Ternopil, Ukraine, February 26, 2022, 6:30 am
George’s alarm went off at 6:30 am. He roused himself from his bed on the floor in the open kitchen area. The apartment was dark and quiet. He quickly gathered his few belongings and put them back in his backpack. He visited the bathroom and combed his hair. Breakfast and coffee were not on the agenda, and he was soon ready to leave.
He went to find someone to see him out and lock the apartment door behind him. He poked his head into the living room and saw some of the ladies from our team asleep. Carefully shutting the door again, he headed upstairs to the second floor of the apartment, each step squeaking in protest as he passed.
He opened the door to the first bedroom at the top of the stairs, but again he saw only women asleep inside. Moving on the the next bedroom, he finally found the person he was looking for, a young, blond man who was sleeping beside his young wife. George quietly roused him, careful not to disturb his wife. The man woke easily, got out from under the covers, and sleepily followed George back down the stairs. It was a muted farewell. They hugged long and tight and said goodbye just inside the apartment door. Then George opened the door and left. He walked down four flights of concrete stairs to reach the ground level. It was a little after 7:00 am, and his ride, a large, white van, was waiting.
The driver’s door opened, and a short, rotund man with dark hair and glasses got out. Normally upbeat and talkative, today he was subdued and obviously exhausted. His family had spent the last two days driving from Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city located a mere 20 miles from the Russian border. When the bombing started at dawn on February 24, they had wasted little time loading their kids and a few belongings into their van and fleeing west. They had three teenage girls, a young son, and a very young daughter with them. The father got out of the van and greeted George with a hug then walked around the front of the van to get in the passenger’s seat. The plan was for George to drive. After two long days of travel, they were only too happy to have someone else who could take the wheel.
As they were getting into the van, the stillness of the morning was shattered by the abrupt wail of an air raid siren. They didn’t even hesitate to contemplate what to do. They quickly slid into their seats, slammed the doors, and hit the road. Ternopil is a small town, and traffic was very light so soon after curfew had ended, so before long they were out of town heading towards the mountains, just as we had done a little less than 24 hours before. As they drove, they talked about their experiences over the past two days. Everyone was still in shock. There hadn’t been time to begin to process what was happening.
Traffic on the open road was good for the first few hours of the drive. They had a full tank of gas, so they didn’t need to stop to refuel or brave the lines at the gas stations. Once they got into the mountains, however, they encountered the same long waits at military checkpoints that we had experienced the day before.
During one of these waits, one of the teenage girls got out of the van to find a place to relieve herself. Not wanting to lose his place in line, George kept inching forward behind the vehicle in front of him, assuming the girl would easily be able to catch up with them. But her father got upset and told George that he needed to wait for her. George complied and pulled off to the side of the road. It pained him to see about 20 cars roll past them while they waited. Once the girl rejoined them, George eased back into line. However, there were no cars on the opposite side of the road, so he pulled out of line and zipped ahead until he reached the vehicle that he had been behind before pulling off the road. The other drivers recognized him and let him back in line without any problem.
Vajta, Hungary, February 26, 9:30 am
Meanwhile, I had awaken after a mere three hours of sleep. I couldn’t understand it. I was exhausted, having barely slept during the previous two days. Jon and Stephanie offered to take care of my kids so I could sleep some more. Jon was planning to go grocery shopping, so I gave him a big list of things we needed in order to stock a new kitchen, and I went back to bed.
The apartment was quiet, and my kids were next door having a blast with their cousins. My husband was safely on his way to us, driving through the part of Ukraine that was the least likely to come under attack. And yet, I couldn’t sleep. For three hours, I tried desperately to fall asleep, but I couldn’t even doze. It was emotionally exhausting to be so sleep deprived and yet unable to sleep. Feeling guilty that Stephanie was taking care of twelve kids on her own, I finally got up, got dressed, and left the apartment to find my kids and see how I could help.
The sun was shining as I stepped out onto the porch and made my way down the stairs. I walked around the front of the building, across the gravel driveway, and turned the corner to the far side of the building to reach the entrance to the two-story unit where Jon and Stephanie’s family was staying. I didn’t bother to knock. I just let myself in. I could hear the happy sounds of kids playing. My 8-year-old caught sight of me and came running up. “Hi, Mommy!” he exclaimed, giving me a quick hug around the waist. They were clearly enjoying themselves.
I found my way into the kitchen, where Jon and Stephanie were seated at the table talking.
“Oh, hi, Sharon!” Jon said.
“Did you get some sleep?” Stephanie asked.
“No, I just lay there for three hours, trying to sleep. It was really frustrating. But thanks for watching the kids. How have they been?”
“Oh, they’ve been great!” Stephanie paused. “How are you?”
How could I answer that question? Did I even know how I was?
“How are any of us?” I said, shrugging. “I’m glad George is safe and on his way.”
There was a pause.
“We have some news,” Jon said. “Mom’s coming.”
“What??” My hand flew to my mouth, and my eyes opened wide, blinking back tears formed from some combination of joy and shock. “She’s coming here?”
It was hard to believe. My mother-in-law lived in the Republic of Georgia where she worked as the director of the Bible college that had once been located at the campus where we were now staying. She had been like a mother to me ever since I had married her eldest son and left behind everything that had ever been familiar to join his life two continents and an ocean way from my family. I treasured every moment I got to spend with her, and they didn’t happen often enough, as far as I was concerned. Her coming wouldn’t make up for everything we had been through, but it would go a long way towards making things better.
“When?” I asked.
“Monday,” Jon said.
“What’s today?” I asked, disoriented.
“Saturday. And Paul and Mel are coming with their kids. Tomorrow.”
The news just kept getting better. Melanie was one of George’s sisters. Of his five sisters, I was the closest to her, because she and I had shared an apartment when I had visited Kyiv for the summer before George and I were married. Melanie had even been one of my bridesmaids. We had a special bond, and I saw her even less than I saw George’s mom, so the fact that she would be arriving the next day was amazing. And her five kids were great friends with our kids. Our kids would be thrilled when they heard! I stood still in the kitchen entrance, beside the refrigerator, trying to process all the good news.
“We’re thinking of not telling the kids and letting it be a surprise,” Stephanie broke into my stream of thoughts.
“Oh, that’s a great idea!” I said, finally coming all the way into the kitchen.
I busied myself making a cup of tea. I felt comfortable in this kitchen. This unit had once housed Melanie and her family, and we had celebrated a large family Christmas at the Bible college campus the year that they had lived here. My mind wandered back to the warm, festive gatherings we had enjoyed in this very kitchen and even specific Christmas gifts we had received from each other that year. My pleasant memories were a sharp contrast with the realities of the moment, but soon Paul and Melanie and Mom would all be here!
In some ways, that day felt like the first day of vacation, since we’d arrived at a wonderful place that had been the location of many family vacations in the past, and we were with family members whom we didn’t often get to see. It felt special. But at the same time, we couldn’t forget everything that was happening. We also had not had time to process, and we were reeling from the suddenness with which so much in our lives had changed. In the coming days, I alternated between crying at every change in my emotions and feeling completely numb.
We had a calm day. The kids formed groups by age and interest and amused themselves with very little need for any parental input or intervention. The older ones were in and out of the house, enjoying the freedom to roam the extensive campus grounds on their own. The youngest kids napped when needed. Stephanie and I served snacks and prepared simple meals. Through it all, we adults were frequently on our phones, monitoring the news about Ukraine, keeping tabs on friends and loved ones through social media, and texting people.
Once it got dark, I gathered my boys together, and we made our way back to our apartment to get ready for bed. I wanted an early night. It was a lot easier getting everyone ready for bed this time. The toothbrushes were already out, and I enlisted the older boys to help as much as they could. It wasn’t late when everyone was settled for the night.
Despite my extreme exhaustion, I had trouble sleeping again. When I was putting the kids to bed, I had planned to go to bed myself as soon as possible and get a solid night of sleep before George arrived the next day, but once the apartment was quiet, it was hard for me to unplug. George was at the border, and I kept checking my phone for news of his progress and monitoring all my chat programs for news of anything else.
George made it across the border and entered Hungary at 12:50 am Hungarian time, several hours faster than I had expected. But even though there were now no obstacles standing between him and us, I still couldn’t settle. I finally managed to put myself to bed at 3:00 am, feeling how desperately my body needed sleep. I slept lightly, knowing George would arrive around 6:00 am. I would need to get up to let him in and give him the keys for the room where the family he was traveling with would be staying.
George called my cell phone when he arrived, to keep from disturbing the kids by knocking on the door. I was up in an instant. I quietly made my way to the apartment door. Through the blinds, I saw George’s familiar silhouette in the soft pre-dawn light. I quickly opened the door and stepped into his embrace. We stood in the doorway with our arms wrapped around each other for a long moment, quietly expressing our joy over being reunited, then I handed him the keys for our friends, and he went back downstairs. When he came back up, we immediately went to bed. He had been driving for almost 24 hours, and I had only slept a total of 6 hours since the beginning of the full-scale invasion 72 hours earlier.
It was chilly in the apartment, and we just had one twin-sized comforter between the two of us. I hadn’t expected him to make it to us until at least midmorning, so I hadn’t thought to request bedding for him from the retreat center staff the day before!
We cuddled together under the one small blanket, drawing warmth and comfort from each other. We were together again. There was much that was wrong with the world, but this was definitely right.
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