Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
CHAPTER
19

We were destined to gather once more and for the last time a few days later.

On the thirtieth of December, 1947, the Communist government forced my nephew, King Michael, to abdicate. On the thirty-first, early in the morning, driving through blinding snow and accompanied by Stefan, I went to see him to discuss what we were to do. We met on the roadside outside Bucharest—our cars standing in the whirling snow, drifts accumulating about them in the short hour that Michael and I talked in his car. Then we parted; Stefan and I went on to the capital, I to make contact with the government and to go to the Ministry of Health. (see I Live Again page 349)

The Communist government had agreed that my family and I could remain in Romania as private citizens if we wished, but the course of events during the next few days proved to me the hopelessness of expecting that we would ever be permitted the decent retirement and privacy of this status. Affront, surveillance and studied insult to me and to the family were continual. I knew that this situation could not be endured and would become even more outrageous. I knew now that there was no safety for my children in Romania. My work at Bran was at an end: I knew that we, too, must go into exile.

Stefan and I were in Bucharest for six days. There were maddening delays and unsatisfactory interviews with evasive government officials. There was the constant racking uncertainty as to what would happen next.

Finally I was permitted to see Madame Doctor Bagdasar, the Minister of Public Health. A brilliant physician herself, she had recently replaced her husband as Minister. He had been a neurosurgeon, one of the two best in Romania, and he served as Communist Minister of Health for several years. A short while ago he had died.

I knew them only slightly, for all my business with the Ministry had been done through Dr. X. I often wondered, however, how these fine, intelligent people found themselves in a company of persons so unlike their own caliber as the Communist party. The truth was, they had been Socialists, and when the Communists took over the government they took over all political parties as well, except the historical parties. We have a saying, "When you join the hora, you have to go on dancing." The Bagdasars found themselves in a political hora and, like many others of that time, they dared not cease dancing.

Madame Doctor Bagdasar was a tall, good-looking woman with fair hair and blue eyes. She was always simply and expensively dressed in the finest of taste, and she seemed surrounded with an aura of stern frigidity which made her very unapproachable. I had never felt the slightest bond of interest or sympathy between us.

Dr. X had retired in November and gone to his home in Cluj. I no longer had his loyalty and his influence in the Ministry to rely upon, but now, in this crisis, I had to assure the continuance of my hospital as far as was in my power to do so. I went to her.

To my surprise, she met Stefan and me with strong, warm handclasps. Without formalities she said, simply and directly, "Domnitza Ileana, believe me, except for the death of my husband, this is the most tragic event of my life."

Tears stood in her eyes. I said nothing, in surfeit of feeling and in surprise at her frankness.

"But what can we do?" She went on distractedly as we sat down together. "This seems the way it must be. I tell you, Domnitza—and I am in a position to speak, for I have lived and worked in hospitals much of my life—you are the best nurse I know of, this side of the Atlantic. Bran needs you terribly; this country needs you."

I nodded, staring at her, the quick-rising tears behind my eyes forbidding me to speak, or they would flood. To my astonishment I discovered that this woman who had seemed so cold and disinterested, so remote, felt as keenly as I, and she was just as eager and intense.

"I can't help you—you know that," she went on. "But I promise you this: I will protect your hospital and defend your work. I will see that it is carried on, just as you have done."

I felt suddenly numb, drained, in relief that after so many days of anxious grief for my beloved hospital, Spitalul Inima Reginei had found a champion and a guardian.

"Thank you, Dr. Bagdasar," I said. "It will mean so much to me to know that. The hospital has been very dear to me . . ."

I stopped, my voice trailing away. I was so very tired—I could find no words to go on. Then I knew that I must tell this woman about the hospital, since she was so wholeheartedly and voluntarily accepting its trust. I must force myself to collect the necessary words, so I could make her know that Spitalul Inima Reginei was far more than merely a place for people to come to be cured—that it was a cherished idea, an ideal. I rallied my wits and began to speak.

"You see," I said, "my intention was to have good nursing care and comfort brought to those who needed it and have never had it. I wanted my hospital to be a place of peace and rest to people, especially to our peasant women who work so hard and have never known comfort. I wanted healing to be there, for the sake of healing. I wanted to see the human body treated with respect, not because of whom it belonged to but because it housed a living soul. I wanted our patients to be human beings, not cases, each one with his or her own individual problems, physical and personal. I wanted the peace and happiness of our house to rest and restore their minds and spirits while our surgical skill and good nursing healed their physical afflictions.

"To me, the hospital's work is more than saving life and relieving pain. I have striven to touch the Intangible through love and service to suffering humanity. That is why it has never mattered to me who my patient was, and now in this moment as I look back I can tell you sincerely that in spite of the many inevitable disagreeable experiences, I discovered something lovable and good in them all. Do you understand?"

She had listened closely to me, watching my face. Now she shook her head.

"No, I don't, not entirely," she said. "Frankly, I have always been more interested in the case than in the patient. You have much more love of people than I—I see why you are such a good nurse."

"Thank you for saying that."

"I never thought I would feel this way," she said in a puzzled way. She hesitated, her handsome face troubled, and then went on. "I wish I might have known you better, Domnitza Ileana. Perhaps I could have learned to understand your way; perhaps I need to know it, for I see the amazing, visible results of it in your hospital and the work you have done there.

"And now you have told me how you did it—the motive and the spirit behind all your toil and your remarkable achievements. I wish I could really understand you. Tell me, do all your staff members feel this way?"

I nodded. "More or less, as they are able to. They pick it up from the others. It is very contagious!" I laughed a little despite my anxiety.

"You have created an admirable, incredible thing," she said. "We all know that there is no other hospital like Spitalul Inima Reginei in the country."

"I wish you and I might have been friends," I told her impulsively.

"We have begun too late," she sighed. "We meet for a few moments only to part—but at least we part friends." She smiled at me, her frosty face lighting. "Do we not?"

"Yes, indeed we are friends," I answered warmly. "Even though we have never had a chance to know each other. God bless and help you, Dr. Bagdasar."

"I'm afraid that blessings don't mean anything to me, Domnitza," she said. "I can't believe that they help very much. But they mean a lot to you—so thank you."

I did not bother to hide my tears or even to wipe them away. Tears were the natural means of expression in those hours, those days. And so many more were yet to flow.

We clasped hands as we rose, and we even smiled. "La revedere—au revoir."

"La revedere," although we knew we would never see each other again.

I left the Ministry of Health for the last time, and Stefan and I drove home to Bran through the heavy snow, up the mountains, through the deeply drifted pass and down into Transylvania, through Brasov and to Bran.

My family was anxiously waiting for me. I had telephoned them frequently from Bucharest, but we had never dared to talk frankly. I found that guards had been placed about the house in the village where we lived in the winter, and the castle had been sealed until my return. No packing had been permitted until I got back. I called my household together in my sitting room and told them that we were forced to leave the country. We had twenty-four hours in which to pack and leave Bran.

We set about packing our possessions, supervised closely by the Communist commission, who were stationed in the house until we left, and who watched our every move. We were not allowed to be alone for a moment, and I had to ask permission of them for each one of my belongings that I packed.

All afternoon I methodically and mechanically did the necessary things, outwardly calm, staving off the terrible hour I knew must come—the hour of parting from Spitalul Inima Reginei.

I had thought to go there alone, then I remembered my mother's belief that children should be taught to face the hard things of life in order to meet it triumphantly. So I took my six with me.

It was twilight when we started out, going along the familiar road by the river. The children were subdued and silent; the younger ones clung to the skirts of my big military coat. It was bitterly cold, and a biting wind wailed through the valley, stinging my face and forcing tears into my eyes that froze on my eyelashes and on my cheeks. I thrust my hands deep into my pockets and tried to swallow the mounting, aching lump in my throat.

We turned off the road and onto the bridge. Our footsteps sounded hollow as we crossed it, and the little chapel in the courtyard looked forlorn and very unfinished under its weighty cap of snow. We paused there a moment, surveying it; behind it, the hospital was shadowy in the gathering dusk as if already receding into a dream of yesterday. I realized achingly that the familiar present was newly become part of my past. It looked it. I felt it. I was alone, already in the unknown, and I knew the sharp edge of fear.

I stood, irresolute, the children silent and close about me. I longed to run away from this intolerable moment. I wanted to shriek aloud my pain and despair. This, I could not endure! I turned my face toward the hospital and, digging my nails into my chilly palms, I forced myself across the yard and up the steps. I opened the door and we went in, down the empty corridor and into the warm staff dining room.

My co-workers were expecting me. They had assembled there, and they lined the walls, silent, their faces dull with apprehension, their eyes fastened upon me so intently that I had the queer feeling that their gaze was holding me up, keeping me upright and on my feet.

There stood Puscariu, far back in the shadow, tall, a little crooked, his eyes sad and bewildered and peering shortsightedly at me through familiar, heavy horn-rimmed spectacles; Dr. John, infinite pity and love in his long, thin face; Dr. Lucy, as always behind him, sweet and tender; Captain Boeru, trying to look manly, but his grief showing through his grimness; Badillo, the elfishness gone from his face that was suddenly grown older; heavy shadows of concern smudged it so that he looked almost a stranger as I glanced at him. But his eyes were still sharp and blue, and they waited, fixed upon me.

Standing next to him was Maria, clasping her trembling hands tightly to steady them, across her round stomach, her moonface pale and drooping in despair; Anna, limp and fearful, with losef; loana, her brown eyes large and scared, her hand in Vasile's, who looked grave and stern—what a fine face he had!—Barbu, the gardener, cold sober with emotion, sad and lost, rubbing his gnarled hands hopelessly together; Max, his merry face grown serious and his whole soul in his pained eyes, and all the others. In silence we faced each other; there was no word, not a sound except the ticking of the clock. It filled the room and beat upon me. The last moments of Spitalul Inima Reginei were racing by.

My tongue clove to the dry roof of my mouth and I couldn't speak. Somehow, I told myself, I must find my voice; comfort must come from somewhere for these dear people of mine. But there was such pain in me that I was conscious of nothing else, least of all, words. Then I heard my voice speaking:

"We have gone a long way together, you all and I; we have worked together, we have loved and differed, sometimes quarreled, hoped, succeeded and failed. We have shared an ideal which we have served lovingly and faithfully. Today we part. What tomorrow will bring we have no way of knowing, but this hour belongs to us—now we are still together.

"Never have I felt nearer to you nor have you been dearer to me than at this moment. I want to thank you all from the depths of my heart for your faithfulness, your co-operation, your forbearance with me in my demands. I have tried very hard, always, to do the right thing. You doctors have been wonderful in the way you have worked with never-failing devotion. You have made my dream of the hospital a reality. Never can I thank you enough.

"As for you, my dearest nurses, you all have been so close to me; we have shared, and helped, and taught each other so very much; hour by hour, day by day, we have gained in experience and knowledge. To you I leave the heritage of my aspirations for the nursing profession in Romania. I lay it in your hands. You must carry on where I am leaving off. My hands are of no more use here. I shall have to turn them to other things, somewhere else, but I am not afraid for my hospital, for I am leaving it in your hands."

I turned my face to the others. "And you, dear friends, who have helped the hospital to run smoothly, from its administration to carrying out all the homely details, thank you for your faithfulness, your devotion, upon which all the rest was dependent. I shall never forget any of you."

I went on: "Two things I would have you all remember: first, that we built this hospital in memory of my mother, your Queen, and until today it bore the name of her heart. That heart was yours as long as she lived. Do not let her memory die. And secondly, above all remember that we have worked in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that His blessing has been upon this house and upon us from the start, in many and wonderful ways. Never forget that you are in His care, that His blessing will continue upon this work and on us all."

No one was ashamed of his tears. We wept and found release in weeping. As I finished speaking I turned and went out of the room with my children, toward the maternity ward. The staff followed me.

Here I began my pilgrimage of farewells. I went to each bed and parted personally and affectionately from every woman in turn. Some were calm, others wept and wailed openly. They feared being left to their fate. Who, when I left, would care for them, interpret their needs, pay the bills and tell them what to do? Who would be the next master here, who would care about them and what became of them? Their despair and their helplessness wrung my heart. I gave them what assurance I could. Over and over again their words, full of fear and dependency, tore my heart to shreds.

The worst parting was from Rosa, who abandoned her usual calm in hysterics of despair. She flung herself into my arms, crying and beating her head against my breast. I marshaled my remaining strength to summon the healing influence I had had over her in her hours of pain. I stroked her disheveled hair and talked soothingly to her. Finally she quieted, and we clung together, she, the peasant's daughter, and I, the King's daughter, united in our common wrench of parting.

"You must be brave, dear Rosa," I whispered. "You must be strong. You must bear witness to your healing as I will to your courage and strength wherever I am. We have much to give in memory of each other, Rosa, dear Rosa."

"Yes, Domnitza draga, I'll try—I will be brave," she sobbed, her face hidden against me. "I shall not forget you ever. God bless you always and always." Reaching up, she made the sign of the cross on my forehead, and I disentangled myself from her frantic clinging embrace and left her.

An ordeal awaited me when I went to the children's ward. They ran to me shouting and squealing with joy, tumbling over each other to get to Mama Domnitza first. Their arms clung about my neck, they pressed loving wet lips upon my tearstained face, their warm little bodies snuggled up against me, they laughed with delight, and their sweet high voices were a chorus of excited prattle and chatter. Knowing it was for the last time, I wanted to die!

Finally I tore myself away from them, calling out determinedly cheerful good nights, and went on to the soldiers' wards. They tried to be manful but one by one they broke down and wept, or turned silent and gruff as is the way with men who seek to avoid their own tears. One, sobbing, fell to his knees before me and buried his face in my apron. It was wet and crumpled with his tears when I finished comforting him and turned away.

Then on to the other wards, to more words of farewell, of pain and despair. I felt that I could endure no more, react no more, yet with each leave-taking I responded to the full measure of my people's grief, each time fresh and poignant and overpowering. How true the Romanian saying: "Oh Lord, give not to man all he can endure!"

At last, the wards lay behind me, and I found myself at the door of the operating room. I went inside—it lay waiting for me, white and shining, the polished instruments arranged in neat rows in their glass cases. Each bright tool had its story for me, nothing had been obtained easily, each one represented effort, a gift, a sacrifice on the part of someone. I ran my hand lovingly over the operating table and then leaned heavily upon it in a sudden searing wave of grief, realizing anew that I would never stand there again, nor would my hands hold these instruments. I would never again be part of the operating team; the shared strain and struggle to outwit disease and death, the unity of our skill was mine no more.

"Oh, Radu," I cried, throwing myself into Puscariu's arms, "don't forget me, quite, when you stand here working—remember me!"

He held me tightly and wordlessly, not trusting himself to speak, and I forced myself to turn away from him, back to the others. I led the way to the shadowy, dim waiting room, lit only by the vigil light which burned peacefully under the icon. I stood before it, not quite knowing what to do next. The others gathered silently around me, doctors, nurses, maids, a few patients. I steadied my voice.

"There is nothing more I can say," I told them. "Words have ceased to mean anything now. Let us pray together before I go."

We fell to our knees; one of the nurses repeated a prayer for a blessing on our parting. She ended with the Lord's Prayer, and we joined her. Then a silence fell upon us, deep and embracing, strangely comforting. Finally I rose wordlessly, the children following me, and we went to the door. No one else moved. Some heads raised and eyes watched us; other heads remained bowed low as if in a trance of grief. I opened the door, the children passed through it and I followed. I closed the door behind me, on the life behind me.

I had come to the end of this road. I leaned against the door, looking out into the night, loath to take the step that would separate me finally from this life which I knew and loved. For ahead of me in the dark stretched another road, and its beginning was the next step I would take. I knew the road was long, long—it was dangerous and lonely and full of pain; perhaps death was there. It led only God knew where. I learned in that moment that one can die and yet remain alive.

The children had gone on a few steps and waited for me, turning to look back, wondering why I waited on the doorstep. They were frightened by this upheaval in our lives, silent with what they had witnessed, and the barrage of emotion they had passed through, hardly understanding.

I joined them, and we went together across the courtyard for the last time, the frozen gravel crunching familiarly under our feet, past the dark unfinished chapel, across the echoing bridge, and started down the wintry, dark road. . . .