A nurse was putting away supplies on the other side of the room when I woke up the morning after the surgery. She was blurry. I blinked a few times before realizing a cloudy partition stood between us. She walked over to my bed.
“Kak vy sebya chustvuyute,” she asked. How do you feel? She was a petite young woman, her plain dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. I thought about the nurses I’d had in the States the two other times I had given birth. They were friendly and talkative. After Zoya’s birth, I wanted a few bored nurses to leave me alone. I had been the only mom on the floor and they hung around the room all day, smiling and fussing over us.“Harasho,” I answered in Russian. I feel fine. “Where’s my baby?” “Your husband will explain everything to you when he gets here. For now, you should sleep,” the nurse said, already walking away from me.
Eight months earlier, our family vacationed at our hata, a summer home we’d purchased with our friends Jim and Liz. By then, we had been living in Ukraine over two years. A Ukrainian summer home is not what I had imagined. I remember the first time a friend in Kiev told me about her place in the village.
“What are you doing this weekend, Oksana?” I’d asked at an evening get-together.
“I will be in the village with my mother at our summer home.”
“Oh wow. That sounds great to get away from the city and relax.”
“No, you do not understand. We do not go there to relax. We go to the village to dig potatoes and to work in the garden. We must get enough vegetables for our family to eat for now, to have for later, and to sell in the marketplace.”
The house and land in the village cost four hundred American dollars. We had split the cost of the hata with our friends, thus securing a rustic get-away for a couple hundred bucks and the price of an air mattress. The house had two rooms—one large and one small— and an enclosed porch. It sat in a valley, hidden by a steep hill on one side and thick, green woods around the rest of the property. There was no heat, running water or cell phone service. The bathroom was a detached shack out back—a deep hole dug out, wood slabs, and a white plastic toilet seat. With no roof on the outhouse, you could look up at the stars. Our little family was tucked away from everything that week. Our vacation plan was to stay as long as the meat didn’t spoil. No one could reach us at the hata. I joked with Sergei that if it were the end of the world, we wouldn’t have known for a couple of days. We needed that kind of get-away; the four of us, a blazing sun, and hours spread out.
The village, two hours from Kiev, cozied up to the Dnieper River, one of Europe’s largest waterways, flowing from Russia through Belarus and down into the Black Sea. It was a filthy river, with talk of residual pollution from the infamous 1986 Chernobyl power plant explosion, sixty miles north of Kiev. Elaina and Zoya weren’t allowed to swim in the river, but a relatively clean pond hidden in the village would suffice.
Our first morning at the hata, the girls rolled out of bed and started playing outside in their pajamas. The weather was perfect for idleness; we sunned ourselves at the pond all afternoon and enjoyed a picnic of vegetables, bread, and thick slices of sausage and cheese. The girls reminded me of long legged spiders, crawling over the sand as fast as they could, scattering around as if the rock they’d been hiding under had been flipped. By the time the sun peaked, Elaina and Zoya were bronze from head to toe, their hair sun-kissed white.
Later that day, after supper, we walked up to the only store in the village. It mostly stocked assorted brands of vodka and beer, as well as sausage, bread and ice cream. We purchased four sticks of vanilla covered in chocolate and started towards home, kicking stones and letting the ice cream drip down our chins. A goat meandered ahead of us on the dirt road. Chickens squawked and pecked at one another off to the side. The sun dipped to the horizon. Sergei picked up Zoya and put her on his shoulders. I watched my daughter, three years old, and was struck by her serenity. Zoya is the Ukrainian version of the Greek name Zoe, meaning new life. I had been a panicked, shaky new mother with Elaina. Eighteen months later, Zoya’s arrival settled me down. She ate and slept when she wanted, and she was happiest near me. Because of her calm and trust, Zoya eased me.
Elaina walked by my side, pouting, wanting a turn on Papa’s shoulders. Her name means light, but a better definition for her is lightning. She came out of the womb keen and quick, and aced each new skill in her young life. I took her small hand in mine, this little girl who could light up a room. My daughters were opposites. The yin and yang that balanced my life. I sucked in a breath while one of the goats ahead of me bleated. The girls were so beautiful; I couldn’t help but marvel at them and the evolution of our family.
Sergei and I met in Ukraine in 1996. Six years after the Cold War ended, government officials opened Russia, Ukraine and other Slavic countries to religious and philanthropic organizations to help them rebuild. I was twenty years old and had taken a year off from college to work in the schools and universities in Kiev. Sergei interpreted for our group. At first, I’d found his country harsh and cold, but by the end of that year, I had fallen in love with him and Ukraine. He followed me back to the United States after I returned home. Having lived in Ukraine for over two years as a family, we were starting to feel settled. I had finished intensive language acquisition. Elaina loved her preschool and Sergei was part of a new church plant in the neighborhood where he grew up. Zoya started to respond to us in Russian and I felt less and less exhausted at the end of long, Ukrainian days. I secretly thought of myself as both an architect and a builder. We had put down the scaffolding needed to function well as a mostly-American family in Ukraine. My life was going as planned. Our family lived and worked in Ukraine and we were thriving.
Before our vacation to the hata, Sergei and I had kicked around the idea of having another child. The timing seemed right. If I sat still and quiet, I could feel a gentle tug to continue to build our family. I wanted another baby. I wanted more of this. As we walked home from the village store, I squeezed Elaina’s hand one, two, three times and pointed out a cow grazing down below the dirt road in a meadow. She forgot about herpouting. “Wow, look at that cow! Papa, do you see the cow? Look Zo Zo, cow!” Yes, I wanted another child, and the hata was the perfect setting to pursue that goal.
That night, after spending the day at the pond and buying ice cream, and after the girls were tucked away inside, fast asleep, I climbed on top of my husband as he sat in a folding chair next to the crackling bonfire. It was probably close to midnight. A cool August breeze swept the hair on my forearms up. The glass of Chardonnay I’d sipped at dinner helped me change gears from mother to wife. “No one is around,” I whispered in Sergei’s ear. The nearest neighbor was up a steep hill. The road was quiet. Crickets called to one another in the woods surrounding our property. I peeled off my gray sweatshirt and leaned into Sergei’s neck. He smelled like earth and oak and chocolate. I sensed a faint smile on his lips. I would have been embarrassed if someone knew I was making love to my husband, who was also the pastor of our church, in a folding chair under a black night. I mean, we were missionaries. But the darkness enveloped us. Sergei reached into his pocket for a condom. “No. We don’t need it.” “You sure? You want to try for another baby?” he hesitated. “Yes, let’s,” I said, covering his mouth with mine. The sky housed a thousand stars.
An hour later, I sank into my sleeping bag on the air mattress Sergei bought for our reprieve in the village, but I couldn’t sleep. “I think we just made a baby,” I whispered to Sergei. Envious of how fast he fell asleep, I lay there into the night, tucked in my royal blue sleeping bag two hours from our apartment in Kiev, an ocean away from where I slept as a child in Michigan. I’m ready for this, right?
Sergei showed up at the hospital around eight o’clock that morning, about an hour and a half after I had woken up from the surgery. Unshaven, wearing the same clothes from the previous day, he bent and kissed me like I had seen him kiss his mother countless times. Just a slight brush of the lips. Taking a closer look at his face, I noticed his eyes were puffy. What is going on? Had he been crying? “How are you feeling?” he asked, standing over me, concerned. “I’m sore. I still can’t feel my legs from the epidural.” I peered down at the sheets covering my motionless legs. “Sergei, where’s our baby?” “She’s on another floor in an incubator,” he said. “She was in a bad shape when they took her from you.” Though a native Russian speaker, my husband’s English is excellent. If he makes a mistake, he is either tired or nervous. “She was all shriveled up, and she wasn’t breathing when she came out. The doctor resuscitated her. She has some kind of blood infection too.” I tried to focus on his words, but the black circles underneath Sergei’s eyes kept distracting me. He and his mom both get dark circles under their eyes when they are tired. It happens often. I am used to seeing my husband with raccoon eyes. He’s busy. His time is spent caring for people. I had never seen the skin under his eyes so black. I glanced away. A light rain splattered drop after indifferent drop on the window by my bed. I was quite taken with the tiny, perfect bodies of water. They’d freefall and then break open and slide down the pane.
I tried to comprehend what Sergei had just said: not breathing when born, blood infection, all shriveled up. He can’t be talking about our baby. The day we conceived this child the sun beat down on us. The night when we came together was beautiful and clear. How could her first day out of my womb be this dark and wet? There were people outside of the hospital getting out of the shower, having coffee, leaving their apartments for work. “The doctor said she wouldn’t have made it ’til morning. At this point they’re still not sure if she will make it today.”
Sergei looked past me. “I have something else to tell you.”
My body tensed.
“They suspect the baby may have Down syndrome.”
About the Author:
Gillian Marchenko is an author and national speaker who lives in Chicago with her husband Sergei and four daughters. This piece is an excerpt from her book, Sun Shine Down, published with T. S. Poetry Press in the fall of 2013.