‘We can hear the fighting from afar’

There’s nothing I can do for my family in Ukraine except plan for better days

By Olga Ivanova, ’18 MA

April 14, 2022 •

“How’s the night going in Kyiv?” I send yet another message to my family group chat and, in my house in Edmonton, I stare at the screen waiting for someone to start typing. 

“It’s been quiet over here,” my dad’s speedy reply comforts me. “Russian troops marched through the village where your aunt is staying. They are heading towards the capital. We are home. Happy birthday, my dear! Mom is asleep, we’ll call you in the morning.”

“It’s not until tomorrow,” I answer. This is notable because it’s the first time my dad, the keeper of milestones in the family, has got my birthday wrong. 

“I’m sorry, love! I jumped the gun. I don’t have my calendar on me, and I completely lost track of time. I wish days would go faster and this nightmare would end soon.” The war and the stress distort our sense of time.

When the war first broke out in late February, my parents spent their days in their apartment glued to the Ukrainian state TV. At nightfall, at the first sound of air raid sirens, they sheltered in a nearby school basement bunker, resting to the sound of shooting and shelling. They have since had to move, more than once.

“Are you guys OK? Can you hear the shelling?” I send another text at 4 a.m. — my worried mind keeps running amok. Though I am far from the turmoil, I haven’t slept more than a few hours at a time. 

“We’re OK, in a shelter,” they respond. “We can hear the fighting from afar.” 

As the Russian troops close in on the city, I decide there is no other choice for my family but to run for safety. Leave everything behind and seek refuge outside Ukraine. Start afresh where they won’t have to fear for their lives. At least, this is my conclusion. It’s the only way out I can think of. A smart choice I made for them, commiserating and aching from the comfort of my home in Canada. 

“You don’t actually know what it’s like to live in a country where innocent people get killed,” my mom writes, cutting me off while I list the many friends and family outside Ukraine who could host them. 

No, I don’t know what it’s like to have a war at my doorstep. I hope never to feel the pain and despair of having the life I worked so hard for ripped away from me. And then to be told to just take off! No matter how much I love my family, it is not my place to ask them to uproot and leap into the unknown. I need to trust that they know what’s best for them. 

So, instead of delivering them my idea of a resolution while I’m so detached, I’ve been grasping at the small bits of the present and the past that hold us together, latching on to what’s immediately in front of us. I’ve been digging up old photos of our family trip to Austria, or telling them stories of my adventures in parallel parking. Listening to my mom scold me about still biting my lips. Laughing at my dad making up words in Ukrainian. 

It seems like there’s no end to this nightmare, and I can’t even begin to think how long and agonizing it will be to heal from this trauma. The only time I look ahead is when I fall victim to my brain’s need to plan. Where are we going on our next family vacation? I drift away to the thoughts of us wandering the streets of some old city, immersed in local legends and stories. If we were to visit a castle or a royal palace, we would have to start the day right: with a big brunch somewhere nice where the smell of fresh buns makes you feel at home. Locally roasted coffee is a must — and they better serve light roast. My mom might want dessert, and my dad loves aged cheese. My partner, Marc, will definitely want a big plate of eggs — he’s always starving. 

And after we’ve pecked at one another’s food, a new day will finally begin. A new day of making family memories.

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