeking solace and help though how she could be helped was beyond my ken. She was anxious to learn the new language, her sharp brain catching its intricacies rapidly. I did my best to encourage and explain, and I could sense her gratitude for my efforts. I tried, as I always do, to reach out, to make her feel at ease, at least in my classroom. But I am a man and she, damaged by a man, was wary of all men, cautious of accepting my proffered warmth and sympathy. Sensitive to our halting efforts to pronounce her first name, she told us all to use the shortened version ‘Gulya’ (pronounced ‘Hulia’).
Each day she sat next to a young Mexican woman with a cute and placid baby in her arms. This woman, named Beatriz, was kind to her, but, as if sensitive to her pain, reacted only when Gulya chose to emerge from her shell with a question or comment. One morning Beatriz, needing to make a phone call, did what she always did in such a circumstance. She handed her baby to another woman to look after. On this occasion the recipient was a startled Gulya. At first nonplussed, she held the little boy gingerly and uncertainly, but his wriggling and gurgling unlocked her heart as no one had thus far succeeded in doing. She drew him in close to her breast, hugging him and cooing softly into his ear. He smiled into her eyes, and somewhere deep in the icy wastes of her heart the ice began to melt. He reached out his tiny hand to touch her cheek, and across her face spread the warmest and broadest smile I have ever seen. Her pencil and notebook lay forgotten on the table in front of her as she clutched this warm bundle of trusting unconditional affection close to her heart.
When Beatriz returned, she noticed immediately the transformation in Gulya’s face and body. So she sat down and swiftly picked up her pencil and began writing. Gulya, wrapped up in the warm delight of little Matteo never noticed his mother’s return. She was transported, enveloped in a warm web of love. After several moments Gulya became aware of Beatriz’ return, and, with obvious regret, reached out to hand the baby back into his mother’s arms. Beatriz asked her if she would please keep Matteo for a few moments longer while she finished her writing. It was a gesture so kind and sensitive that it brought tears to my eyes. Beatriz loved her baby so much and except when he was sleeping in his car seat, she had him constantly in her arms. So I knew how generous was her decision to let Gulya continue to hold him.
When Gulya finally gave Matteo back to his mother, I could see the change in her face.
It was as if the cold blueness of her eyes had warmed into a softer, greener hue. Her high Slavic cheekbones that had previously seemed to draw her face into a tight mask had now softened and relaxed.
A few days later Gulya was able to tell me her story. She had fled from her abusive Russian husband who had treated her like a domestic servant and had threatened her if she dared to leave him. She was living in a women’s shelter nearby, fearful of deportation (she was not a US citizen), commuting by bus daily in search of legal assistance and medical care for her severe stress and sleeplessness. She felt depressed and trapped, not wishing to return in disgrace to her country, and unable to see a viable future alone in a strange country.
In the desert of her bleak life the English class was a calm and welcoming oasis for a few hours of her daily life. When I announced one morning that we would soon be taking a Christmas break, her face fell and she enquired anxiously how long the break would be. When I told her that the class would be closed for three weeks, a look of dismay clouded her face. I knew how much she would miss the calm, friendly atmosphere and the presence of Beatriz and her baby close beside her. In a moment of compassion I did what I would never have done as a full-time professional teacher and probably shouldn’t even have done as a retired volunteer. I gave her my telephone number, and told her she could call me if she needed someone to talk to over the holiday period. Sometimes compassion trumps society’s rules. I knew she would feel lonely and isolated, and I wanted to offer her some solace.
As it was, she only called me a couple of times, and the conversation in her second language was awkward and halting without the clues supplied by face to face contact. We met once a couple of days before Christmas in a Starbucks coffee shop and talked for an hour. Whenever the conversation strayed to her overwhelming problems, I tried to divert her attention by asking questions about her family or her life in Kazakhstan or her tastes in books or music or movies. I wanted very much to help, to throw a lifebelt to save this drowning woman, but I knew it was beyond my powers. The locus of her pain was not accessible to me as a man. Only a woman could truly know what she was going through, and only Gulya herself could find a way to move forward. I gave her what I could of my expertise in the classroom. In my brief acquaintance with her I tried to teach her as much English as I could, and she told me more than once how much she appreciated my help.
It was with a sinking heart that I heard her voice on my cell phone early in January telling me that she would no longer be attending my class.
In a trembling voice she told me that she had decided to go back to her husband. Deeply concerned, I asked her if she really thought that was a wise decision. She could only say in a voice faltering with tears, “I don’t know.” She asked me not to call her again, and I agreed although I assured her that she could call me if she ever needed help. She was barely able to breathe her thanks. Seconds later my phone displayed the ominous words: ‘call disconnected’. Gulya was gone as suddenly as she had arrived.
What remains? There is a lingering guilt that I could not help her more than I did. There is my memory of her expression as she held little Matteo in her arms, a brief glimpse of a different, joy-filled Gulya behind the façade of pain. There is my fear for her future safety and well-being. I can only earnestly pray that one day Gulya will find the peace and joy that all human beings deserve in our brief sojourn on this earth.