In early February 2022, my birth city of Odesa, Ukraine, awaits war. Every few days Biden goes on TV, warning against the threat of Russian invasion. Putin sits at the head of a long table as a hundred thousand soldiers amass at the Ukrainian border, but no one’s spoken the word that will change the lives of millions.
“Will he really invade?” people text, even those I haven’t heard from in years, as if I am an expert on troop movements in Eastern Europe. The news shows the streets of Donbas empty. If Ukraine had tumbleweeds, they’d be blowing through the intersections. Meanwhile, in Odesa, there is still an air of disbelief. People buy cheese and cucumbers at the market. Kids play in the street. How long will this worrisome calm continue?
It is a strange thing to wake up in the middle of the night reaching for the phone, wondering if the war has started, if the house where you grew up, where your dead parents were once happy, is being bombed right now.
We were eating apples at the dining room table and discussing a translation we were working on. Ilya was scrolling his phone with one hand and lifting an apple to his mouth with another, and then everything but his scrolling thumb froze. He kept flicking it over and over. It’s slightly mesmerizing to watch someone who’s mesmerized. Eventually, I close my hand over his phone and lift it gently out of his hand. “How about a shower?” I suggest.
He finds the lump in my armpit on my flat side. A year after mastectomy, you wouldn’t think there’d be anything left to form a lump, but there it was. Neither one of us say anything, we just stare at each other. After my first diagnosis of cancer in August 2020, we’d go in the shower to cry and hold each other. Now it’s like the puppeteer has hung us up and left the building for the night. We just stand, gaping. Our eyes no longer open and close.
It’s 5:03 pm on Friday the 19th of February when I hop out of the shower to call my oncologist. I’ll have to wait until Monday to hear back, and I’m already counting on my fingers: She’d meet me on Wednesday, and if I’m lucky she’ll schedule an ultrasound the same day. They’ll need an MRI or a biopsy; either one would take at least a week to schedule, and another three to five business days for results. Then a PET scan, with the same timeline. Add a week to get back to Wednesday, when my oncologist sees patients, and the soonest I’d know if I had cancer again would be the 30th or so of March. Bad news sometimes travels faster, but not much. Maybe the 23d. We’re already trying to reassure each other that it probably isn’t cancer.
I wake up in the middle of the night and Katie is right next to me, our cat nestled between us, her tail on my lips. Just lying here staring at her, what luck, this motionless time of being.
The next day, we attend a Zoom poetry reading to fundraise for Ukraine. Eight hundred people show up. Katie is reading translations of our Odesa friend, the poet Ludmila Khersonsky. Putin is sending troops to Ukraine, claiming, among other things, that he is protecting the Russian language. But Ludmila, the Russian language poet from Ukraine, will have none of that man’s foolishness:
A small gray person cancels
this twenty-first century,
adjusts his country’s clocks
for the winter war.
Two days before this, I talk to my cousin Petya in Odesa, who keeps repeating as if trying to persuade me, or himself, or someone else: “They are waiting, waiting in lines, waiting for war, but the war won’t come.”
And now it does.
It is midnight between February 23 and 24. I am in transit, in New Jersey with Katie for a poetry reading, when war is declared. I am trying to get in touch with Petya and my uncle in Odesa. I can’t hear on the phone, and there is no way of knowing how long the internet connection in Ukraine might work. Finally Petya answers. He’s trying to hoard as much water in the apartment as he can. He’s filled the bathtub, and there are water bottles covering every surface. There was scattered shelling through the city, but not much damage, he says. Yet, he says.
Still no word from my uncle Valerii. He is in his 80s but is usually active on Facebook. No word.
A poet from Odesa, Vitya Brevis, writes: “I live on the 21st floor, there is no one left around on my floor of this building. Of eight apartments, only one still has dwellers: my dog, my cat, and me. When I hear the siren wailing, I walk out on the balcony to see if missiles are coming.” This is the story of awaiting occupation of one’s hometown.
Another writer, Vadim Landa, sends this: “Nine of us, crowded in a train compartment designed for four people, our friends and I travel to Lviv from Odesa, refugees. Then in the car we try to cross the border. But the cars are stopped. We walk on foot in snow for a kilometer and half. To the checkpoints. We are standing in an enormous crowd, which the border guards call ‘a line to the checkpoint.’ Every now and then, the line’s movement stops entirely. The border guards leave us and focus their attention on the trucks coming from the other side of the border. From time to time someone in the crowd is screaming: ‘Doctor!’ Old women in the crowd are fainting. Finally, the border guard lets us in the building. The crowd floods the empty hall. We stand there for an hour. Then a guard shouts: ‘Into the next hall!’ The crowd floods into the next room, only to find that we are now standing behind those who were behind us in the crowd outside. The mothers with young children are hysterical. Finally, the impossible moment comes when a border guard stamps our passport, and we enter the territory of Poland. The border guard, playing Santa Claus, gives each child a candy. But we need two more hours to pass through the Polish border. Then, a bus to information center. Then, another bus to the train station. And a second half-sleepless night sitting on suitcases in the hallway of a crowded moving train. We try not to look at ourselves in the mirror.”
There’s no way to compare anguish. I watch Ilya looking at me in the mirror; he sees its evidence written all over my body: mastectomy scar, port scars, radiation scars, the heavy shadows of my ribs, bruises and broken capillaries from my poorly circulating blood. But that map affects only me, my family. Not millions. Millions of people fleeing, our friends, translators, leaving their precious men behind (men are required to stay in the army and fight), their pets, anything that they can’t carry for kilometers. Ilya wires money so friends’ sons can buy helmets and boots, or so their wives can afford eggs, or dog food, or gas to get over the border. He is a point of contact for others who need help, and readers and programs who want to give it. He’s on his email continuously, waking to reach for his phone even at 4 in the morning. He is living with trauma of history, of language. And still, Odesa waits in eerie suspension.
My oncologist says she thinks the lump is scar tissue, “but I’ve been wrong before!” So she sends me to the ultrasound office. The tech brings in the radiologist, who echoes my oncologist’s opinion: “But I’ve been wrong before!” I wonder if this is a line the hospital gives doctors to help cover their butts in case of lawsuits. She refers me on to an MRI, which takes a week to schedule. It’s on a Friday, and I have the results back within hours, because bad news travels fast. The lump is benign scar tissue, but they find a 7mm lesion on my breastbone, a possible “osseous metastasis,” aka a bone met: evidence of stage four incurable breast cancer. But it’s not confirmed yet. It could be something else, I tell myself. My oncologist doesn’t call, so it must not be that important, I tell myself. My PET scan is scheduled for two more weeks out. Just compartmentalize it, I tell myself. My God, I’m only 38, I’m not ready to be dying.
I try to describe it to Ilya, who’s trying to describe it to me. “I can’t control the fear, but I can act,” he says. His eyes look bruised from lack of sleep, but he can do something. I run scenarios in my mind of what I could do if my cancer has metastasized. What if I have only weeks left? I’ll host dinner parties at my house and fly my friends and family in. We’ll laugh and eat silly food under ridiculous floral arrangements. The musicians will play and the poets will read and the actors will perform; I’ll surround myself with the art of my dearest friends. I’ll finish setting up my living will and have a calligrapher write DNR on my chest in permanent marker. With months, I’ll take a couple of trips. With a year, I’ll complete two more books. But even these plans can’t settle me.
Imagine a man, let’s call him Jacob, wrestling an angel all day, every day. My fear against my rational mind. They crash around the room while I’m trying to work or sleep, distracting me. Finally, one gets the other into a choke hold and they quiet down, just barely grunting, their faces red and their muscles trembling, sweat falling into each other’s faces, and then I can slip into an uneasy rest, for a couple of hours at a time. When I teach on Zoom, I wonder if my students can hear them thumping on each other. While they brainstorm ideas for poems, I breathe deeply, wondering if that’s a wheeze I hear, just at the bottom of my breath? That’s one strike for the angel, who flips Jacob on his back, and there they go again.
This is a refugee’s story of waiting. I’m watching friends from Odesa waiting to lose what my family lost in 1993: a city, a language, a home. I’m upstairs reading the news when I get a text from my wife that says only “Help.” She’s frozen with fear in bed. “Can you remind me how to breathe?” she asks, trying to laugh, when I find her under the covers. I set her down in the dining room and give her a plate of warm food and watch the blood return to her face.
These are the days and the weeks between: between phone calls from the doctors, between emails from friends and family in Ukraine, between a future where this PET scan is forgotten and one in which it is the moment that alters our world forever, between a future with a free Ukraine and one swallowed by Putin’s hoped-for empire, between worrying about what might happen and trying to distract each other from worry, between the tenderness in Katie’s eyes and the need to reflect this tenderness back at her.
We are speechless at one moment, and then spontaneously dancing in the middle of the kitchen, then eating lunch quietly, afraid to look up. We are laughing again at the video making the rounds of the Ukrainian truck driver offering to tow the Russian tank back to Russia, but when the laughter stops, I look into her face and see these waiting hours, this time zone called fear. I am looking into her face and see her say without uttering a word, We are here.
Today, a poet who stays in Odesa, Vladislava Ilinskaya, sends this:
“After a week spent in a stupor, I walked out into Odesa streets: anti-tank fortifications, barricades made of sandbags blocking the avenues. Boutiques and restaurants boarded up. People with guns on the streets. I’m writing this in a taxi. We were just stopped at a checkpoint, we were searched. It’s frightening how quickly I get used to this life.
The most terrifying thing is the silence. When you know that the whole country is boiling in a bloody broth. You find yourself in a terror of waiting for what comes.”
Meanwhile, still no word from my uncle Valerii. Petya says he is looking for him. No word. Odesa, whole, still sits atop its bluff and looks out into the sea. Katie’s PET scan was on Friday. It’s Sunday now.
Still, no word.
Katie Farris is the author of Standing in the Forest of Being Alive (Alice James Books, 2023) and A Net to Catch My Body in Its Weaving (Beloit Poetry Journal), which won the Chad Walsh Poetry Award. She teaches at Georgia Institute of Technology.
Ilya Kaminsky is the author of Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press), which won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award.