February 24, 2022, a little after 12 noon
That first day of the full-scale Russian invasion was one of contradictory extremes for us. The kids and I spent the first half of the day mostly alone in a basement, sheltering in place because of repeated air raid sirens in the morning. Then, shortly after noon, one of my brothers-in-law Jon came and found us. He was accompanied by a good friend, the Ukrainian pastor of the church that my husband and I had planted in this city fourteen years earlier. No words were necessary or even possible. We just held each other, tears in our eyes, drawing comfort from each other’s presence.
Jon took the kids and me to his apartment, and we spent the rest of the day there. The cousins played, and the adults talked. Jon’s wife Stephanie and I made food and fed everyone at the appropriate times. In some ways, it felt a lot like any other occasion when we had spent time together, with the major difference that we were all aware of the crisis going on elsewhere in the country, and much of our conversation hinged on that. But for those few hours, we were able to assume a semblance of normalcy, hanging out and talking over cups of tea.
None of us had decided if we would stay or evacuate. Jon floated the idea of driving Stephanie and their six kids to Poland in their 9-seat van and then coming back to get me and my kids. Oddly uncertain without my husband, keenly aware of my dependence on others, and feeling like a beggar because of my lack of a vehicle, I simply nodded my assent and said, “Okay,” even though the plan made me vaguely uneasy. But who was I to object to the offer? Beggars can’t be choosers.
As the kids’ bedtimes arrived, Jon drove us back to the place where we were staying. I went through the bedtime routine, and once everyone was ready, I called a meeting in our room on the fourth floor. I explained to all the boys what the air raid sirens meant and why it was so important that we all get to the basement quickly if the sirens started again. I had the older kids gather all of our coats and shoes into two large shopping bags that I entrusted to my 13-year-old son, a serious and thoughtful boy who operates well under pressure. I explained that we were not going to waste time putting on coats and shoes before getting to safety. In the event of an air-raid siren, his job was to get these bags to the basement. My 11-year-old, who has a very tender heart for little kids, was assigned the task of helping his 5-year-old brother get quickly and safely down the stairs. The only responsibility I gave to my eldest was to get himself to the basement along with the rest of us. After the morning’s fiasco, I figured I’d better not ask anything extra of him. The 8-year-old also had no other responsibilities besides getting himself quickly to safety. I would carry the 3-year-old if needed.
After I explained the plan, I had all the boys explain it back to me until I was satisfied that each boy knew what he was supposed to do. I wanted to do an actual drill, but as it was well past the little boys’ bedtime, I contented myself with this verbal version of a drill. After that, we prayed together and said goodnight, and the three big boys went downstairs to their room. I tucked the little boys into bed in my room. It had been a big day, it was late, and they fell asleep almost immediately. Having slept so little the previous night, I was looking forward to going to sleep myself, but that was not to be. I had barely had time to notice that the little boys were all asleep before I heard the now familiar sound of the air-raid siren outside! I hadn’t even turned out the light in our room yet.
Groaning inwardly, I moved to wake the little boys. For having fallen asleep only minutes before, they were surprisingly difficult to rouse, but once they were awake enough to understand the situation, they sprang into action. I scooped up the 3-year-old in my arms, and the four of us headed downstairs to the older boys’ room. They were already out of bed and waiting for us, the 13-year-old holding the bags with our coats and shoes. We quickly walked down the remaining two flights of stairs in an orderly fashion, went outside, down the exterior stairs to the basement, entered the code on the electronic keypad, and got into the basement. Before long, others began to join us, evacuees who had arrived from other parts of Ukraine during the day—but we were the first. Despite being housed on the two top floors of the building, my six boys and I were the first ones to make it to the bomb shelter. I was so proud of them!
Using some of the blankets that the kind lady had brought to us while we sheltered in the basement that morning, I helped the boys get comfortable on the floor next to a wall—as far away as possible from the small windows located at ceiling level along one side of the room. Someone got out a guitar, and someone else got a cajon, and soon there was a lively concert of worship music going on. It drowned out the sound of the sirens and completely changed the atmosphere in that crowded basement. It was immensely comforting, but I wasn’t able simply to surrender to the pull of the music. I couldn’t help remembering everything I had ever read about nighttime air raids, and I realized that someone needed to turn out the lights, so I shouted over the music, “I’m turning out the lights now!”
Once I had done that, I immediately remembered that I had forgotten to turn off the lights in my 4th-floor bedroom, which had skylights! I deliberated for a moment and then decided that I should quickly run upstairs to shut them off. I figured the sirens gave enough advance warning to give me time to run up to the fourth floor, shut off the lights, and dash back down to the basement. I knelt next to my 13-year-old and explained the plan to him, speaking loudly into his ear over the music. I assured him that if at any time I felt like it wasn’t safe, I would return to the basement immediately, without going all the way to the fourth floor.
Before leaving, I thought I should tell another adult what I was planning. So I approached the one person I recognized, a man whom I had met in the kitchen while cooking dinner one day, and he immediately offered to come with me. We quickly left the basement and hurried back into the building. We were shocked to find lights burning brightly in multiple rooms on every floor! Working together, we quickly moved through the the entire building, shutting off every light. Panting with exertion, our mission accomplished, we exited the building—only to be dazzled by still another light coming from overhead. Craning our necks in confusion, we searched for the source. It was a floodlight attached to the top of a crane at a construction site across the street! We laughed and shrugged. We had done our best and would have to trust God for the rest.
The worship concert was still going strong in the basement, and I was able to relax a bit and join everyone in praising God. After a while, they stopped playing, and someone said, “It’s probably safe to go back to bed.” My little kids had already fallen back to sleep, and as I contemplated waking them, dragging them upstairs, putting them to bed again, and then possibly being awakened by another siren, I decided that we would all get a lot more rest in the basement. So as people started to disperse, I announced that I was going to stay put with my kids. Several of the men immediately offered to move a couch over to us, away from the wall with the little windows by the ceiling. While they were getting us set up, other people started to rethink their plans. I think every person staying in that building ended up spending the night in the basement with us. All the couches were moved over to the far wall, those that could be were transformed into beds, blankets were distributed, and someone brought pillows. Before long, everyone settled in for the night, and a chorus of snoring soon filled the basement.
I was lying cross-ways on a couch bed that I was sharing with three other adults. I didn’t even know their names. We were strangers thrown together by the events of this horrific day. Despite my exhaustion, sleep was far from me. Now that I didn’t have the care of the children to distract me, I was face-to-face with my profound worry for my husband’s safety. George was still in Kyiv and was planning to leave our apartment at 6:00 am—in violation of the curfew—to find a way to somehow traverse half of the city to catch his ride out of the capital and west towards us.
Lying there in the darkness, afraid to move lest I disturb the person lying right next to me, I battled the fear that threatened to strangle my spirit. What if George was mistaken for a Russian collaborator and shot as a result of violating the curfew? Or what if he never made it out of the city? Would the Russians succeed in taking Kyiv? If that happened, what would happen to Americans still left in the capital? Was his name on a Russian hit list? What if he did escape the city, only to become a war casualty on the open highway?
Around 1:30 am I texted George, “I love you. If I never see you again, I just want you to know that you’ve been a better husband than I could ever have imagined.”
He wrote back right away, “I love you too! You have been an amazing wife too. But I’m sure we will see each other again!”
“I hope so,” I responded. If we lost communication, we had already agreed that we would both make our way to Budapest, Hungary and meet up at the home of a friend there.
As usual, I was convinced the worst could happen to us, and he was certain it wouldn’t. Throughout the watches of that night, I peered into a future where I was a widow, and I tried to develop a plan of action for my worst-case scenario. Over and over, I faced down what seemed like the very real possibility that I would have to raise our six children by myself. I threw myself into prayer, knowing that there alone would I find the peace I so desperately craved. It was an exhausting spiritual battle that I waged through every moment of the darkness. Time seemed almost to stand still. Seconds slowly ticked by to form minutes. Minutes gradually added up to hours. That one night felt like an entire month of stress and anxiety.
Separated from my husband and consumed by worry for his safety, I began to question Jon’s idea of taking Stephanie and their kids to Poland and then returning for me. Would he even be allowed to come back into Ukraine? And if he were, what about Stephanie? I did not want her to have to experience the same agonizing worry and separation that I was going through. Lying there in the darkness, surrounded by multiple people snoring loudly, I contemplated asking them to take us with them.
And then, over the snoring, I heard it—the descending whistle of an incoming bomb. I tensed, every sense on high-alert, incredulous, awaiting the blast. But it never came. I relaxed slightly. Maybe that one had been a dud. Then I heard another one incoming. I waited, holding my breath, but again, there was no explosion. This happened several times before I finally realized that what I was hearing was someone’s peculiar snoring that included an unfortunate whistling sound.
Relieved, I returned to prayer. I believed that Ternopil was unlikely to be targeted, and my worry was mainly for my husband’s safety. But then I started to hear another sound. It was almost buried under the layers of snoring, but though faint, it was familiar to me. I had grown up in Southern California on the edge of gang territory, and I had occasionally heard the sounds of drive-by shootings happening in the next neighborhood over. Straining my ears in the basement that night, I heard the staccato popping of distant gunfire. How could the insignificant town of Ternopil be under attack? What could Putin possibly want here? Were they fighting in the streets? How soon would they make it to our location? Should I wake everyone? I deliberated in the darkness, the only one awake to sound the alarm.
It took longer this time, but ultimately I convinced myself that what I was hearing was the result of someone’s unusual way of snoring.
And so the night crawled by, hours of crushing anxiety broken up by moments of sheer terror. As dawn finally approached, I was utterly exhausted on so many levels. I had reached a breaking point, and around 5:30 am I texted my brother-in-law Jon and said, “If you decide to leave, will you please take us with you?”
Jon and Stephanie had also had a sleepless night. After returning to their apartment from their building’s basement and putting their kids back to bed after the air raid alert, he and Stephanie had been unable to sleep. They were at home in their own bed. If there was anywhere in the world that should have felt safe, that was it, but they were struck by how exposed and unsafe they felt. They were also at a breaking point.
To my surprise, Jon texted me back right away: “How soon can you be ready to go?”
Read part 5.
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