Despite all the upheaval and change that have characterized our life for the past 13 months, my husband George has been thriving. After he managed to get out of Ukraine in the wee hours of day 3 of the war and reunite with the kids and me, he went to bed, utterly exhausted. But he only slept for a few hours, and when he woke up, he immediately found himself surrounded by amazing opportunities to do enormous good. Without pausing to catch his breath or even missing a beat, he jumped into a swirl of activities and new partnerships that resulted in hundreds of evacuations in the critical early weeks of the war, millions of dollars of aid to the people of Ukraine, and ongoing care for the long-term needs of refugees in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe.
I have rarely seen him more alive.
On one of our recent nighttime walks with our dog, I found myself wrestling with the disparity between our separate experiences of being “refugees.” While I spent months unable even to pronounce the sentence, “I live in Budapest,” he hasn’t had any trouble moving forward into the new life God has given us. In fact, he’s embraced it.
While we usually use the time walking the dog to debrief about the day, on this particular night, we were silent as we walked, each absorbed in our own thoughts, and I found myself wanting to break the silence by asking him, “Do you even miss Ukraine?” I held the words on the tip of my tongue for about half a block, wanting so badly to say them, but sensing that they were somehow off. As I reflected, I had to admit it was a horrible question. It wouldn’t invite any conversation, it might put George on the defensive, and it was almost certainly unfair. My husband spent nearly 30 of his 47 years of life in Ukraine! He had to miss it!
So I sorted through my feelings and tried to come up with a better question. After we crossed a street and started down another block, I finally asked him, “What do you miss about Ukraine?” He hardly had to pause to think before answering. He said he missed people, friendships, and the ability to go up to anyone and start a conversation.
He spoke thoughtfully and softly, but without any apparent emotion. Even so, it was comforting to hear his heart, to know that, despite seeming to be unaffected, my partner in life also shares in the loss that I have felt so keenly. I carried this knowledge forward with me into the coming days, a quiet reassurance that I was not alone.
A few days later, George and I were on our way to a meeting. I had forgotten to put on my watch, so I glanced at George’s watch to see if we were going to be on time—and I freaked out. We were an hour behind schedule! How in the world had that happened?! I frantically drew George’s attention to the time, and he calmly explained that his watch was set to Kyiv time, which is an hour ahead of Budapest. My immediate relief that we weren’t running late was quickly replaced by curiosity. Why was his watch set to Kyiv time? Had he simply forgotten to change it after his most recent trip back to Ukraine? I started asking questions, and the truth came out.
He never reset it after evacuating from Ukraine.
Even through three months in the United States last summer (where the time difference would have been much less easy to calculate), he held on to that one last connection to our former life. Unlike me, he never had any trouble saying that we lived in Budapest, but all the while, his watch face showed where his heart truly was.
In contrast, my watch stopped working soon after we left Ukraine. Maybe it was out of protest when I reset it to match our new timezone.
As far as I can tell, George has never struggled with any sense of guilt over leaving Ukraine. I have. From survivors guilt, to regret over the cascade of decisions that ultimately led to us evacuating, to types of guilt that I don’t even have names for—I’ve experienced it. At one point I was even torturing myself with the accusation that, when it came right down to it, I just hadn’t loved Ukraine enough to stay when things got dangerous. Though trusted advisors told me flat-out that this feeling was a lie, I found it difficult to believe them. In the middle of all the other pain I was experiencing from external forces, I was actively shredding my own heart to ribbons with guilt.
I think maybe the reason George hasn’t had to deal with guilt is that while I was mostly isolated at home with the kids, hurting and grieving, he was out in the thick of things, being and doing. And everything he was doing was having a positive impact on Ukrainians. Even from my vantage point, it wasn’t hard to see that God had put us in a place of fruitful ministry to fill a crucial role that few others could. I would tell myself over and over that we had been uniquely prepared for this moment in history, that we were doing important work, and that we were exactly where we were supposed to be. And they weren’t just words. I did believe it—but until recently, I couldn’t feel it. I would simply repeat this mantra to try to assuage the pain and guilt I felt over not being in Ukraine.
I’m happy to say that this is changing, slowly. Recently I’ve been able to become more involved in the things that George does, specifically by helping to raise awareness in the West about the needs of Ukrainians and working with him to create a community of Ukrainians around the park near our apartment. I feel a renewed sense of life and purpose—and even (dare I say it?) a little bit of excitement. But it doesn’t take much to shake my new outlook. When I hear about the on-going suffering in Ukraine or start to wonder about our family’s future, I begin to heave great involuntary sighs while simultaneously feeling a strangling tightness in my throat and chest. This sadness and heaviness are never far away. Sometimes it makes me feel so weary that I’d just like to give up.
I’m learning to use these feelings as a cue to turn to Jesus, who promises perfect rest to all who are weary and weighed down with heavy burdens.
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