Read part 1.
February 20, 2022, 10:00 pm
The train ride west from Kyiv took about seven hours. When we arrived in the city of Ternopil that night, fellow passengers helped me lift the kids and our stuff down the high steps of the old-fashioned train wagon. One of my brothers-in-law found us on the crowded platform. He had our three oldest kids with him. We all hugged, and the big boys took our bags.
My brother-in-law took us all to the headquarters for a Christian organization in town. They had prepared two guest rooms for the seven of us. The three youngest kids and I had a beautiful spacious room on the fourth floor, right under the eaves, and the three older boys had a dorm-room style setup with bunkbeds on the third floor. The boys were all excited to be together again and to be in a new place. I let them talk and explore a bit while I got us settled in. It was late when I finally put everyone to bed.
The building had an industrial kitchen, and the next day I immediately went about setting up a temporary home by stocking up on the grocery staples I would need for preparing meals for the six boys and myself over the next few weeks. When I was done, our food supplies completely filled a huge plastic tub on a shelf in the pantry area. Had I known that this would just be the first of a string six temporary places to stay over the next three weeks, I wouldn’t have bought so much food!
The cake from my friend went into the fridge, and I served it to the kids and their cousins the first time we all got together. Those were happy days, because the cousins all enjoy each other’s company so much. We spent as much time together as we could. We settled into a comfortable rhythm, learning which rooms in the large building were good for playing and when we needed to be quiet so as not to disrupt classes or meetings. I was constantly busy either with meal preparation, or laundry, or overseeing the older boys’ schoolwork, or monitoring my little kids to make sure they didn’t disturb anyone in the building. I literally did not have a spare moment, but I was content. It was amazing to be free of the suffocating suspense and tension that had blanketed all my days for so long.
At this point, the Western media began to report that Russia might have trained assassins in place in Ukraine with orders to eliminate specific influential people—among them, foreign religious workers. At the time, George was the Ukrainian overseer for an international coalition of churches. I was gravely concerned for his safety, and after I got the kids to bed on February 22, I called George to talk to him about this threat. What ensued was one of the only real fights of our entire marriage, over whether or not he would leave Kyiv immediately to join the kids and me in Ternopil.
He wouldn’t accept that he was in any real danger.
I couldn’t share his confidence that nothing bad was going to happen.
I wanted him to drop everything and catch the next train to Ternopil.
He wasn’t about to be pushed into doing anything precipitously.
I said his children needed their father ALIVE.
He said he didn’t want to abandon our team.
We’ve always worked out our differences before going to bed, but this time, it was impossible to find a resolution. We tried, back and forth, around and around, but it was getting late, and we had to sleep. I hung up the phone that night furious with him and frustrated out of my mind by his stubbornness—and terrified by what it might cost us.
The next morning he apologized and assured me that the boys and I truly were his top priority. He talked with our team, and they were unanimous in telling him that he should go to Ternopil to be with us. He arranged to ride to Ternopil on Monday with a friend and her son who would be traveling west by car. It was Wednesday. He wasn’t jumping on the next train as I had wanted, but I didn’t push. We had made our peace with each other, and I was satisfied knowing that he would be on his way to us as soon as the weekend was over . . . if a Russian hit man didn’t find him first.
I tried not to dwell on that possibility.
I had been so busy since arriving in Ternopil that I had not even managed to shower. I had helped the little kids shower in the bathrooms we shared with the other people staying in the building, but as all moms know, when you have small children, your own personal hygiene gets sidelined by the demands of caring for those who can’t care for themselves. So by this point I hadn’t showered for over half a week, and I was determined not to let another day go by.
Though it was late when I finally got the kids to bed, I stayed up just a little bit longer for a few minutes of self-care. I had a treasured Moroccan exfoliating mitt that a dear friend from Morocco had given me, and I took my time, scrubbing and relaxing in the stream of hot water. It was after midnight when I finally slipped between the covers. I was exhausted from multiple late nights and looked forward to sleeping a solid seven or eight hours.
It was not to be.
I woke up at 5:30 am with an urgent sense that I needed to be praying. My husband came to mind, so I prayed for him for a while, and then a friend of ours who had recently moved to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine came to mind, and I prayed for him as well.* I heard some noises of people moving quickly around inside the building, followed by car doors slamming and a vehicle driving away. It seemed a little odd so early in the morning, but I didn’t think too much about it. I prayed some more, and after about ten minutes of praying, I turned on my phone. The first thing I saw was a message notification from my brother-in-law in Ternopil.
Jon: Are you awake?
Jon: Are you ok?
As soon as I read those words, I got an awful panicky feeling in my throat and chest, as I frantically tapped and swiped my phone to try to figure out why in the world Jon would think I might not be okay.
And then I saw it.
A message from George to our extended family chat:
FEB 24, 2022 AT 05:03
George: We are okay. But there were a couple of explosions near Kyiv. [Our team is] gathering at our apartment. Getting ready to leave.
I have never been so incapacitated with shock. It felt like my mind was at a loss for words. I stumbled out of the room where my three youngest kids were still fast asleep. No one else was on the fourth floor, and there was a rug right outside our door. I collapsed on it to pray, and soon I was facedown on the floor, wordlessly pouring out my anguish, my shock, my utter consternation to God.
I hadn’t been in that posture long when I was interrupted by an unfamiliar sound outside. Though I had never heard it before, I immediately knew exactly what it was.
An air-raid siren.
Surely it was just a test of the system. There was no way the insignificant town of Ternopil way off in Western Ukraine was a target, was there?
I went downstairs to try to find someone who knew. Not many people were around, but I found one lady who told me that the commotion I had heard earlier had been an American family leaving and heading for the Polish border as soon as they found out that Russia had attacked, but she didn’t know what the sirens meant. No one knew, and no one could find any information online. The sirens stopped, and we discussed the various possibilities. A test of the system. A warning to be on the alert. A call to take immediate shelter. While we debated, the sirens started again.
This time I didn’t hesitate. The system was clearly working, so there was no reason for them to be testing it again. Sounding the sirens a second time could only mean one thing: Ternopil was in danger. Whether the threat was imminent or merely possible, I wasn’t going to wait around to find out. I had six children in my care, and I wasn’t taking any chances.
I went into the older boys’ bedroom and roused them. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something to the effect that they needed to get up right away, and we all needed to go to the basement because there was an air raid siren. Satisfied that they were complying, I ran back to my room, taking the tile stairs two at a time in my house slippers. The little boys were still sleeping when I entered. Working quickly, I got them all out of bed and told them in quiet but urgent tones that we needed to go to the basement. I grabbed everyone’s coats, and we went down to the third floor to collect the big boys from their room. When we got there, I was astonished to find that my 15-year-old, my eldest, had gone back to bed!
I pulled the covers off him and told him he had to get up. He snatched the covers back, rolling over and pulling them over his head in one motion. As I got even more insistent, he started to whine loudly, “Go away! Leave me alone!” I was half tempted to do exactly that, rather than linger and put everyone else in danger while he refused to comply, but my sense of responsibility prevailed. I had to get EVERYONE to safety. I cannot remember what I did or said, but somehow I managed to get him up and moving towards the stairs.
Shoes were only allowed on the ground floor of the building, so all our shoes were on shoe racks at the bottom of the stairs. I told the kids that we didn’t have time to put on shoes or coats. They should just grab their shoes, and we’d put everything on in the basement. It was at that point that I realized I was missing a child. The 15-year-old had started down the stairs with us, but he hadn’t made it to the bottom. My second-born informed me that he had gone back upstairs because he had forgotten his coat! I really didn’t feel that I could waste any more time dealing with my eldest, so I continued to the basement with the other five.
The basement entrance was outside, so we trooped out the front door of the building in our stocking feet, shoes and coats in hand. Thankfully there was no snow on the ground, but it was cold. We went down a short flight of stairs into a sort of covered well beside the building where there was a door with an electric combination lock. We’d never used it, but someone had told us the code. It took a few tries to get it to open, and everyone was shivering while I and the older kids tried to figure it out. Eventually we got inside.
It was a nice basement, set up like a game room. There were a few couches, a foosball table, and even a restroom. It was unheated, however, so we were glad to have our coats. Once I got everyone inside, I ran back upstairs to retrieve my eldest son. While I was upstairs, I decided to go to my room to get our documents, which I had forgotten in the initial mad scramble. Finally we were all together in the basement.
It wasn’t too long before the kids started to get hungry. The sirens had been silent for a little bit, and I decided it was safe for one person to venture into the kitchen to retrieve breakfast. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of letting all the kids leave the basement. It had been so difficult and taken so long to get them there in the first place that I wanted to be confident that the threat had actually passed before we all left our shelter. So I went to the kitchen myself and collected the things we needed: rolled oats, honey, dried cranberries, bowls, and spoons. There was an electric tea kettle in the basement, and I made oatmeal right in the bowls by pouring hot water over the rolled oats. The kids really enjoyed the food, and the meal helped restore a semblance of normalcy to that historically abnormal day.
I was too nauseated from anxiety to eat anything.
After breakfast, I went back up to our rooms to get toys for the little kids and our laptops, and everyone found ways to pass the next few hours while we continued to shelter in the basement.
We were mostly alone. Out of the handful of people still left in the building, only one person joined us for part of the time, the same woman who had told me about the American family leaving early that morning. She had been planning to travel to Moldova that day with her dog, but she was a Russian citizen, and she was now really worried that she would have trouble getting across the border because of her passport. When she saw us sheltering in the basement, she brought us a stack of blankets and a 5-liter bottle of drinking water. She and her dog spent some time with us until she got her travel arrangements in order. Then we wished her well and watched her leave in a car with friends.
After she left, I felt utterly forlorn and isolated. She had been the only person in the building to show some attention and concern for us that morning. Everyone was in shock and trying to develop their own plans, but she paused to notice the overwhelmed mom with six kids and bring us blankets and water. Her presence was comforting, but she could only do so much. She couldn’t tell me what to do or magically conjure a vehicle to take me and my kids to safety, and looking back, I think that’s what I wanted. Though it was illogical, I felt abandoned after she left.
For nineteen years, my husband and I had made every major decision together. Now I was facing some of the most momentous decisions of my life, and he wasn’t there to help me navigate them. Not only that, but I felt paralyzed by the lack of a vehicle. I decided that once George made it to us, he and I would figure out what to do next. I just needed to wait for him. But what if I realized that we couldn’t wait for him? How was I supposed to get everyone out of the country? Were trains even still running? If they were, where should we go? Poland was the closest border, but where would we stay once we got there?
Now that Russia had invaded, I felt exposed and vulnerable. I was an American citizen who had disregarded my government’s warnings. I was on my own with six kids in a country at war, and I didn’t even have a vehicle to get us to safety.
*I later learned that airfields outside of both Kyiv and Ivano-Frankivsk had been rocked by explosions in those early morning hours of February 24.
Read part 3.
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