|Inese before the fire|
With her foreign accent and impeccable professionalism, she offered to search off the show floor for a classy dress. After about ten minutes she returned with a beautiful black dress with tiny white polka dots, perfect for a teacher like me. I bought the dress and, while chatting with Inese, I found out that she was from Latvia and had recently gotten married to a local man named Mike, thus explaining her American last name.
This chance encounter was meant for a reason but I did not know why at the time. I had returned many times afterwards and we spent time eating out, socializing, and talking about the past and the future. We invited her into our home and she visited a few times with her young daughters. We built a friendship based on the common experiences of having lived in Eastern Europe under the communist boot, and the life of a foreign transplant married to an American.
Trying to fit into the southern culture was challenging because acceptance was based on how many generations of one’s ancestors lived in those parts. A college education or the willingness to assimilate and contribute to society in a positive way was far less significant. Seven generations of southern residence, we were told, was the passport to societal acceptance. Little did they know that, instead of legal immigrants like us, in two decades Americans would be forced by their own governments to accept illegal immigrants and dangerous refugees from far more threatening locales and backgrounds.
Inese was born and raised in Riga, Latvia, and speaks fluent Russian and Latvian. Her love of tea changed her life forever on a fateful day in May 1974. She was eight years old and home alone. As she turned on the gas stove, a slow leak which had built up gas in the small room blew up in her face and ignited her flannel nightgown. Not knowing what to do, she crouched down and hid her face inside her knees, a move that saved her face but burned her entire torso. By the time the fire was put out, she had third degree burns on 60 percent of her body. A neighbor pulled off what remained of her thick gown which had exacerbated her severe burns.
The same neighbor called an ambulance and the day care where her father was picking up her three-year old brother. He dropped everything and rushed home. The ambulance was already there and Inese was being whisked away on a stretcher, to the children’s wing of the Riga hospital. Her mom was so distraught that she had to be admitted as well for a nervous breakdown. For two weeks she was cared for in the same hospital in which her daughter was struggling between life and death. Doctors did not expect Inese to survive and had told her dad to prepare for the worst.
But miraculously, she did wake up from her coma and told her doctor that she had seen a long and narrow tunnel with a bright light at the end. A booming voice had told her, it was not her time, she had to go back. That’s when she opened her eyes for the first time to such excruciating pain that she still remembers it vividly today, more than four decades later.
Inese endured three months of agonizing and unimaginable pain; her dad watched over her with devotion and fervent prayer. He sold most valuables and emptied his savings in order to bribe doctors and medical personnel with walk-around cash in envelopes, as it was the case in every socialist/communist country, to give extra medical attention to his little girl. One doctor, who was to care for her for many years, refused any money.
Once a week, Inese was taken to a special bath where she was soaked in a purple solution that would help nurses cut away, peel off, and remove the bandages that would stick to her burned flesh. The purple dye was an antiseptic to prevent infection. When morphine wore off, the eight-year old little girl would suffer merciless pain.
At the end of three months of torturous care, she was released just in time to start second grade. Her dancing days as an aspiring ballerina were over. Physical therapy did not help her much – the wounds were too fresh and she needed more grafts and many plastic surgeries for years. That is how her eight-year trek to St. Petersburg, then part of the USSR, began, every spring and summer vacation, for much needed reconstructions.
She and her mom traveled by train from Riga, Latvia, to St. Petersburg from 9:00 p.m. to 9 a.m., a 12-hour overnight ride. A caring friend would put her mom up in her small apartment for the duration. Remarkably, the courageous Inese remained an honor roll student through her entire ordeal. By the time she finished all possible plastic reconstructions, high school was almost over.
After college, Inese met, fell in love with, and married a Russian officer in 1987, at the age of 22, and settled into a difficult life on his assigned base in Irkutsk, Siberia, in the former USSR. To visit her mom and dad, Inese would fly for nine hours to Riga, Latvia, and back, even when she became pregnant. Despite all her pain and suffering, Inese gave birth to two beautiful girls in 1988 and 1989. The difficult marriage, drowning in infidelity and alcohol, ended five years later and it seemed that she was going to remain a single mom in Riga until God brought Mike into her life.
It was hard for most men to accept the responsibility of raising someone else’s little girls but Mike had a deep faith in God and a rare generosity. His kindness, determination, and love convinced her to marry him even though it meant that she had to uproot again and move to another foreign country. They were married in 1998, the year I met her in Tupelo.
A young grandmother, Inese is living today the peaceful life full of grace she always yearned for, even though one of her daughters is estranged from the family. Church, prayer, family, and God are very important parts of her life. She confessed to me recently that all the pain she endured during the eight years of constant physical therapy, skin grafts from her legs, and plastic surgeries, even the botched one in the U.S., do not even compare with the pain of not having the love and respect of her estranged daughter.
Yet Inese feels blessed and remains happy, positive, and hopeful, centered on her Christian faith, a true inspiration for other burn victims. During her life’s struggles, she had crossed the globe; she emerged from the difficult times of communist tyranny in USSR and landed in our vast country, where she built a better life for herself and for her family.