January 4, 2023 – January 26, 2023
My father, still extremely upset about being placed at the elderly house, tells me he would escape if only he could walk. He calls me on January 9th and asks me to get him crutches. My departure to Berlin through Bucharest is set on January 26th, now life really feels like walking on thin ice. I placed an application for two bank accounts at the OTP bank for my parents so that even outside Ukraine I could receive the sum of 250 USD, their pensions, to go towards 500 USD of their care facilities cost. This is how on January 10th, the day of her eighty-second birthday, my mother got her first-ever bank account and a banking card. My father, in addition to all that, also got a pair of crutches, which the OTP bank representative and I assembled for him after he signed the documents.
In the early morning of January 13th, I received a call from the sanatorium. “Sveta, come here immediately, we called the ambulance for your mother.” When I was running the sanatorium corridor, I heard my mother crying that she would not go to the hospital without me and begging someone to leave her alone. In the room, one of the nurses was trying to pull my mother by her left hand, ignoring that it is immobile after she suffered from poliomyelitis as a child back in Voroshilov-Ussuriysky amid the severe conditions of the Far East, where my Belarusian grandfather, a lieutenant colonel of the Soviet army, served during WW2. The horrifying scene looked like a most violent eviction. The med personnel of the ambulance stood aside to observe two nurses dragging my resisting mother towards the wheelchair, “Collect all your things, if you cannot, I will collect all your belongings, out, out of the room, now!” My mother was in tears with her face transformed by fear and pain, and I caught her falling in my arms. I was so shocked that I pushed one of the nurses and was ready to engage in a physical fight, “What is going on here?! Are you out of your mind?! Step back immediately!” “I do not know what kind of daughter you are that you are not taking care of your mother. We are tired of dealing with her arrhythmia, she is sick and should go to the hospital, we don’t need that here!” “Step back, I said!” Two weeks before my planned departure, all arrangements I made for my mother became unmade and we lost her place in the sanatorium.
The ambulance delivered my mother to the cardiological department of the city hospital. As I accompanied her by holding her hand, tightly, inside the van, I noticed her speech was getting fragmented and confused as if she was drifting away into another reality, hallucinating, with her body becoming tense, as she stopped recognizing me. Triggered by extreme unprofessionalism, her dementia consumed her entirely. Four hours after her hospital admission, my mother asked me with a firm voice, looking right into my eyes, “Do you know if Sveta can come to see me today?” Who was I – to her? Her gestures lost softness, and, with all her fragility, my mother’s body was now showing something robotic in how she would stretch her only working arm to get a crutch or her notebook, where she asked me to write down “Sveta’s phone number.” I sat there, on the edge of her bed, wishing I had such a phone number that could help us to reach each other.
After a while, my sense of reality also started melting. Apparently, the year of the ground constantly being pulled out from under your feet does not teach you much. Where are your IFs and THENs, your plans A, B, and C, and X, Y, and Z? Where are your backups, your alternative options? You were so good at all that – when you were you. The year of extreme uncertainty nurtures some faith in your gut in the one and only escape plan. This faith is trash. And you are back holding her in your arms, the only shelter she’s got. Only this time, the distance between you and her feels like 8,735 kilometres. A poem came back to me. I wrote it when I lived in New York in the summer of 2008, after four painful years of not seeing her, when I luckily did not know that I would not see her for as long as another seven years. As I cleaned our archives last fall, I found them in the pile of my letters to her, and she asked me to save them while she lives, especially this one.
I recall my mom’s hips, toes, and breasts
come forward, step out off
the silver mirror no longer reflecting my skin but hers
what do you know about me in relation to how you care
what do you remember in relation to how you forget
the time in relation to when
I am in relation to where your voice
wires in relation to wireless telecommunication
your warmth in relation to the kilometres
where in relation to when and
always in relation to the time you woke me up in the mornings
your gestures in reflection of
my mirror in relation to
in relation to where
and to you
My mind was spinning. My mother will have to leave the hospital in ten to twelve days, the doctor says, which would be two days before my departure, but where do I take her next? What kind of care will she need? Will she get better? I walked to the park and sat there in front of the “decommunized” monument previously featuring a Soviet tank, my gaze staring at the newly installed Glory to the Heroes! slogan, written with a spelling mistake. I called Viktor. “Could you give me a ride to Makiv and see the elderly house with me – tonight?”
Makiv is a nearby village. After the OTP bank representative visited my father with me to finalize the paperwork, she told me on our ride back that her friend’s father lived in a “much better institution” in Makiv, and – clearly under the strong impression of what she saw inside the house – she even promised to get me the phone number. Viktor picked me up at six and we headed towards the village. The smell in the sanatorium “Ukraine,” now the house for the elderly people, was not great, but if all windows are sealed, you cannot expect any better. The corridors were clean enough. But, again, there is no elevator. The elderly dwellers were all kept on the second floor. The outside was foreclosed for them. It used to be a spa several decades ago and you can still find its website from the last century, with all the services listed there – dance therapy, mud therapy, physiotherapy, and of course a pump room with its own mineral water of healing properties. The woman was already waiting in the foyer. She took us as a couple and, at first, was talking primarily to Viktor, until she realized that the interested party was me. She showed us a huge room with heavy glossy curtains and a king-size bed that was clearly too low for my mother. “Can she call you somehow if she needs to stand up or lay down?” “She can yell, I will hear, but you need to understand, I am alone here to serve fourteen people.” The walls looked soundproof. “Is there any other room available?” “Yes, but with a neighbour.” “I think it’s better.”
The elderly woman from Donetsk lived across the corridor. Excited to hear about a potential neighbour, she said they could read Chekhov to each other and “live happily” together. I said my mother would love that. There were two spare beds in her room and one of them could be upgraded with an additional mattress to make it high enough for my mother. “What about other rooms and people? Can I meet them?” “They all have mental problems, and they don’t leave their rooms. Your mother will never see them.” On the way back to Kamyanets, Viktor and I both were dead silent. “No,” I finally said, “I think it’s impossible. I cannot leave her there. If my father’s facility is a prison in proximity to town, where someone can visit him, this is a remote prison; she will be locked up dying in solitude.” “We should stop by the artists’ studio,” he said. “You need a drink.”
On the morning of January 14th, I went down to a small grocery store in my building, and, out of the blue, I asked one of the cashiers, Natasha, if she would work for me to care for my mother. I was desperate. We went for a smoke, and Natasha said she knew a woman from her village – “our husbands serve in the army together” – who has been looking for such a job. In four hours, I miraculously had contacts of two women who were interested in the job, and the interviews were set for tomorrow. If everything goes well at the hospital, if my mother does not need any special care, I will decide to bring her home, even if it would make my father furious and unpredictable in his actions. I got in a cab to visit him. His pants were wet when I arrived, but the nurse was already on the way to him. “The crutches are great!” he said having put on dry pants. “I hit that idiot with a crutch when he approached me last night,” my father pointed towards his blind neighbour sitting, withdrawn, on the bed next to his, staring at the wall. “I hit him so well, he fell. How is Mother”? “She is not well. At the hospital, again.” “Is she? She does not pick up the phone.” “She cannot.” “Of course, she can.”
We were still trying to make conversation when I received the call from the cardiology department, asking me to come there “immediately.” My mother was sitting on her bed, irresponsive and indifferent to my arrival. “She gave us a hard time last night,” the nurse said, “the doctor will tell you everything.” The doctor came, he was angry. “If you don’t do anything, we cannot help her, you will need to take her home and free the bed for other patients.” “What happened?” “She refused to lay down, she refused to eat or take pills, she says we are poisoning her, we cannot treat her like that.” “Cannot you see she is not herself after she was forcedly removed from the sanatorium? You must have had such patients before, what do you do in such cases?” “She seemed fine yesterday, she remembered her name and responded to all my questions. I arranged for a psychiatrist to see her tomorrow morning, I am just letting you know.”
As I was later told, my mother sat through all night and screamed when anyone would approach her. Then she tried to escape with the help of her walker, barely dragging her extremely swollen legs. The nurses had to force her way back in the room several times. I hugged her. “You were behind the door, I knew it, they did not want to let you in,” she said. “I was not, my love, I was at home.” “Don’t lie to me, I know you were there, I heard you talking, I know they were hurting you. I heard everything. They are laughing at us. They are all laughing at us.” I tried helping her to lay down, but she shook my hands off. Only now I realized my tears were running for quite some time, blinding me entirely. I kept kissing her head and she finally gave up, her body became softer, she leaned on me, her head on my shoulder, and she suddenly fell asleep, still in a sitting position. I kept her like that, sleeping in my arms, for almost three hours, my tears running nonstop. In the evening, she stopped recognizing me again, and I witnessed how a group of doctors and nurses hopelessly tried to stop her, this tiny, fragile, very sick woman, who was determined to get out of the room to “be with Sveta” at any cost, while I was standing right there, next to her, and she did not see me.
After the psychiatrist’s visit the next morning, my mother was put in bed and her treatment commenced, showing at first very little progress. On January 16th, I wrote to Nora and the Transmediale team in Berlin to make a plan B – my departure by the end of the month was quite unlikely. “Please do not worry about it. We can do remote,” she wrote in our Telegram exchange. In a week, however, my mother’s condition stabilized. One question tortured her daily – “Where will I go after the hospital? I do not have anywhere to go.” But I already had a solution. “You will go home. You will live with two women who will care after you, taking turns.” “Father is there. I cannot be with him.” “He is at the home for the elderly people, and you will be home.” “He will not like it. He will not let it happen.” “You will be home.”
When I got to my apartment after the hospital on January 14th, it was late. I poured myself a drink and went to bed, where I wrapped myself in two blankets. The power was back for half an hour and the room was slowly warming up. I opened my computer to find out about the massive strike on a residential building in Dnipro just several hours ago in the afternoon, which explained the whole day of sirens. Two days later, after all, search processes were nearly completed having rescued thirty-nine people, we would learn about forty-six people killed and eighty injured, while eleven remained missing. Then a photograph of the ruins – with a young woman caught in her apartment, half of which was demolished in the explosion – went viral on media. She was sitting there, a red dot amid the brownish and greyish dust and debris, quite invisible until you zoom in.
The strike was, in a way, inaugural. On January 11th, Putin replaced General Surovikin with General Gerasimov as the commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine, and such replacements often result in massive attacks of particular cruelty. Without giving them any special recognition, to me, these generals represent two strategies that are merged in this war – and if some years ago we could distinguish between them, now we cannot – they are one. Surovikin’s Aleppo-style bombing combined with Gerasimov’s information warfare appropriated from the NSA manuals. A new tactic of taking longer breaks between the days of the attack in order to accumulate resources and then overwhelm the Ukrainian air defence system with a high number of rockets and drones was in use since then.
On January 21st, I was on the train to Kyiv again for my next doctor’s appointment. The only thing I remember from the trip is a dinner with Svitlana’s friends, one of whom, now a known translator from Chinese, studied with me at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in the late 1990s, but could not recall me, although I visited his dormitory room on many, many occasions at night hours – to borrow books on Chinese culture. Everyone at the dinner table said they had no doubts about the looming big war before the US and British intelligence was made public. They also said the signs were overwhelmingly clear back in October 2021. To me, the knowledge of approaching war is expressed in packing emergency backpacks, but I forgot to ask them if they had theirs ready that autumn. Even if I would have, who’d tell me the truth about their backpacks now? I packed mine on February 24th, late afternoon.
On January 24th, I was back in town. In the afternoon, I checked Mama out of the hospital and brought her home. My mother was so fragile and still quite disoriented, but the worst was already behind us. Lyuda and Nina, whom I hired to care for my mother, were waiting for us, and the dinner was ready. As much as I wanted, I could not stay for this last food with her, the amount of packing work ahead of me was overwhelming.
When I entered my apartment, filled with boxes and suitcases, I couldn’t do a thing. I made my way to the balcony, to catch the last moments of daylight. How many evenings like that I spent here? How many times did I witness my old town from above? Close to seven hundred? Spreading for kilometres towards the point where the sun touches the horizon, the view of the fields and villages suddenly brought back a memory of a balloon ride, a gift I made to myself several years back.
When I look at this photograph taken by the pilot from the air balloon riding alongside us on the early morning of July 14th, 2018, it is deeply satisfying to know that I am there, in that passenger basket, surfing the airwaves, bathing in the first sunrays of the day at the mercy of the winds –five hundred and sixty-seven meters above the ground. Nothing, probably, among all the experiences that reconfigure you, nothing comes close to what I lived that morning. Did that ride determine all my future returns to town?
In the spring and summer of 2021, air balloons were part of the usual scenery behind my windows – gorgeous flying machines, sometimes coming so close to my windows that I’d hear the roar of them filling with hot air. I never booked another ride. Instead, I started working on a media archaeological essay about the history of ballooning in Kamyanets-Podilsky, which goes back to the Montgolfier brothers’ invention of a hot-air globe aérostatique and its first public demonstration in 1783. Legend tells us that after he learned about the brothers’ successful attempt in Paris, military commandant of the Kamianets-Podilsky fortress Jan de Witte, a Polish military engineer and architect of Dutch descent, got committed to the idea of recreating the Montgolfiers’ experiment and launching ballooning on his terrain. A 7.5-meter globe aérostatique, yet without passengers, went up in the air in 1784, and a ten-meter globe followed it a bit later. Neither attempt, to be honest, was particularly successful in establishing a new transportation system, but they were certainly worth a mention in the history of aeronautics. The essay remains unfinished.
On the evening of January 25th, Kostya called. “I was just passing by your house and saw the light in your window. How are things?” “I am leaving Ukraine tomorrow.” “Are you? Why?!” “I guess because you did not help me to set up a Starlink!” “…” “A joke, Kostya, it is a joke.” “I guess we infrastructurally failed under the Russian strikes.” “It’s me who failed, infrastructurally, in the broadest sense of the word. You’ll be alright.”
On the morning of January 26th, I took my coffee to the balcony for the last time. After weeks of warm and snowless winter, the temperature suddenly dropped significantly. The road would be coved with ice by night, the weather forecast marked driving conditions as “extreme.” I looked around, holding my hot metal cup, slowly embracing the fact that I was about to cut my ties with those only two beings who really need me, to whom my attention matters, for whom my attention is a matter of life and death. The memory of gracious air balloons visited me again for a short second but was immediately crashed by a recollection that Yura, the pilot who navigated my flight, was at war. The sky – for air balloons – was closed. Everything looked grey from my point of view on the top floor of the highest building in town. Grey and motionless – streets, villages, fields, and the sky. Only the horizon was crawling towards me. The low clouds were pushed further down by the invisible hands of gods. The space was tightening fast as if it was forcing me out. “Go, go already, leave.” I returned to packing. Life as voluminous piles of stuff was all over the place. I gave most of it away.
My father called me three hours before my departure. We spoke for twelve minutes and twenty-one seconds. He talked slowly. “Will you come today?” “Papa, I am leaving tonight, still packing. I am leaving Ukraine.” “And I will stay here?” “Yes.” “When are you back?” “I don’t know.” “My sister Halya was here today, she brought me her cooking, but I cannot eat it. I have no appetite. Don’t bring me food.” “I won’t.” “So, you are leaving? When are you gonna be back?” “I don’t know, Papa.” “Svitul’ka, moya khorosha, my good girl, I will be waiting for you.” “I will be back.”
Friends who inherited my belongings came around six and we loaded the boxes in their two cars. Sasha, the apartment owner, got the keys back. Serhiy, Natalka, and Olya were waving goodbye as my driver started the car and we drove out of the yard, carefully moving backwards. When you see the distance growing like that in front of your eyes, it’s painful, but soon, you don’t see it anymore. A short stop at my mother’s where she was so thin and tiny standing in the middle of the room in my small and now totally shrunken wool sweater. “I will be back.”
“You are so lucky,” my driver Grisha said on our way out of town, “I’ve just put on winter tires.” The icy street surface kept sparkling upon every touch of the light. Now I could respond to Niels. I sent him a grainy photo without a caption. And I was gone.