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.

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Watercolor Vision

Nature Landscape

One of the things that has plagued me my whole life is myopia. As a child, I would pray day and night for a miracle, that I would wake up one morning and be able to see the pictures on my wall, the road signs, the faces far away — clearly, with my own eyes. I was embarrassed by my glasses. I hated them. Once I got contacts, I never wore glasses in public.

As an adult, I realized that we now have this procedure called LASIK. Corrective eye surgery? Yes, please. I don’t mind paying money. It’s still a miracle in my eyes. (No blatant pun intended.)

I’ve had several preliminary exams. Consequently, I haven’t been able to wear contacts much. I’m not embarrassed by my glasses anymore, but I’m not growing any fonder of them either. They’re fragile, uncomfortable, hopeless dirt collectors, and generally all-around annoying. And I worry about breaking them on my travels too. Having perfect vision would be wonderful!

On a beautiful day in this winter December month that refuses to act like its season, I took the cat for a walk (yes, I live with a cat that goes for walks like a dog). I took off my spectacles to rub my tired eyes, thinking, “Not much longer hopefully, and I’ll see clearly all the time.” And just before I replaced my glasses on my long, sharp nose (the other bane of my existence), I caught sight of the brilliant wash of blue sky, the splash of still-green grass, the grey smudge of creeping cat. I saw the world in a way I’ve never seen it before. It was rather beautiful. I have despised my weak eyes all my life, but suddenly, I wondered if I really wanted them fixed after all.

I mean, how many people are born with the ability to see the world like a living watercolor painting? I can change my sight at will, and step into a softer world where harshness is blurred and impressions, not details, are the important things. For the first time ever, I saw my near-sightedness not as a defect, but as a gift, and one I might not be ready to lose at that.

For every thing you gain, there is something you must give up. I suddenly have the crazy impulse to go around with my natural eyesight as much as possible, though probably not far beyond my house. I wouldn’t try to drive with watercolor vision, for example. Because if I have this surgery sometime in the near future, I will see the world just like everyone else.

All my life I’ve sought after a miracle, and now when it’s almost in my grasp, I start to question if it would make me any happier or better than I already am. Maybe I like myself this way.

I wish I could have taken a snapshot of what I saw to make me think these thoughts. But the photo would have been clear, and nothing like the work of art that I saw through these imperfect myopic eyes.

Poppies, Flowers

Reintegration or Living in Two Places at Once

Note: I wrote these on two different days. While trying to edit them down in to one post that I wasn’t sure I would ever actually publish, I pressed the button that I thought was “save draft”. It was not. I tried to frantically delete the post before anyone saw. No such luck.

I got enough feedback that I’ve decided to leave my less-than-perfect entries as they are (for posterity, or something). If nothing else they remind me that I’m an imperfect, scatter-brained, accident-prone girl, who obviously doesn’t know “publish” from “save draft”.

I have to laugh at myself a little. I considered these entries too raw and unpolished to be made public. But they do, however, show the progression of my mood honestly, albeit bluntly.

Oh, well. At least life will never be dull. Continue reading

Let Us Cross Over

In about 10 hours, I am leaving for Ukraine. I should probably sleep sometime between now and then. And finish packing. (No, I’m still not done.)

A few days ago, I looked up this phrase online, “now let us cross over”, thinking it was part of an old hymn or Scripture or something. I thought it might be a nice mantra to keep in mind for my trip, since I’m crossing over the ocean. What I found was not what I expected. What I found were the last words of Stonewall Jackson. After he realized the war was over, he spoke these words: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Those words seemed to me when I read them, a welcome into a place of peace, a safe haven, that state of mind when all the tension is gone from your body…like after a really good massage when you are so relaxed and loopy you almost seem drunk.

It made me think of summer, cool breezes, bird song, and wind through leaves. Lazy afternoons, sweet tea, and teenage dreams.

It gave me visions of paradise. A place without war. A place of rest. As if a whiff of memory still lingers on those words and I could smell it.

And then I read that Stonewall Jackson was shot and eventually killed by friendly fire just after speaking those words. Cheery thought, that… “Let us cross over” indeed.

As the time for my departure charges toward me like a raging bull, I feel strangely calm. Except for that time I thought I didn’t have proof of insurance. Then I felt like I was in a red outfit trapped with an angry bull. Other than that I’ve been fine. And I did find my insurance card, in case anyone was wondering.

I feel like I am going home.

But I also feel this is only the beginning, like walking through a doorway.

As though this is only a shadow of what is to come.

Tunnel of Love, Ukraine

Dedicated to my dad, Robert Sherman.