A mother’s love is a very special thing.
I cannot fault Fanya Stanislav for loving her son as much as she did. She made a great many sacrifices for him to become the man of the present. I understand the undying love of a mother for her children. I too sacrificed to protect my own, as a mother should.
I was drawn, somehow, to the very mother of the man who brought me to this point. And in doing so, I had this strange opportunity to view them, in their house, and ask the question that nagged my soul.
He visited her apartment in Arkhangelsk, far north of Moscow where the nights were cold and the skies perpetually dreary. Like the doting child that he was, Ivan spent most of the early afternoon fixing up the ailing Stanislav residence. It had been in the family for nearly five decades and required its fair share of small repairs. Railings for the bathtub, the pilot light on the stove, a leaky faucet, and Ivan finished with an angry phone call to the superintendent (who vehemently apologized and passed the buck immediately).
Fanya wanted to be classy and wore a black dress and bead necklace. He had delivered a large, flat screen TV and was installing it while she watched from the couch.
Don’t tell anyone, but the television was brought from America.
When do our children morph from dependents to caretakers?
“I saw that you have another important match, Ivashechka.” Fanya said as he toiled away at the television. For Ivan, there were few downsides to being so big, but squeezing behind small spaces was one of them. His suspenders tugged his jeans uncomfortably high as he growled inwardly. His mother continued. “Jonathan-Christopher Hall is his name, yes?”
Her son extricated himself, dragging his forearm along his glistening brow. His white undershirt was stained around the neck with sweat.
“What? How did you know?” The lamplight reflected off his glasses.
Fanya smiled, and I could see where Stanislav got that smile of his. “Alexei told me when he delivered your last show. He even showed me pictures of the boy.”
Of course, the loving mother saw an appropriately sanitized version of her son’s activities. Certain aspects of his adventures, to include threatening defenseless individuals and hospitalizing others, were strictly off limits.
“He looked awfully young, and handsome, Ivashechka. I liked the heart-pants he wore.”
“He will be much uglier when I swell his face into a grapefruit.”
“He even has a longer name than you!”
“You gave me a short first name, Mama.”
“Yes, but he has a short last name, dear son.”
Ivan growled and returned to work. I sensed he wanted to believe Hall was just a stepping stone yet Ivan was wary. Mr. Heart-Pants was riding a wave of momentum all his own. And that woman, Vickie Hall? Ivan saw desperation and craziness in her eyes. To the untrained eye, it would have appeared to be love, but Ivan sensed selfishness above anything else. A person like that was dangerous. Ivan knew from experience; after all, he was a motivator through the force of his own charisma as well.
“Damned HDMI!” He barked. Jonathan-Christopher might have been smart enough to skip ReVival 30 if she wasn’t there, but Vickie would make him get in that ring and take a beating. Hall wouldn’t be a slouch, even if he nearly soiled himself at ReVival 29. No one made it to PRIME via sheer luck. Ivan finally made the cable connection and lurched back onto his rump.
I felt Fanya’s pride as she looked at her son. And if I were his mother, I daresay I too would be proud. For anyone else, Ivan Stanislav would look just as he was: a large, aging man who had worked all day, and wanted a rest on the floor where he sat. But to Fanya? She saw a boy who had survived through all of life’s trials and tribulations and was trying to be a good son.
Is that not what all of us mothers want? For our children to thrive? To survive?
She remembered the heartbreaking phone call after he failed to win the Universal Title. She wept for him that night. “If you beat this boy, then you have another match, yes? And if you win that one, then you are able to fight for that big title again? The Title of the Universe?”
“Universal Title, Mama.” Stanislav said as he pulled out a red handkerchief and dabbed his forehead.
The Love Convoy talked about such a sacred thing so flippantly, and it was Vickie Hall who urged them on. It made the two Hall’s a more confusing and unpredictable opponent. Ivan didn’t need unpredictable opponents at this moment in his career.
Fanny saw the consternation on his face. “I know this all means so much to you, Ivan, but perhaps you should stop pushing so hard? Be content to just have your matches and wins and not worry about the lofty titles, hm?”
If only it was that easy. Her son shook his head and slowly rose to his feet. He removed his glasses and hung them in the neck of his shirt. “This title may be the final chance I have, mother, to finish what did not end forty years ago…”
What did he mean about forty years ago? His eyes moved to a picture of Lenin, which hung on the kitchen wall. She approached him from behind, gingerly, and spoke softly.
There was something behind that picture.
“I wish I could fix that…” He said to himself.
“In your own time, Ivashechka.”
Our children aren’t perfect. Sometimes they hurt us. Gravely so. But it is our love that endures and allows those wounds to heal rather than fester. As this world rears its ugly head and shows us the transformative challenges that it has in store, we must watch our babies weather these storms and emerge not as who they were, but now who they are. It is exciting and terrifying. For me, I truly wish that painful, transformative challenge had not come in the guise of Ivan Stanislav.
What was behind that picture of Lenin?
Ivan, what damage were you hiding?
Thirty-seven years ago the wallpaper was a vibrant, bright hue. Lenin’s picture, that stalwart shield upon the wall in the present day, was nowhere to be seen. The apartment was mostly unchanged, but everything was decidedly more bulky. It was the mid-80s in the Soviet Union, after all.
Eighteen-year old Ivan Stanislav had left his mother a towering collection of lanky limbs with the energy and ambition necessary to transform Afghanistan from a backward, oppressive theocratic regime into a communist utopia. Three tours later and Fanya’s boy had returned home a thick, powerful, imposing monster of a man whose core had been drained by bullets and regret.
His people viewed the Red Army veterans from Afghanistan as disappointments who were tainted by the west, succumbed to drugs, and were wholly unable to deal with the rigors of war. They were branded “less than” the veterans from the Great Patriotic War. He returned a failure, and he believed it.
Can a boy successfully jump to manhood while burning in the fires of war? I have asked myself this question many times.
Afghanistan had destroyed the Stanislav family. Fanya and her ailing husband Sergei struggled to make ends meet while their boys fought abroad. Despite his sickness, Sergei refused to stop working at the factory. Yet when their youngest, Kliment, returned in a box, it was more than the father could take. He fell into depression and succumbed to his illness. In four months, the Stanislav family held two funerals. As for the survivors? Ivan fought for his life in Afghanistan. Fanya fought for her own in Arkhangelsk.
It was easy for me to feel sorry for Fanya. But little did I expect to feel such empathy for her son, considering his transgressions against my family. And yet I did.
“I really wish you would get the surgery, Ivan. You cannot keep growing.” Fanya pleaded. The Bolshoi dancer was depressed and deflated in her sweater and jeans.
He was only twenty-five years old yet his face bore deep grooves brought upon by the reaper’s scythe. His young, pliant skin failed to prevent the permanent signs of suffering. He wasn’t as collected as we were used to. He wore a tank top and picked, incessantly, at his scalp with an agitated energy. Blood drained down the side of his face. Ivan carried himself not with the steady, inexorable poise of our familiar Russian Bear, but rather the agitated randomness of a crate of dynamite.
“You are hurting yourself. Are you listening to me?” Fanya pleaded and tried to wrest his huge hand away from his head. “Ivashechka?” To him, her touch was electric.
“Do not touch me!” He boomed, suddenly, and she backed up defensively. He continued picking at the wound. Perhaps if he dug enough, all the horror in his mind would seep out? He growled threateningly. “Ivashechka this. Ivashechka that. I am not a little boy any longer…”
He had been such a boisterous child and never took to brooding, but the man who returned, amplified in size and ferocity, had devoured her son over those several long years. She wished to find her loving son again.
“I’m sorry.” She said softly. “I just want you to listen to me.”
“What do you know?” He said dismissively and waved a hand. “Stupid woman. You sat up here and did nothing while we fought in that shithole. You wriggled your thumbs and weren’t even useful enough to keep father alive.”
His words knocked the air out of her and a soft, anguished cry was all she could muster. She covered her mouth and then her face while a low, saddened sob oozed between her palms. The wall where Lenin would eventually hang vigil supported her as her knees weakened. But her son, with blood dribbling down the side of his face, rose and glared down at her with resentment.
I grew nervous.
“Why are you crying? What do you have to cry about?” Stanislav leveled at his weeping mother.
She lowered her shaking hands and wailed. “All I wanted was for my boys to come back! I thank Lenin that one returned and I am joyous and yet I do not know him!”
Her yelling in his face was like mujahadeen gunfire and it set his adrenaline racing. “Maybe I should have died and Klim made it then?!” He grabbed her arms and shoved her against the wall. “Would you have liked that?!”
There, the notch was formed as the plaster crumpled beneath the wallpaper and she let out a howl of fear, more than pain. It was in the shape of her elbow.
The fearful cry dispelled the raging fog from his mind. With shaking hands, he released her and stared in shock. She held her elbow and winced, but did not avert her teary eyes. He mechanically returned to his oversized chair. One finger gouged his bloody scalp as frightful, disoriented tears streamed his blank face.
“I’m sorry Mama…” He mumbled. “I… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… I…” One hand tried to shield the shame on his face, while the other dug into the bleeding pit of his skull.
A mother’s love is capable of great retribution, but also great forgiveness.
Fanya chose forgiveness. She walked to her damaged son and pulled his huge head to her breast. Her sweater dried his tears.
“I love you.” She said softly. “Please, talk to me?”
They would say he was “sick.” That he was “weak.” But I was learning that Ivan was just a young man dealing with the most horrific of life experiences. What does that do to a person?
“Sometimes I wish I had died there, Mama. To not have to deal with this pain all the time. Inky claws in my skull reminding me of nightmarish things.” He sniffed and she rocked a little, from side to side. “I will never hurt you again. I promise, Mama.”
“I know, Ivan.”
“I want to make my people proud. I want them to love me and know that we are not what they say. I want to defend their honor. I want you to be proud of me…”
Why do our children try to make us proud when their existence is the greatest source of pride?
Why do we children learn this truth far too late in life?
“You protected me, Ivan, by going there. Klim too.” She paused and kissed the top of his head. “You are both my heroes.”
“I want to be a hero for all of Russia, mother…”
“You will be, Ivan.”
“I hope so…”
The shattered, oversized veteran wept into his mothers arms long into the evening, until she finally managed to rock his tortured mind to sleep.
Damn him for his humanity.
I feel it is time for my part in all of this. I have kept you in the dark long enough but I assure you, I was no one special.
My name was Katya Belova. Ivan Stanislav sent my son to die.
This is the end of my story.
It matters not how I discovered that my misbegotten faith in Ivan Stanislav brought Russian security to my house. They beat me and dragged my baby from my arms to fight in a war that never should have happened. Still, a mother’s hope is eternal and I prayed that my Timofey would return.
You see, my son is dead. He died in Ukraine. I asked Ivan Stanislav to shield him from the draft. He betrayed me and put him there.
My trek to Kaliningrad had left my clothing dirty and my countenance unkempt as I ascended the stairs to his office and pushed open the door. His young assistant tried to stop me with her words, but I would not be slowed. I burst into his sanctum with teary eyes and saw him, sitting there, behind an oversized desk and surrounded by his memories of the past.
Despite my resolve, I was taken aback by just how enormous he was.
With cheeks soiled by sadness and rage, I shouted at the beast.
“My name is Katya Belova. Do you know who I am?!”
He didn’t. It hurt more than any of his wrestling moves I’d seen on television. I told him how he betrayed my trust and his thugs took my son. And in doing so, Timofey died due to an errant explosive. Ivan rose from his desk with a look of bewildered confusion and, now as I reflect upon it, a hint of sadness?
I wanted him to yell at me, but he did not. He spoke calmly and told me that war was a patriotic duty necessary to defend those who were less fortunate. That as difficult of a situation as it was, we all had a responsibility to protect each other. That no son should avoid protecting their mother.
Should a son try to protect their mother? Even if we don’t want to risk them?
My pistol stopped his talking.
But now, I must ask myself a difficult question: Would I have changed my plan then, if I knew what I know now? That inside that massive man was a fractured human being who seemed to truly care so much about his people? Even to a detrimental degree? Ivan Stanislav was no more unique than anyone else who bore the trauma of life.
Could I have given him some benefit of the doubt despite the death of my son? That in some twisted way, this golem might have been trying to do the right thing in a wholly callous way? Was it a means to cope? Why was it so complex and confusing? Was he just a byproduct of a gruesome system that ground him up and spit him out? Was it his well-documented Bolshevism?
It doesn’t matter now.
I called him a monster and the destroyer of my family. That my dear Timofey, a boy who loved to sing and dance and wished to one day be an actor, had died for nothing. I told him that the love of a mother was capable of great forgiveness, but also terrible retribution. That while perhaps my pistol wouldn’t kill him, I would do my honest best.
I pointed death at him.
Vengeance steeled my nerves.
My thoughts went to Fanya, who buried her son and husband prematurely. Then I had a revelation. If I were to slay Ivan Stanislav another mother would mourn the passing of yet another son. Could I do that to her? To any mother? To any mother’s son?
I didn’t know then, but like Fanya so long ago, I chose forgiveness.
And thus, somehow and in some way, my hatred turned to love. For I realized my purpose was not to end Ivan Stanislav’s life. Doing so would doom me to a wretched existence in the most horrible of circumstances. Even worse, I would have only continued the cycle of shattered mothers’ love.
I always had the means by which I could return to my son.
And as I rushed to meet him, ironically, Ivan Stanislav tried to save me.
I love you, Timofey. Mama will be there soon.
My story ended in a flash. I have no regrets. I think now I know why he did what he did, painful as it was to me. Ivan Stanislav, who I thought was a loveless creature, did have a heart somewhere in that body of his. He was a man who I at once respected blindly, hated explicitly, and then somehow learned to simply love, as a fellow mother could. I am almost there, Timofey.
I told you the love of a mother was a very special thing.
He embraced her tightly and held her for longer than she was used to, but Fanya Stanislav rested her aging body in her son’s strong arms. He kissed her once on the top of the head, and then on the cheek, and told her how much he loved her. She didn’t know about the disturbance at his office and Ivan found no reason to tell her. She didn’t need to worry about him.
Still, she was surprised to see his glassy eyes as she looked into his face.
They sat at the table once more, and as Ivan rested his huge hand on her own, he reflected on her love for him, and wondered if it was subconsciously planted by Jonathan-Christopher. There was no comparison to the true love his mother showed him, or the mother who had barged into his office. The Halls were simply pretenders. And while Ivan was a brutal and aggressive man, there was a sort of gentlemanly, soft side that his mother had imparted on him.
What of Jared Sykes and Justine Calvin?
Enemies of the State. They made their beds attacking him and his people. Yet while Justine Calvin wailed for Sykes as Ivan beat him into oblivion, Vickie Hall would have berated her “love” and probably lambasted him. As a man who at one time truly loved someone, it made Ivan sick. Maybe if he stomped Jonathan-Christopher hard enough, he’d see the lack of love in Vickie’s eyes?
What of Stefan Kulikov and his loving, pregnant wife? He was no enemy of the State.
Best to focus on Mr. Heart-Pants and the harpy.
One at a time, Ivan.
Vladimir Lenin still covered the elbow shaped wound in the wall. His people had spat upon him when he returned from Afghanistan, but times had changed. Young Ivan did eventually receive his commendations and medals, and as he made a name for himself in PCW and OSW, The Russian Bear became a household name. Truly, it was only now that he was, as he had once wished, a national hero.
But he wasn’t there yet.
That Universal Title was a life-fulfilling capstone. It would be an accolade that time could not wipe away. It would bring prestige to his people, joy to his mother, and hope to all the Russians who desperately needed it.
Jonathan-Christopher Hall, with his heart covered shorts and overdone screech owl, would need to be dealt with. Thoroughly. Maybe he’d be a faster learner than Jared Sykes?
Only a little more time left, Comrade Lenin, and Ivan would take you off the wall.
With a squeeze of her hand and a nod towards Lenin, Ivan asked a question that had been nagging him for days. “Beautiful mother? How were you able to forgive me?”
As she spoke her words, Ivan Stanislav felt as if he was being watched.
“Oh Ivashechka. A mother’s love is a very special thing.”