Ten weeks ago, you were strangers. To each other. To us. When Honey and I met you at the airport, the anxiety in our eyes mirrored yours. None of us knew what to expect.
I can picture the moment.
“May I hug you?” I ask, trying to find your eyes beneath overgrown bangs as the interpreter translates my words into a language I’ve never heard.
You nod. The circle my arms form around your thin frames feels too small for fifteen-year-old boys. You don’t hug back. Nor do you pull away.
I glance at My Honey. The lump in my throat makes my eyes water as I see tears balancing on the edge of his gaze.
“I can’t take this,” he mouths behind your heads. “My heart is breaking. They look so lost.”
That was ten weeks ago.
Last night you paused the movie we were watching to inform us there is “war in Ukraine.” When you pointed out the location of your orphanage in relation to the area where the fighting is taking place, I realized how close to “home” that war is to you. I know your older brothers are in the armed forces. I know that in a matter of months, you could be, too.
God, how can kids “age out” of Ukranian orphanages at sixteen? They are babies, not men. Not ready to be on their own. Certainly not ready to fight Russians.
“You can hear the gunfire from your school?” I spoke into the Google Translate app on my iphone.
Then you broke my heart.
“Me stay in America?” one of you asked, trying out your new English skills.
“We come for Christmas?” queried the other.
Your questions hung in the air for a moment as your eyes found mine. Those eyes. Too proud to plead, yet silently imploring me to make a difference in your destiny.
I’m sorry I hesitated. Fumbled with my iphone. Fought the tears. Failed to respond with affirmation. I’m sorry I don’t know the answer to that question. Honey and I need to talk. We need to pray. We need to know that this is God’s plan for our family. For our ministry. We need to know that you love us, too. That you want to be a part of our lives as much as you want to come to America.
You didn’t wait long. A half-second at most. You read the doubt. The fear. The self-protective I-don’t-want-to-get-hurt-again veil that sheltered my soul. You unpaused the movie. You retreated. I lost the moment.
This morning as you sleep, I think of all the things I long to say. The things I know are true. The things I feel inside when your smiles are wide and free and full of joy.The things I trust when I hear you pray in a language I cannot understand, to The God who understands all things.
In two days you will both be gone. On a plane back to Ukraine. To a life I don’t know about. Will you each become just another orphan in a building full of boys who need a home? Or one more casualty in a pointless war? Or another kid on the streets, living hand to mouth, bottle to bottle, or trick to trick when an unfair system ages you out?
I cannot bear to think of it. I do not want to know.
You are not just some random orphaned boys. Your spirits are kind. Your minds are bright. Your prayers are heard. Your hearts are loved. Your home is here.
But I can see you- Your brown skin shinin’ in the sun You got your hair combed back and your sunglasses on, baby And I can tell you my love for you will still be strong After the days of summer have gone
Lyrics by Don Henley 1984 (slightly modified by me, Summer 2015)
Before technology took over our lives, before kids could text during class with flying thumbs and barely a glance beneath the desk… we passed notes. Yes “notes” – folded pieces of paper with the contents of our hearts printed for the whole class to see if Teacher caught us passing them across the aisle.
If we had a crush, we might draw lopsided squares next to the words “yes” and “no” following a question written with trembling pencil: “Do you love me?” Then directions for responding: “Check yes or no.”
Remember the heart-pounding, back-of-the-neck sweating, weak-kneed anticipation as the recipient carefully unfolded the paper and read those words? The date of the Emancipation Proclamation escapes us to this day because we missed an entire American History lesson as we anxiously anticipated the reader’s response. That one tiny check mark had the power to make or break social status and self-esteem, and determine whether we would cry on our best friend’s shoulder, or jump up and down with glee as we giggled together next to our lockers in the hallway. Remember?
I felt that same thumping in my chest, weakness in my knees, and inner angst on Monday as Honey and I drove to Tampa to retrieve the two fifteen year old Ukranian orphan boys we are summer-hosting with Project 143. After being apart for nearly three weeks, I didn’t know what to expect upon our return. Will they want to come home with us? Did they miss us? Will they hug us?
We tapped into modern technology – FaceTiming them on our iphones most days while we were traveling for Honey’s work and my Texas book tour, but with the language barrier, it was difficult to communicate. After several seconds of awkward staring, smiling and waving, we said “goodbye” and put the phone down, wondering what they were really thinking and feeling. Wondering why we missed them so much after sharing only nine days together.
“I bet Pasha ignores us or hides behind the other host parents when we get there,” I said to My Honey over Wendy’s baked potatoes halfway between Jacksonville and Tampa.
“Why would he?”
“Because he’s had a blast with the other kids and we abandoned him and he probably just wants to stay there and not come home to our small, quiet life,” I responded. “Besides, he doesn’t transition well.”
“Hmmm. Well, I guess we’ll just have to see, won’t we?”
When we arrived in our host friends’ driveway, Yura met us at the car with a shy but genuine smile. He hugged us both then immediately mounted his new Ripstik, proudly showing off his balancing skills.
Whew! One down, one to go.
I cautiously entered the house where my still-sane-after-parenting-six-kids-for-three-weeks friend, Sarah lives. No sign of Sarah but I heard kid-noise in the game room where I discovered four kiddos hovered around two computer screens, Minecraft on one and a digital soccer game on the other. Pasha’s back was to the door as he focused on the soccer screen. I sneaked up behind him, quickly covering his eyes with my hands in a guess-who gesture.
“Ms. Sarah?” he questioned, leaving my hands in place.
I said nothing. Inwardly pleading with my heart to stop pounding. Father, why do I expect rejection?
“Juliet! It’s You!”
Pasha leaped from the swivel chair and attacked me – one hundred and six pounds of teenage boy wrapping me in a hug that squeezed fear to death! That moment confirmed Sarah’s hunch that even though the boys had only been with us a few days, our home was their home, because that’s the first place they landed in America. And our family was their family, because we were the ones who initially bonded with them here. Pasha didn’t let go. He hugged and hugged and hugged me until I became a rag doll flopping into the swivel chair. Then he raced outside to find Honey.
A few days later I sit in church, wedged between them like a paperback between bookends, watching My Honey in the pulpit – preaching the communion sermon.
Jesus, I want them to know You. I want them to want to know You. What does this service mean to two orphaned teens who didn’t grow up in the Christian faith and barely comprehend a few English phrases? How can I use Google Translate to translate Your sacrificial eternal love for them?
As Yura takes the tiny cup from the deacon holding a silver tray, I see the scars. Perfectly straight, white with age, horizontal lines just above the wrist. Cutting? Why have I not noticed these before? My stomach knots as I reach for my own symbol of the blood shed for my sins.
Grabbing my phone, I text with flying thumb, barely glancing at the screen half-hidden beneath my flowing skirt. God, I can’t be silent. I must ask, in the stillness of this moment. Will he trust me enough to let me share his pain?
I press “Go” and pass the phone as Google magically turns my English into strange letters and symbols understood only by Yura.
Расскажите мне о шрамы на руке? Tell me about the scars on your arm?
The same sixth-grade heart-pounding, back-of-the-neck sweating, weak-kneed anticipation creeps through my body as the recipient carefully-so-as-not-to-spill-the-blood takes the phone and reads my words.
Do you love me Yura? Do you love me enough to let me know the hurt behind those marks on your arms? Will you look at me with honest eyes and see that I long to know the life you’ve lived and the tears you’ve cried and the pain your young heart has born in your strong, silent way? Check yes or no.
Instantly his eyes meet mine as he drops the phone and instinctively covers the visible marks of his pain.
Oh Lord! I’ve gone too far, said too much, crossed the line! It’s too soon. The trust hasn’t had time to bloom. But, we only have six weeks left. Every moment is an opportunity.
I pick up the phone, feeling the eyes of a pew full of worshippers on the back of my neck as I, the pastor’s wife, text during the holy communion service.
I will use humor. That usually works.
Развелев поцарапать вас ? Did a lion scratch you?
He smiles, almost giggles and whispers in English, “No!”
Whew! Now what?
Лев почесал меня , тоже. Только мои шрамы на внутренней части. A lion scratched me, too. Only my scars are on the inside.
I wait. Yura smiles again and turns the phone off. He says nothing, but his body moves closer in a gesture of understanding. I can feel his leg, warm against mine as Honey reads from Matthew 26 (NKJV): “Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”