A friend from SPU is currently staying with me here in St. Petersburg. She went to Russia the same summer I went to Ukraine and through our conversations I’ve found my thoughts returning to Bogodukhov yet again. I’ve been in bed for an hour now but my mind refuses to rest. It’s useless to try and ignore it- my thoughts belong to Ruslan tonight.
I think Ruslan was about nine years old when we met him. He and my teammate Sachi really hit it off and they spent the five short weeks together playing soccer, communicating through charades, and learning what love looks like. Ruslan was always smiling and yet, it was clear that naturally there was a deep longing within him to experience the love of a family. At one point, he asked Sachi if she would adopt him. I can’t imagine what Sachi probably felt in that moment. I thank God it wasn’t me. I’m not sure my heart could have handled it.
On the day of our departure, many of the children woke up early to see us off. We stood on the pavement hugging and laughing and crying and feeling emotions I’ve never experienced before or since that day. Ijust kept thinking how quickly five weeks can pass. How quickly strangers can become friends and brothers and sisters. How quickly love can defeat fear. How quickly a heart can break and plans can change. The moment was beautifully heartbreaking.
Some of us brought pictures of us or our families to give to the children as a way to remember us. Not all of them owned photographs so it was a big deal for some of them. Sachi had a picture of her with her mom and brother which she gave to Ruslan and he treasured it. After our final goodbyes, we climbed into our van and prepared to leave. We looked out from behind wet and blurred vision as the children encircled the van and pressed their hands against the window, with tears to match our own. And then from the crowd emerged Ruslan. We watched as he dug into his pocket, looked at Sachi, and pressed the picture of her family against the window.
Helpless… it’s how we all felt. We felt helpless as we looked on at our friend and teammate and watched her heart break all over again. We felt helpless as we looked at Ruslan and so many others like him, knowing that his longing for a family will probably always remain a longing. We felt helpless as the bus rolled away, leaving 120 beautiful, innocent, and wounded children in a place not much different from where we had first met them.
I’m not really sure how a life should respond to such an experience. How do you go back to normal when you’ve held the small hands of children that have called you mama? How do you go about everyday tasks when they feel menial and selfish in light of difficult realities? How do you explain it? Why so much injustice and why children?? How do you use the pain and anger and confusion in a way that doesn’t just add to the brokenness of this hurting world?
I haven’t figured it out. I don’t know where I belong or what I should be doing. I just know that this world is starving for a love that won’t fade or abuse or abandon it. I know that despite my best and (selfish) efforts, I can’t forget about those kids. I know that thoughts of Ruslan, Oleg, Oksana, or Denis won’t just go away. But thoughts and memories aren’t good enough and on nights like these I wonder...where do I go from here?