Lana Berdzenishvili, 51 years old, Tbilisi
“It’s very hard to be a mother in our culture.
Just because people weren’t able to understand my children, people often threw mud at me. For the first time, it was because of my eldest daughter Salome, and her activism. I remember I almost died with worry. At that time, I worked as a teacher at a school and was so ashamed of people who were suspicious of my motherhood skills, that I wanted to die. Then Salo sat down with me, explained some things to me, and let me look at many things from different angles. I realized that the only barrier between us was the generational differences. I was living in another world, and she lived in another. It’s difficult to suddenly step beyond what’s already ingrained in us and what we call traditions, but trying to look at the world from a different perspective is already a step forward. The key is to listen to your child and understand her – I believe in my daughter and her work. Like I raised her and taught her things, she also tries to nurture me and helps me look at life from a new perspective.
The second-time people talked about me behind my back was after Sophie’s death when people felt that my mourning as a mother wasn’t tragic enough.
I called Sophie my ‘’old-age’’ daughter. When I divorced my husband, and his older children, Salome and Saba, moved out, Sophie and I started living alone. I faced financial hardship – a teacher’s salary isn’t high, and in addition, during the holidays, you don’t have any income. So, my sister and I had the idea to open a flower shop. I researched the business, made wonderful bouquets, and our work soon paid off, but it wasn’t an easy path – I would go to the flower market in the middle of the night to buy new plants, took them to the store, made bouquets, and ran to the school in the morning to conduct lessons. Sometimes a flower petal or a price tag would stick to my coat and my pupils would remove it. As a result of this work, we became so financially strong that Sophie and I started a new thing: we would buy food, collect various items from friends, find people in need in the village center, and brought them what we had got. We didn’t even show up, we just left the food and went back.
Life is so strange, right?! When you’re the happiest and think that everything is alright, you and your children are healthy and well, everything immediately becomes a disaster. Sophie was 16 years old, when during a trip with her class, due to lack of attention by her school and teachers, she tragically died on a very difficult hiking path, even for experienced hikers.
Last year, after the eleventh grade was over, the school decided to take the pupils on a trip to the Lagodekhi reserve. The chosen location was for specially equipped, experienced hikers, even local rangers were saying the same. In such a place, 18 pupils were accompanied by only three teachers. When they camped by the waterfall, two teachers weren’t even present – they had gone to get the food. No one told the children that swimming in the waterfall was dangerous, and there wasn’t an instructor or supervisor. At that place, the waterfall forms a lake, overflows the river, and forms a three-meter waterfall below. The waterfall lands on the river and there’s a huge boulder at the bottom. While swimming in the lake, Sophie got suddenly carried away by the waterfall, found herself under the boulder, the force of the waterfall blocked the way out and she couldn’t get out of there. Later, we found out from the locals that many other people had also died under this boulder, and this place was marked as dangerous. The children didn’t have information and were left without adult supervision. Sophie was found dead the next day.
It would probably be very embarrassing to explain what a mother experiences at such a time. But it turned out that my grief didn’t fit public expectations, and during such a difficult time, dirt was rubbed on me again. Every person endures and expresses pain differently. I couldn’t play the role of a bedridden mother, who they desperately expected to see. They couldn’t forgive me for standing on my feet, for walking and driving the car again. Society needs to see a weak and fallen mother and only in that case will they pity you. On one hand, people will tell you to be strong, encourage you to live, but once they see you strengthened and encouraged, they will immediately say that what happened was your fault, that you deserved what happened, and that you aren’t mother enough. As if they loved your child more than you do.
I remember how I felt, when a woman, a member of the Kutaisi City Council, instead of expressing solidarity, wrote that our family was punished by God for Salome’s activism. But there are also human beings out there: in those days, they gave me the strength, they wrote to me that they were sympathetic, and encouraged me, even complete strangers did that. Eventually, they have no idea how much their support helped me during that difficult time.
I lived in inertia after Sophie’s death. For me, Facebook was an opportunity to escape from pain and reality – here I had space where I talked to her in person. ‘’What are you doing on Facebook, go, mourn your child!’’, ‘’where the hell was her mother, couldn’t she follow her on the trip and look after her?!’’ – those are the phrases I mostly saw on the social network, written by strangers, and this put me back again feeling like all of this was my fault. It brought me again in a loop of thoughts – what if something happened differently, or what if I didn’t let her go, or what if I was with her on that day… And in the end, this chain turned into hatred towards myself – why I was alive and Sophie, no more?…
I often asked myself questions, like, why do people hate me? What did I do to deserve so much hatred? Or, why did the Lord punish us when Sophie and I were doing kind things and helping people in need? Then I looked at all of this from a different angle – God created the universe and told people to look after themselves and take care of each other. God isn’t a punishing butcher like people imagine him to be. God gives us our minds for accepting responsibility and taking care of ourselves and others as well.
Sophie was the victim of irresponsibility and negligence.
For a year now, I raised the issue of responsibility of the teachers involved in this tragedy by going to court. In this case, too, people shamed me – how can I send people in prison, will it bring my child from the dead?! For me, this fight is a matter of principle. By the negligence and carelessness of these people, I haven’t simply lost an item – I have lost a child, and they will have to answer for it. One of the lawyers asked me if the child slips out of her mother’s hands and gets hit by a car, should the mother be punished for it or not. I would say that yes, at such times the mother has to pay for it – when you can’t recognize the danger and you can’t shield your child from a possible accident, it’s negligence.
We are accustomed to living in a country where no one is responsible for anything. My daughter was in the school’s hands, they planned the trip, and not even once did they consider the danger or even plan safety measures. Despite the risks, if the school still decides to go to such a place, the parent should be aware of these risks and decide whether they should accompany their children or even not let them go at all. Just like reading material is selected according to age, school trips should be planned with such measures in mind too. My goal is, by starting a case in court, to set a precedent that will increase the sense of responsibility in others and avoid other people from having similar accidents.
In our society, a woman is not forgiven for some things that are absolutely fine for a man to do. This was the exact case with Sophie’s father. Sophie was 9 years old when her father left our home. While living together, he acted like a dictator in the family, restricting our freedom. How many times have I thought that I would just stand up and leave, but I tried to keep his good name untarnished. Despite his tyrannical nature, he was known as a good man outside the house. Nobody believed anything bad about him. Finally, he left us himself. I was very ashamed to go out on the street, I felt horrible to be in the role of an abandoned woman. Back then Salome helped me a lot and helped me dust off that sense of shame. Sophie always missed her father very much, as she saw him rarely. She would come into the house and suddenly whisper to me – ‘’Mom, I miss dad!, even though she was mad at him for not seeing her and for not paying enough attention to her. She even wanted to change her last name. When we found out about Sophie, her father didn’t come that day. He said he was too drunk to drive.
Sophie is alive to me. I somehow feel calm. I feel close to her and keep talking to her. I care less and less about what people say. I imagine how she would behave now, what she would say to me, how she would climb out of the window, and make me nervous.
I went back to doing charity again. Now I go to the villages alone to help people. Work gives me strength. When a stranger comes into my flower shop and talks to me about Sophie, I’m surprised and happy at the same time. So many people knew my daughter and loved her. I moved. I couldn’t continue living while remembering the past. I contact a lot of the kids in the new neighborhood. I built playgrounds for them using my funds, taking their age into account. I laid sand and made a mini ranch from the landfill, with ethnic elements, where they often come and take photos. The kids are also happy to contact me because I have animals and they learn to love them.
There are now four of us living together: me, an adopted one-eyed kitty, an orphaned puppy Mimi and the dog Sophie left us – Black.”
Author: Maiko Chitaia
Photo: Geda Darchia
Translation: Mariam Kajrishvili