When Nadya thinks of her sister Vera, she thinks of fields of sunflowers. She seeks these out at times among her many hikes and frequently dreams of them. It is in these dreams that Vera comes for a visit.
The story of Nadya and Vera Carlson-Bowen reads like a Hollywood movie script, perhaps the backstory of a spy or superhero; two little girls in an orphanage in St. Petersburgh Russia, who were inseparable but did not know at the time they were twins.
There was no shortage of orphanages in Russia in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nadya’s memories of that time were beautiful buildings, small rooms, golden beds and an ever-present cold (St. Petersburgh is the same latitude as Helsinki, Finland).
Life wasn’t harsh, but it was an orphanage in St. Petersburgh after all. The children were taught to recite poetry and to remember and recite long Russian songs. To maintain the children’s physical health, the adults running the orphanage would toughen them up by dunking their heads in a freezing cold tub of water.
All that changed in 1995 when the two five year olds were adopted by a family from San Jose California. After what she retells as a harrowing odyssey of paperwork and two toddlers on a series of flights, one of which was fourteen hours, the girls landed in America.
The transition for two five-year-olds from an orphanage in the former Soviet Union to the suburbs of San Jose was a bit jarring. Nadya and Vera had never slept in a room with just one other person; the number was usually about twenty-five girls. Leaving the structured and regimented life came with hiccups, but the girls would adapt. At first, they only spoke Russian (assuming everyone else did as well), but after a time (and hundreds of hours of Disney) they adapted to English.
At the age of ten, the girls’ growing love of soccer would be galvanized when their dad took them to the airport to see the United States women’s soccer team and they got to meet their idol, Brandi Chastain. Soccer would remain a driving force in their lives and a connection as in their teen years some of their interests began to diverge.
As they went off to college, soccer remained a focus and both girls would learn to deal with playing through injuries and living with the bumps and bruises that came with being an athlete.
When Vera began to have symptoms, she shrugged them off the same way she had learned to deal with soccer injuries. She began to see blood in her stool and would have bloating in her abdomen. Believing there were issues with her ovaries, she underwent surgery to remove one and to drain fluid from her abdomen. Doctors then believed that perhaps she had stomach cancer, and additional surgeries were performed.
When they found a tumor in her colon – the diagnosis was clear. Vera was a stage IV colorectal cancer patient. It was April of 2015. She was twenty-five.
Nadya was devastated.
Vera would begin treatment immediately and was in and out of the hospital for a time. The twin connection between the two women was strong and even as Nadya would look out for Vera, Vera would also be looking out for the emotional well-being of her twin. On exceptionally bad days, she would ask Nadya to contact her through text or phone, to save her any emotional pain that may come with seeing her condition.
Vera’s condition would fluctuate over the next few months. At times she was able to play several soccer games a week and keep a working schedule as a waitress. The community rallied to her support and there was even an in-hospital visit from their idols Marlene Bjornsrud (former General Manager of the Cyber Rays) and Brandi Chastain.
The sisters would have a final trip to Disneyland with their mom before Vera would pass away after eight months of treatment.
After taking time to recover from the loss, Nadya would work towards advocacy. After a Relay for Life, she decided it was time to tell their story. Her book, Finding Faith and Hope (English for Nadya and Vera) is that story.
Nadya works to support other caregivers with her story and she keeps her twin sister’s spirit with her whether she is playing or coaching soccer or just going on a hike. And whenever possible, she visits a field of sunflowers.