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While I Was Gone

I wake up to throbbing pain in my knee. A combination of 27 hours of travel and a rainy day will do that to an old, pesky injury. I slipped out of bed quietly, trying not to wake my sleeping husband, kicking myself for not doing my physical therapy exercises more. I limp to my living room and stare out my corner window, my favorite spot in the whole apartment, even though it’s cold and drafty and littered with cobwebs. I look up to the corner and see my favorite fly-catching occupant is still present after almost four weeks of my absence.

The rain seems appropriate. Sunny warm weather would feel insulting to wake up to after such a tumultuous few weeks. Had it really been less than four weeks? I stepped off the plane and back on to the Ukrainian earth and it felt like a lifetime had passed since I had been there, boarding a plane to America. I knew it would be hard. I knew it would be. But that still didn’t prepare me any better for the difficulty when it came.

The first time I cried was in O’Hare airport, in that tunnel with the rainbow lights. I felt like a deaf child getting hearing aids for the first time. English. I could hear it all, understand it all. English gave me some sort of superhuman hearing, it would seem. I got into that tunnel and felt so out of place. I was born and raised in this country, lived here for nearly 25 years, but now I was just a visitor. I looked at those lights, that pretty rainbow zig-zag across the ceiling and wondered why it was so beautiful and revolting at the same time. Ahh, that was why. Because of the excess. No Ukrainian could afford this. It wouldn’t exist in Ukraine. Expensive, lavish, unnecessary. But it was pretty. All it took was for my husband to ask, “Are you okay?” to send me to the corner, sobbing over lights.

It caught me off guard to see how life had simply gone on while we were absent from America. I know, duh, time doesn’t stand still just because you’re not in a place, this isn’t the Sims. But I guess some small, unspoken part of me expected that. It was like we had never been there and the world we knew just moved on. Only fundamentals were the same. For instance, when did they get a stoplight in Tiffin? How long had the ramp to 69S been closed from I-35? And when did all these babies of our supporters get so OLD?!

I know when.
While I was gone.

When we got around to seeing what seemed like everyone, the same, few questions started to cycle through: Is it good to be back? How are things going over there? Are you settling in well? I looked at their faces, faces expectant for one answer. Because that is what they wanted. They wanted the same answer, most of them. They wanted me to gush about how amazing it was to be back in America, like I could breathe fresh air for the first time in eight months. They wanted to hear coming back was like finding an oasis in this desert of Ukraine, finding a flotation device in the middle of the ocean. 

There was no mistaking the confusion that flickered across faces when I said it was complicated being back and I really do miss Ukraine. But…how could I possibly not want to be in America? It’s the greatest country on earth right?


But the truth was, I was drowning. Suffocating. Because I will always be the split woman, always understanding, never understood. Always listening, never heard. Always searching, never finding. I was trying to stand on two tectonic plates while they shifted farther and farther apart. I was desperately clinging to both notions, unable to give up either identity, like grasping at water. I was no longer just a foreigner in Ukraine. But Americans don’t want to hear that, at least most of the ones I talked to didn’t. So eventually I just filtered what I would say and to whom, and swallowed back the bile rising in my throat.

“Because I will always be the split woman…”

More unnerving was the word “home”. When you’re a child of three divorces and over a dozen moves, “home” stops becoming a house in your mind and more of a general location. At first I was bothered when Ukrainians would say, “Are you excited to go visit home?”, or when Americans would say, “welcome home!”. In my head I was indignantly insistent that this (America) wasn’t my home. At least not anymore. What I didn’t  expect, however, was how the earth seemed to sway beneath my feet when someone asked me, for the first time, “When do you go back home (Ukraine)?”. I found my husband answering for me while I was rendered speechless.

When was I going home? I don’t know the answer. Because which home are we talking about here? Ukraine? Kansas City? Iowa City? I’ve called so many places “home” in my heart that I am not sure I will ever have an answer to that question.

There wasn’t a single minute to process any single thought, feeling, or emotion in those weeks in America. But now I’m back and I don’t have a choice. And I find myself running from the process harder than I’ve mentally run in a long time. Because what will I find there? In those shadowy recesses of my thoughts, the cavernous holes of my heart, what if there exists a line of thinking that is too painful to draw out?

I’ve called so many places “home” in my heart that I am not sure I will ever have an answer to that question.

What if I don’t love Ukraine anymore? What if these last eight months have been a nice adventure, but my soul thirsts for more America after just one small taste? What if this honeymoon is over and I’m ready to pack it in and leave for the States? What if I truly, madly, deeply, miss America? What if that cramping, unsettled sensation of not belonging sets in to the bones? What if I DO want those American nuances? The pumpkin patches, the college football, the roads without potholes gouged deep, the friendly smiling faces of the Midwest, trick-or-treating, double dates with favorite like-minded couples, drinking water from the tap, visiting my university, the friends that became like family,  my parents helping raise my future children, my sister to be the favorite aunt they run away from home to go see…all of it.

But the truth I am ever-so-slowly approaching is…it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I love Ukraine. It doesn’t matter if I know where I consider home. It doesn’t matter what my native language is. It doesn’t matter if I don’t drink pumpkin spice lattes in the fall, don’t go to the farmers market in the spring, don’t curse the roads while driving in winter, or don’t sit on my porch, sipping lemonade in the summer. None of it matters.

What matters is I love Jesus.

What matters is Jesus has called me to be in Ukraine, so I’ll be in Ukraine. What matters is Jesus has said I am not a citizen of this world, but a sojourner, so I’ll wait for my heaven-home. What matters is Jesus is the bread of life, so I’ll give up all of the good, American lattes. What matters is that I am doing exactly what the Lord has called me to do. I know that. More than I know that I miss America, more than I long to be with my sister, more than I try to shape an identity based on nationality, I know that God has called me to be in Ukraine and is so close to me.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in Spirit.

Psalm 34:18

God will continue to pick up the pieces of my broken heart and fashion it into something stronger and more beautiful. God will reshape my spirit into an undefinable force. For many years to come, God will continue whispering to me, “I will rescue you” as I fly over the Atlantic Ocean. When the years pass and culture strikes painful chords and I feel more and more lost as to what I am doing, God will pull me in close and tell me that I belong here…for now. But not forever. 

At the end of my life, whenever it is, I’ll sit at My Father’s feet and realize all this struggle, all the confusion, all this “not belonging” was nothing compared to hearing Ukrainian and Russian in heaven. While I worship Him in Paradise, maybe I’ll stand next to a Ukrainian that I mentored, or a Ukrainian to whom I told the gospel. When I see Jesus face-to-face, I want to look in his eyes, and forget the pain of goodbyes, the relationships ripped off me like a limb, the searing pain of loneliness,  the humility of language learning, the hurt of change again and again and again, and I want to hear him say, “well done my good and faithful servant”.

Because then it will all be worth it.


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