Unfinished Business

My mother asked me to look up an old friend of hers before I left for Ukraine in September 2012. We met Kitty on that fateful first trip in November 2002, and lost touch with her not long after. Fortunately, this is an age of technology, information, and connection. One quick search and I found her in less than 5 minutes. Years had fallen prey to those bittersweet words “lost touch”, years during which I had simply never thought to look.

I sent a message to Kitty. You know the kind: Hello. Remember me? Mom sends love. I’m coming to Kyiv. Can we meet?

She was thrilled. Of course, she wanted to meet.

Yaroslav the Wise

Me with Kitty and Yaroslav the Wise, Golden Gates

One morning in Kyiv, Kitty called me, waking me out of a deep slumber. Communication was always an adventure of its own. And this time was no different. Between my broken Russian, my morning stupor, and her few words of English, we were able to arrange a meeting time and place. She took a bus down from Chernihiv and met me by the Golden Gates.

I wasn’t sure I would recognize her after 10 years. But every so often life brings you those rare, beautiful, and perfect moments. Because when I saw her, I knew it was her. I knew it was her and I was certain. She said I looked exactly the same. We talked and hugged and walked arm in arm down the street. I swore to myself the next time I saw her I would be fluent so that we could talk about everything. 

She had been my mother’s friend, true, but as my mom’s emissary and bearer of gifts, Kitty and I discovered that we shared something that gave us a common bond: love for my mother. In a way, that sort of made us sisters.

Mom had sent her a picture before they lost touch. Kitty had kept it framed so she would remember always, that awful picture where her eyes were closed. The memory of that time and place was so dear to her; it kept her going. She never thought she would hear from me or my mother again. She thought that we were lost forever.

Kitty, 17, and, my mother, Rita. This is the picture Kitty kept in a frame.

Kitty, 17, and, my mother, Rita. This is the picture Kitty kept in a frame.

And yet here we sat in an Italian/Sushi place in Kyiv, Ukraine, reunited and sending good thoughts to Mom, who was far away and probably sleeping soundly in America. Kitty said that when she received my message she cried buckets, tears just running down her face.

Kitty and Me

Kitty, 27, and me, 25. I never realized until I posted this, how much I look like my mom. Spooky!

But as often as life gives you little moments of bliss, it will also contrive to be cruel.

We rode the metro together, both headed for home. I was off to my flat, Kitty to her bus. I was promising to come back soon and bring my mother; she was begging me to do so with tears in her eyes.

Then it was my stop. Levoberezhna.

A fierce hug. A swift good-bye. And I was out of the train car. I could see her through the window. We waved as the doors closed, a sad farewell through the smudged glass.

I’ve noticed that Ukrainians generally don’t do prolonged good-byes. None of this: “No, you hang up. No, YOU hang up! No, you…” Just “see you” and gone. Sometimes it’s better to simply walk away. But I waited. And then I understood a little better the value of a swift good-bye.

When you say good-bye to someone through a train window, you can see them, you can smile, you can wave, you can cry, but it doesn’t change anything. You can’t reach them, speak to them, or hold them. You can only wait for the inevitable. And then suddenly, with a rush of wind snatching at your hair and clothes, they are gone. You blink and your loved one is vanished. And you all you can do is just stand there on the empty platform.

So I stood there, left behind, alone in a sea of people, who didn’t know and didn’t care who I was, who Kitty was, or about our story. And that’s the thing about Ukraine: no one pays you any mind, whether you’re waving a sad farewell through a train window, or crying alone on a street corner.

Goodbyes on a train are the worst.

For all I know, when the subway train took Kitty away, it might well have taken her away forever. Phone numbers change. Profiles deactivate. And long-lost loved ones are swept back into the oblivion they emerged from, as unreachable as ever before.

Sometimes I feel like I am always losing people, even as soon as I find them.

It makes me wonder, what’s the point? People come and go. They waltz in from the wings onto the stage of life, and then they dance right on through and off the other. Would it be any better, if they never danced through my life at all? Friendships that seem strong can shatter into pieces. Grudges can start with only one little misunderstanding. This flood of time can sweep someone out of arms reach in an instant, and you’ll find yourself like I did: alone at a station, knowing you’ll never see them again, but hoping. Always hoping.

What else can I do, but hope? Maybe there will come a day when I won’t be the only one looking, and I’ll be the one found.

Maybe there is no point. Maybe finding and losing people is just a part of life I need to accept. But suppose for a moment that every person who passes through our lives does so for a reason, to teach us something. What if we are given heartbreak in order to make us wise? What if we lose people in order to teach us to appreciate what we have while we have it, and then let go? What if we endure pain so that we will learn compassion? What if without these things, we would have no capacity for happiness or joy? Think of a sunny day, how much more precious that warm sunlight is after a week of cold, grey rain.

Kitty once wrote to my mother, and I feel she said it best: “Unbearable things happen in life, but you keep living — to see, to hear, to understand — and one day, life turns around and greets you again with a smile.”

At the end of the day, lost or found, I am one heartbreak closer to that smile.

This is the Fun Part

“How do you tell if a Ukrainian boy likes you? I don’t understand the boys here at all,” I whined to one of my roommates, Anna.

I was about three weeks into my trip, and stressing about relationships, obviously, or the lack of them. America has labored unceasingly to teach me that if you are over 25, single, and childless, there is something wrong with you. Hence I was begging Anna to explain how these things work in Ukraine, as they seemed incomprehensible and I was convinced that Ukrainian guys were not interested in me at all.

Looking back, I don’t know why I wasted brain power on the thought. I didn’t really want a boyfriend, maybe only to feel popular.

Anna gave me a piece of advice that has proved to be one of the most important things anyone has ever said to me.

“Just relax,” she said sagely. “Besides, maybe it was just the magic of the night, a foreign language, being in a different country. You don’t know. Time will tell. If something is going to happen, it will happen. So you don’t need to worry. Just relax and enjoy it. If you’re falling in love, this is the fun part.”

I kept forgetting that she was a few years younger than me. I can still hear her voice like an echo:

If you’re falling in love, this is the fun part.

I didn’t want to spend my time in Ukraine worrying over boys and relationships. I wanted to be happy, fancy-free, to see and do everything, speak Russian, and generally be on holiday and enjoy myself.

She was right after all. I had been beguiled by the night, a pair of pretty eyes, and the music of a beautiful language. Somewhere along the way, without even knowing, I fell in love.

I realized it walking down Tychyny street one day. I was so excited about discovering new words and understanding, and how incredible it was to be in a foreign country with all the language skills of a two-year-old. I almost missed it. I was pondering the process of breaking through the language barrier, chipping away at it little by little, word by word, when suddenly, I knew that I would have no do-overs. I would never pass this way again. Once I broke through the language barrier, I couldn’t go back and do it over again. So right there on a little sidewalk in the left bank in the big city of Kyiv, Ukraine, I made up my mind to enjoy the process as much as I possibly could, while I tried to conquer the city and the Ukrainian/Russian language. Anna’s words came back to me with a crash and the equivalent force of a falling grand piano: “This is the fun part.”

It stopped me dead in my tracks, stunned.

Then I knew. I was in love! I was in love the way you love someone you can’t stand. You fight. You argue. You quarrel. They make you angry. They make you crazy. They make you mad. Until one day you wake up and you realize how angry crazy madly you love them, no matter how bad it gets. And the rest is history, or so they say.

Of course, Anna and I had been talking about a boy. And she had been absolutely right. Only, it wasn’t a boy I fell in love with. It was Ukraine, Kyiv, that place and time. I fell in love with life and the unhindered living of it.

I didn’t have to worry about how to make that “special someone” like me, or if that “special someone” was the “right special someone”. Suddenly, it just didn’t matter. I saw everything clearly. For once, it was simple.

Love is not a real-life game of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, though a lot of people treat it that way. To pin all of my hopes for happiness on someone else, or hang my dreams on their fragile wings, and then try to make them feel the same, is an unfair exercise in futility and a dangerous one.

It seems to me that people generally believe they must have a significant other in their lives to be happy. But I protest. Hearts are far too precious treasures to leave at just anyone’s mercy. Why had I ever thought I would find happiness by doing just that?

I don’t mean that I stopped wanting someone special in my life; I just stopped thinking that I had to have someone.

I wrote a besotted love letter in my journal, one stormy night not long after that conversation with Anna:

“I got off my bus early and walked home. I like to do this sometimes, because it helps me collect my thoughts. Or if I’m not quite ready to see a flat full of people. But this time, I got off because it was raining gently, I thought, and as I walked it got more and more, until I was laughing up at the Kyiv night sky, for sheer joy, because I realized that now I’ve seen Kyiv in so many moods, not all maybe, but I love her in all of them.

“Kyiv to me is like a woman or a person. You know, the ones you meet [with whom] at first you don’t get along. You fight, you humph, you disagree, you torment. And then one day you wake up and realize how crazy madly you are in love with them and how boring your life would be without them. Kyiv is maybe not the woman you would marry and raise kids with, but she’s the one you judge all other women by, the one you never forget. Kyiv is that affair to remember, the one you never quite get over. I laughed at the rain, because I’ve seen Kyiv sleepy, quiet and still, drunk, hungover, chilly, and warm, depressed, and wild, hurried, and bored, angry, and tender. I laughed because if by some chance this is the only time I ever spend with Kyiv again, I wanted to let her know that I enjoy every minute. That I love Kyiv in all her moods.

“Kyiv is that rare person you meet once in lifetime that you love so much that it doesn’t matter if they love you back. It’s as though after 3 weeks in Kyiv, breathing her air, eating her food, meeting her people, and drinking her beer, has spread Ukraine throughout my system, my cells, my blood. She’s under my skin and in my heart. It’s as though we finally stopped fighting. Maybe we can at least be friends. I can not tell you in any language how alive I felt on this night, sharing Ukraine with people, and walking, feeling her flow all around and through me.

“I can’t imagine, when I write such things with such emotion, admiration, and tenderness, what it will be [like] to go back [to America].

“Ukraine is not for the faint of heart, but she’s worth it. We are alike, she and I.

“Someday I hope someone loves me the way I love Kyiv, Ukraine.”