Letters from the Box in the Attic: A Story of Survival, Courage, and Love

Letters from the Box in the Attic: A Story of Survival, Courage, and Love

by Barbara Serbinski Sipe

ASIN: B07B2268S3

Publisher BalboaPress

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Historical, Biographies & Memoirs, Biographies & Memoirs/Memoirs, Nonfiction

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Book Description


The story of Stanisawa Emilia (Emma) Krasowska Serbinki is told by her daughter, Barbara, tracing her mothers courageous and terrifying journey from the Soviet invasion of Poland, through Soviet prisons and her eventual release from a Siberian labor camp. Understanding why things happen and how they affect life are just as important as the events themselves. It is through historical accuracy and personal introspection that enable the stories to be told in this book. Survival is the human spirit which came out of some of the most tragic events of World War II. What tragedies and suffering life brings profoundly affects a life forever.

Sample Chapter

A Day That Still Haunts

It was a Sunday night in mid-February, and there was no answer when I tried to call my mother. We had a ritual each week whereby we took turns calling each other on Sunday evening, and it was my turn to call at 10 p.m. Chicago time. Sometimes Mom fell asleep in her living room while watching the news. She lived in Pittsburgh, where it was an hour later. I waited and called again. I had an uneasy feeling about not reaching her but dismissed it. "Surely she is soaking in the tub and didn't hear the phone", I told myself and my daughter, Stephanie. I was definitely concerned after the third failed call but said to Steph, "I'll call again in the morning."

Since that night, I have second-guessed my decision to delay the call a thousand times. I should have tried to contact one of her neighbors that night. On Monday morning, Presidents' Day 2007, I was off from work and making my morning coffee. I tried to call Mom again, but still there was no answer. Sensing something ominous, I called her next-door neighbors, a sweet young couple with three kids who were kind to Mom and watched out for her. All I got was their answering machine. I then called the neighbor across the street, and when Mr. Maloney answered the phone, I frantically explained the situation. I asked him if he could ring her doorbell and check on her.

I waited for what seemed like hours for Mr. Maloney to call back. He was an older gentleman who also lived alone because he had lost his wife to a recent illness. I felt fortunate to reach him that morning. Luckily, over the years, the older neighbors had learned to watch out for each other. I was very grateful to have Mr. Maloney there to help.

His return call finally came, and the news was not good. It was everything that I had suppressed over the course of the previous night into that morning. He knew she had not yet been outside that morning since the light dusting of snow was still fresh, with no blemishing footprints. He found he couldn't get into the house because my mother not only dead-bolted the front door but locked the storm door as well, which was her security habit. He called the police, who broke in and found my mother on the kitchen floor in front of the stove. She must have been fixing some tea and had a stroke, but she was still alive. The paramedics were called and she was taken to the hospital, which mercifully was only half a block away.

I immediately called my boss, told him that I needed to leave for a few days, and got on the first flight out of O'Hare airport.

So there I was at the hospital on Monday, the day she was discovered, waiting for my brother to drive to Pittsburgh from his home in New Jersey. Andrew arrived soon afterward.

The doctors did not expect her to live through the night, news which I found hard to process. Mom had a good and full life since my father died, devoting herself to her family, my brother and me. Logically I did understand that she might die. Because of my inaction the night before, the guilt I felt was growing. Had I tried to make contact with a neighbor Sunday night, I could have gotten her care sooner, but I did not want to make a fuss if one wasn't needed. The "what-if" game was beginning.

Mom was on oxygen; her face was swollen to the size of what might have been a basketball. I marveled at the wonders of the human body while looking at her face. How could skin stretch that much?

She did not look like our mother but some poor creature who was gasping for breath. We each would hold and stroke her hand, talk to her, saying we were there and how much we loved her.

The diagnosis was that she had suffered a brain bleed, a type of stroke caused by a burst artery and subsequent pooling of blood that puts pressure on the brain tissue, resulting in the death of brain cells. The doctors did not advise surgery. They felt that this particular surgery was dangerous and would not reverse the effects of the stroke. But she took such good care of herself! How could this have happened?

For years Mom had taken blood pressure medication, and even with that her pressure was often too high. The next morning, a nurse asked about a living will, which Mom had never prepared. But she did let us know on various occasions that she did not want heroic measures taken to save her life. There might have been something scribbled on a piece of paper somewhere. The only legal document in place named me as the executor of her estate. This document needed to suffice for medical treatment as well.

That same morning, another question was posed: Should the medical staff provide our mother with any fluids? Of course, I was appalled at the thought of not allowing her something as basic as water! My brother Andy, on the other hand, asked whether fluids fell into the category of "heroic measures". There was not much debate. She needed fluids to be comfortable, and that was enough for me. She should not have to suffer.

Looking back on that day now and the discussion we had, I see that insisting that Mom have fluids was my way of dealing with my guilt about what had happened. I did not want to let go of my mother. That morning marked the first day of a twenty-seven-month post-stroke journey for my mother, Stanislawa Emilia Serbinski, a Polish-born immigrant who, like a cat, seemed to have multiple lives. That day she embarked on yet another chapter of her life.

As it turned out, because of the brain hemorrhage, Mom was left without the use of her left side. Fortunately for her and for us, her speech was not affected, though initially it was garbled. She was of course disoriented, wondering why she was in the hospital, but as the days went by, she knew she had to get better. She required speech therapy and, later on, monitoring of her swallowing capabilities. Through it all, Mom was determined to recover and do all that was necessary to get to that point. She had heart bypass surgery and a pacemaker implant, as well as battling uterine cancer and recovering after gallbladder surgery. She was very familiar with her medical community, because she lived half a block from the hospital and volunteered one day a week in the hospital mailroom. News quickly spread among Mom's friends and hospital staff that she had suffered a stroke and had been admitted.

I don't believe that people who are so profoundly ill realize the battle they have on their hands and what it takes to make a significant recovery. Mom was no different. Dutifully she did what anyone asked as her recovery plan was put together. She confronted the twice-daily physical therapy sessions with enthusiasm and willingly took the different medicines prescribed. Would she ever go home? That question plagued me every time I thought about it. Her beloved house was literally a half block south of the hospital, but as the weeks of recovery continued, I began to realize that she would never go back to living there alone.

My brother and I tag-teamed our weekend visits to Pittsburgh. The aftereffects of her stroke and lack of progress from physical therapy revealed that Mom had a non-functioning left side that prevented her from getting herself up and out of a wheelchair unassisted. Vocational therapy was also a challenge as she tried to get her left arm muscles to fire. In order for her to function on her own again, she would need to use her left hand to grasp objects and to shift her weight when needed. Clearly her left side was compromised. Therapists concentrated on strengthening her usable right side.

For me, Mom's recovery was difficult and perplexing to watch, since the pressure and profound responsibility to make decisions on her behalf were mine. After all, this was my mother and I needed to decide her fate from that point forward. With my brother's help and advice, we rose to the occasion and made these decisions. I have to be one of the luckiest people to have such an understanding and reasonable brother. We have never had a cross word about Mom's care. As usual, Mom was ecstatic when we visited her, and now she took much comfort in the fact that both of her children were there to help her through this crisis. With our help, she knew she would go home one day and resume her life, which she was determined to do. As Mom saw it, she was strong physically and would recover after a life-threatening event. My view was not as optimistic, however. I was concerned that she was not able to think realistically about her progress, thus I found myself in an emotional quandary. I knew what Mom wanted – she wanted to go home! My brother Andy was reacting to what she wanted, while I believed her perception of reality was skewed. The option of her going home to full-time home care was unrealistic, not just for Mom but also for us. Her house was not conducive to someone with her needs, and Andrew and I both lived a great distance from Pittsburgh.

My mom had a very engaging personality which endeared her to all the hospital staff who cared for her. The physical therapists and entire nursing staff loved my mom because she always had joke to tell, a smile on her face and without fail cooperated fully, doing everything they asked.

Having been a widow for 27 years with my brother and me living away, she proudly lived alone. Prior to her stroke she had several health issues, but as she would say, "After all, I'm 87 years old!" She was pleased to be so independent. Quoting her advancing age was her badge of honor which she wore with great pride and satisfaction.

She was defiant, fiercely independent and would not wear a medical alert necklace monitor. Eight months prior, my brother got her a medical alert necklace to wear around the house so she could call for help if she fell or otherwise needed help, but she said it was not necessary. She actually hung it up near the phone and went about her business. After all she was in her own home where she was safe, was her attitude. The subscription was cancelled at the end of December, two months prior to her stroke.

As Emma grew older she lost some of her gusto for life, even though she tried to stay active by walking in and around town; but admitted many times that she was ready to join her husband in the afterlife. Her mantra was that "It's no fun getting old." She often told the story about having a special insurance policy in place for her old age. The story about the amusing agreement that Mom liked to tell was that a friend's husband would back up in his driveway and run over Mom as she walked by ... But by 2007, her friend's husband had passed away, and eventually her friend pre-deceased mom.

She was fondly called Emma by her American friends. Her Polish name, Stanislawa, was a foreign name to many Americans who could not relate to a woman called Stanley. From Polish to English the name translates to Stanley since there is no feminine version for Stanislawa. It was suitable for a boy, but a girl named "Stanley"?

Probably not! Her friends started calling her "Emma", based on Emilia, her beautiful middle name. "Tough Cookie" was a good description for this woman, who was both proud and resilient and who did have a fierce will to live, no matter what challenges she faced.

I believe a person is born with certain innate qualities, and Emma was born a survivor and a fighter. My mom fought through rehab until all progress and recovery stopped. Since the stroke affected the use of her left side, she was able to talk and use her strong right hand and leg. This gave Mom a false sense of recovery. Not realizing she was unable to walk, she felt her life was back to normal. As progress diminished, dementia intensified. Although Mom showed a few symptoms of forgetfulness before her stroke, after the stroke her mental condition deteriorated dramatically. Like a thief in the night dementia took hold, robbing her of any chance to return to pre-stroke days of living on her own. This silent thief robs the brain of its healthy cells, leaving behind an altered perception of reality. As a result Emma could not understand why she couldn't go home; because after all, in her mind, she could walk and take care of herself.

This was a very painful time for me, watching my strong, independent and beautiful mother become confused and frightened, needing my brother and me to make it "all better". When she was transferred from the hospital to the rehabilitation center, she thought she could walk right out of her entrapment and return home. When I visited her, she would ask, "Can you drop me off at my house on your way home?" Or "Just take me across the bridge and I can walk home from there," or "Take me to the bus stop, so I can go home." Her home was a tiny two story with only one bathroom, which was on the second floor. The house would have to be retrofitted for Mom to be able to live on the first floor. And because my brother and I both lived so far away, who would monitor her care? Even if we were able to get a caregiver to come in every day, stay the night on occasion or live at the house, what would happen if that person could not come in one day or would suddenly quit? Those unpredictable situations would be a nightmare to handle.

The decision was made for us when we were told that because Mom was no longer making progress in rehab, Medicare would no longer pay for that facility and she would have to be placed in a long term permanent care arrangement.

My brother and I agreed that it was best for Mom to remain in the Pittsburgh area where she had friends who could come to visit, and of course we would come to visit frequently. The first facility recommended to us had no vacancies. Emma was then evaluated by an assisted living facility in the Pittsburgh area and we were persuaded that it would be a good fit for her. I succumbed to this persuasion because I wanted Mom to be as independent as she could be in her situation, trusting that this decision was a good one. This facility was not far from the home of a dear friend of hers. Andy moved some of her furniture and photographs into her room, trying to make her feel at home. This soon turned out to be the worst decision and a nightmare of a situation after only a couple of days following her arrival.

We showed her around to orient her to the new surroundings and explained to her what she should expect; but prior to leaving her for the first time in that new facility, I felt like I was abandoning my child on her first day of school or summer camp. She was clearly frightened and did not understand where she was or what was happening to her. Being left at summer camp is what I can relate to because it was what I experienced as a child and now the parent and child roles were reversed.

When I was 12 years old, and had never been away from home overnight before, I insisted on going away to summer camp for two weeks. By the end of the first week, I was desperately homesick. I hated everything about camp: the counselors, my bunkmate, the cold weather; everything was making me miserable. I just wanted to go home. After contacting my parents, they drove out to rescue me from that hell hole known as Camp Rosary. The assisted living home was Mom's hell hole, her Camp Rosary, from which she needed to be rescued. Emma fell a few times and after each fall had to be transported to the emergency room for evaluation. The home no longer wanted her for liability reasons. My mom was kicked out! It was obvious she needed more care and needed to be close to one of her children.

After much scrambling, we flew mom to Arlington Heights Illinois, my home town, to live at a long-term care facility which was just minutes from where I worked and lived. She had already been moved several times, and each time it was a traumatic experience. The disorientation and adjustment to new surroundings took their toll. We needed to make sure this was the last move and as much as we both wanted her to experience a more normal life that was not going to happen. The Lutheran Home provided twenty-four hour care, while she continued to express the need to go home to make sure her house was okay.

I felt compelled to visit her every day after work and on weekends. Many times my husband would come with me or be my surrogate. Her two granddaughters were still living in the area and would come by every once in a while. Because Mom was now further west, my brother was further away from her than before, but he and his wife would come for an entire weekend to visit at least once a month. Since she had no one else to come to visit, I was her primary caregiver. The terror in her eyes which I saw when leaving her in the nursing home in Pittsburgh remained during much of her stay in Arlington Heights. Many times she was terrified and pleaded for me to stay. When I needed to leave, I was neither prepared to deal with the situation nor immune to how it affected me. I would tense up, wanting to cry and scream. I would panic, not knowing how to react. This was my mother; how could I just abandon her? My heart would break every time we went through the push and pull of her dependency and my guilt for not being there 24/7. That look in my mother's eyes still haunts me today. During various phases of her declining mental state, she would disavow me as her daughter. I was her good girl friend because she viewed herself as a very young woman, so it was not possible for me to be her daughter. The first few times she said this was devastating and it took time, but I learned to roll with the phases and remarks.


Excerpted from "Letters from the Box in the Attic: A Story of Survival, Courage, and Love" by Barbara Serbinski Sipe. Copyright © 2018 by Barbara Serbinski Sipe. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Barbara Serbinski Sipe

Barbara Serbinski Sipe

Barbara Serbinski Sipe is a first generation Polish immigrant from a refugee resettlement camp in Great Britain. Barbara grew up loving history and this love became a passion especially when it involved World War II and specifically the European conflict. Ignited by the love of European history, the project, Letters from the Box in the Attic, a Story of Courage, Survival and Love is factually based on letters and documents discovered in the attic of her mother. Historical perspective is preserved when placing her mother’s letters and experiences into this narrative. Understanding why things happen in life and how they affect life are just as important as the events themselves, this is therefore the reason behind the extensive research and introspection found in this book. Letters from the Box in the Attic is told by her daughter, Barbara, tracing her mother’s journey from the Soviet invasion of Poland, to Soviet prison cells and eventual release from a Siberian labor camp. The journey continues through the deserts of the Middle East, to Italy, on to the shores of Great Britain and eventually to the United States. Barbara currently lives in Arlington Heights, IL with her husband Alan.

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