Rubin: A daughter who stayed, with no regrets

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
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Sonya Avakian with her mother, Arshalouse Avakian.

The first time Arshalouse Avakian probably should have died, it was 30 years ago and she had a stroke at work.

No, no, she told everyone, you’re busy. So she drove herself to the hospital as the right side of her face contorted and the left side of her mouth formed an off-kilter circle.

A nurse approached her with a thermometer, and even if she couldn’t smile, Avakian could laugh.

“Aim for the hole,” she said.

If you ask Sonya Avakian how she could do what she did — how she could change her plans and her life and eventually, her mother’s diapers, and hang on for three decades — that’s the first story she tells.

Through all the bad times, they could laugh. “She was always cracking them up,” Sonya says, “in the emergency room.”

This is actually Sonya’s story, not her mother’s, but they’ve been so intertwined it’s hard to tell them separately.

It’s Arshalouse who died in December, age 91, after eight strokes, five heart attacks, three pacemakers, a broken hip and a broken arm.

It’s Sonya who’s now 60, the same age as her mother when everything started to go sideways. It’s Sonya who never moved to Hollywood, never became a star, never had kids of her own.

It’s Sonya who found herself in a position many among us are in, were in, or fear we’ll be in — and who doesn’t think she did anything heroic or altruistic or even special.

“There was no decision to be made,” she says. “It had to be done.”

Now it’s over, and both she and her mother are free. There’s nothing to keep her in the decaying mobile home in Novi her mother bought on a whim when it seemed so novel and pristine.

California beckons: the water, the sunshine, the potential roles for someone who’s still an actress no matter how long it’s been since she had time for auditions.

All she has to do first is beat cancer.

Now, taking care of herself

Again: As far as Sonya is concerned, she did nothing worth cheering.

She can’t see why anyone would come to her for revelations or even advice, except for one piece of it — don’t forget to take care of yourself while you’re busy taking care of someone else.

She skipped a few colonoscopies, and now she’s scheduled for surgery next week. A friend advised her to make a list of questions for her doctor, but she only came up with two words.

“Now what?” she asked.

An obstacle pops up, you knock it down or find a way around it. Another stroke or heart attack or infirmity, you do the same thing. Ten years ago, she was actually going to make the move westward. She had served her time as the dutiful daughter in the post-divorce Armenian family.

“It’s about time,” said Arshalouse, who had been feeling relatively stable. Then, trying to help Sonya pack, she slipped out of her wheelchair.

That was the broken hip, and that was it for California dreaming.

Planning sunny days ahead

If Sonya’s most important role was caretaker, her most familiar was a nun with boxing gloves.

For five years, Sonya Avakian portrayed a nun in a series of commercials and bus placards for Channel 62.

In 1994, Channel 2 switched affiliation from CBS to Fox, and CBS migrated up the dial to Channel 62. Across five years of commercials, and on placards on the sides of buses, she acted out a reminder: “Punch 62!”

She stayed busy back then with industrial films, voice-overs, ads, the occasional movie or TV role, and product specialist jobs at the auto show.

Many of her friends in the business migrated to Los Angeles over the years. Some of them pop up at the Emmy Awards.

Meanwhile, she was tied to a schedule built around her mother’s meal times and medications. The last two years, she slept on a loveseat outside Arshalouse’s bedroom door, 90 minutes at a time.

“There’s this much jealousy,” she concedes, holding her fingers and thumb just far enough apart to fit a postcard home. “Maybe if I’d gone out there, it could have been me.”

Or maybe she’d have struggled to find work the way most actors do, all the while feeling like she belonged 2,000 miles away.

“It’s not a life I would have chosen,” Sonya says, but it’s not a life she regrets.

Besides, it’s not over yet — and the sun still shines in California.


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