A yellow telegram had arrived from Warsaw: "Mother's condition hopeless. End is near. Please come -- Brother." The Polish Embassy and the travel agency went out of their way to facilitate my departure. How strange to be returning so soon to the deathbed of the second parent, I thought, boarding the sleek Ilyushin jet of the Polish Airlines LOT. Only 16 months before, I had come to witness my father's death and Pope John Paul's triumphet visit to Poland.
Stewardesses offered a selection of newspapers. I chose Trybuna Ludu, the official Communist Party organ, and began to read while munching on slices of delicious Polish ham. To my surprise I discovered that this formerly abysmally dull newspaper had actually become interesting. Gone were the monotonous reports of success in industry. Now front-page articles candidly discussed crisis, the economy and trials of high officials for embezzlement and bribery.
My brother and sister, looking tired, awaited me at Okecie airport. "Mother at a suburban hospital, unconscious. The plan is to visit her in the afternoon." On the way, we experienced traffic jams. The number of automobiles had increased significantly since my last visit, in spite of steep gasoline prices.
We entered the hospital's neurology department. On the bed in front of me lay my mother, a silver-haired woman with eyes tightly shut, breathing steadily like a machine. A pillowcase with a bright rainbow pattern framed her face. I remembered bringing the set the year before.
On the day of my departure from Washington, the mailman had brought my mother's last letter. It said: "I've come to the conclusion that I definitely love life in all its manifestations. . . . I'm so happy to be able to see, to hear and to feel." Yet here she was, comatose with stroke. I thought of the overcrowding and drabness, and yet felt grateful that this was a relatively well run hospital offering free and decent care.
The next morning, to build up our spirits, my sister's family and I drove to the woods and picked mushrooms. Absorbed in the beloved Polish pastime, we nearly forgot about the sad reality. Back at the hospital, I sat awkwardly by my mother's bed, holding her soft, warm hand. When the time came to leave, we took turns and kissed her forehead. Several hours later, she died.
"I feel strange," said my brother, driving home from the funeral. "Something inside me snapped, as if a tie with childhood had been irrevocably cut."
Beyond the cemetery walls, the city throbbed with new aliveness. Everywhere I turned, people talked about changes brought about by the strikes, displaying a peculiar mixture of cynicism and hope.
True Polish humor is unavailable to the Western world, because it is nearly impossible to translate. Built on word plays and double meanings, Polish jokes spring up like mushrooms. A cab driver offered me the following ditty: "There will come 'Vanyas,' they'll pick Kania, they'll put an end to 'walesanie.'" Some explanation: 'Vanyas' -- nickname for soldiers of a powerful Eastern neighbor; Kania -- new leader of the party, also a mushroom; walesanie -- a verb, meaning straying, marauding; Walesa -- the leader of the striking shipyard workers.
Warsaw resonated with magnificant piano music, made available through daily transmissions on radio and TV. The celebrated International Chopin Piano Competition was taking place once more. The public rooted for a tall, skinny Yugoslav, Ivo Pogorelic, whose brilliant yet offbeat interpretation of the composer enchanted many and enraged some -- including sufficient members of the jury to bring about his elimination before the finals. An extraordinary pianist from Vietnam appeared to be the candidate for the coveted first prize. Noting the large number of Orientals (30 in the Japanese group alone), I thought Chopin would have rejoiced to have known that his music has become the property of the world.
In the course of daily living, Poles are facing many difficulties. There is a serious threat of a potatoe shortage caused by an extremely wet summer; a scarcity of meat, sugar, furniture, home appliances and just about everything else. Waiting in line is endured and cursed by citizens who lack the means and connections to obtain goods through illegal channels.
A young intellectual I spoke with had just had two nursery school age children baptized in the Catholic Church. "Who else will teach my kids timeless values, like 'Don't lie, don't steal, don't bribe?'" he asked. He talked with enthusiasm about Pope John Paul: "I've read all his writings. The man is a true humanist; he speaks to me."
The Polish media have come alive ever since the deadening and ever-present "propaganda of success" became officially discredited. Radio and TV offer programs of daring, rib-cracking satire. Even on TV news one begins to see a factory building standing empty, unused, a field of rye harvested. The viewers are invited to send in their comments and suggestions. Lines form at the newstands each day.
Newspapers carried daily reports of union efforts to gain court registration. The media made available critical discussions taking place at the top echelons of party and government, as well as in the factories. Articles expressed a wish for increased democracy within institutions: universities would rather have elected deans; factory workers want the power to replace incompetent managers; theaters ask for the freedom to choose plays.
In spite of monumental obstacles, Poland is undergoing a profound if slow and painful change. To one raised in the postwar years, the shift from the total official lie toward even partial truth marks the beginning of a new and better era. If only the government proves sincere, if only the "Vanyas" leave Poland alone. . .