I knew today was the 20-year anniversary of my arrival in Ukraine and the beginning of my life as a missionary, but seeing it spelled out so matter-of-factly was jarring. For years I looked forward to this day. I assumed I would still be living in Ukraine, anticipating many more years of fruitful and fulfilling work there. I imagined I would celebrate with a big party filled with people who had been part of my life during all the stages of my first two decades in Ukraine. I would reunite with dear friends to celebrate this milestone and reminisce about all the wonderful things we had seen God do over the years. But at some point over the last year, I began to look forward to this day with pain and anger rather than eager anticipation. It was because I realized that, along with everything else this war had stolen from me, it had also taken away this milestone.
When we meet new people here in Hungary and try to give them a brief sketch of our story, my husband routinely tells them that before the war, he and I lived in Ukraine for 30 years and 20 years, respectively. And I always wince. I want to point out that while he left Ukraine only 4 months shy of reaching that impressive 30-year mark, I lived in Ukraine for just 19 years to the day before fleeing, and thus I have no right to claim 2 decades in my adopted home. He says that he’s rounding up. I point out that while he has every right to round up to 30, I can only round down to 19. But he keeps telling the same story every time we meet someone new. And I keep biting my tongue and wincing inside.
Maybe he’s right. Who am I to tell him how to round numbers? He’s the one with the master’s degree in applied mathematics. Maybe the story he tells is the true one. But it feels like a lie to me, for my heart tells a different story: I dreamed of the day I could say that I had lived in Ukraine for 20 years, but now I will only ever be able to say that I lived there for 19. In light of all that’s happened over the last year, the devastation and upheaval so many have experienced, I admit this is a trivial loss. But it’s a pain that cuts me keenly, and as such, I believe it’s worth recognizing.
Even though I’m no longer in Ukraine, today still marks two decades as a missionary for me, and that’s a huge milestone in itself—certainly something worth celebrating. Except that I don’t feel like celebrating today. February 24 is no longer my day. Just as Osama bin Laden made the date September 11 synonymous with death and carnage in the minds of all Americans, Putin has imbued the date February 24 with enough infamy to last Ukrainians for a generation or more. Now none of us who love Ukraine can hear that date without feeling anger and sadness. Even if I had the heart for it, it would feel wrong to celebrate today. And so I write instead.
Up until February 24, 2022, I had spent my whole married life in Ukraine—nearly half of my entire life. Three of my six children were born on Ukrainian soil, and it is the only home any of my children have ever known. It was my home of choice. Despite that choice, my years in Ukraine were not all rosy. I faced enormous emotional struggles as I tried to adapt to a new culture and language. I spent four and a half years afraid to leave our apartment without my husband and often returned traumatized after an outing by myself. But moving back to the U.S. was never an option in my mind. God had called us to serve the Ukrainian people, and I was stubbornly committed to that call.
In time I learned to speak Ukrainian, left my fears behind, and began to truly thrive. I am so grateful to Ukraine for giving me real friendships, teaching me about true hospitality, and showing me the meaning of courage. Over the years, Ukraine embedded itself in my heart, intricately intertwining with my own personality and experiences. Now certain things are second nature to me, like offering tea to a guest as soon as they arrive in my home, or giving a small gift to someone when I want to show appreciation for something they did. While I know there was a time before these actions were ingrained, now I can’t imagine life without them. It would feel wrong. My perspective is and always will be tinted blue and yellow.
I don’t know how long we will be away from Ukraine. I don’t even know if God still intends for Ukraine to be our home of choice. But no matter where we live or how long we are away, Ukraine will always be in my heart. Right now, it’s a constant aching longing that can’t be soothed, and so I channel it into a prayer:
Боже, бережи Україну!
God, save Ukraine!
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