Today was the day we had set aside to return to the Light of Love mission. I knew that this would be a difficult day for me.

On our way to the mission, we drove past a street market. It was in front of a church (I assumed it was an Orthodox church, but I don't know for sure). Ivan told us that there was a religious festival coming up, and so people from the church set up stands to sell candies, snacks, and icons. There were all kinds of candy; one in particular caught my eye: suckers that were shaped either as crosses, or as guns. It seemed an odd juxtaposition.

While we were looking, wandering a little bit, we heard a woman shouting. The three of us girls turned to see a woman expostulating, shouting and gesturing as she spoke to Ivan. At first, i thought she was angry with him, but this wasn't the case. We were hurried to the car, and Ivan and Victor explained. Ivan, very angry, told us that a man had come by. He said the man was like a sexton of the church. He had come by and had told the people that they would have to give him money if they wanted to sell things there. This wasn't true, Ivan insisted, but the people don't know. They were intimidated and afraid, and so they paid. The woman who had been shouting had told the man that she didn't have any money, as she had not sold anything yet; she said that when she did sell something, then she would pay. The man, in response, had kicked over the box on which her goods were displayed, knocking the box into her and the goods to the ground.

This made Ivan very angry, as no one said anything to the man or to the woman. He shouted to the people that it wasn't true, that they did not have to pay anything to this man. He told them to report the man to their priest, and that he was going to report the man to the police. But even as we drove away, Ivan said that he knew that reporting the man would do no good; by the time the police would come, everyone would be gone. He said that the man had probably been a proud Communist leader at some point and now used those same tactics on the people in his own parish. It was very distressing, all around.

You've seen this picture before. Natalya is in the yellow jacket.
When we arrived back at the Light of Love, the children were at first nowhere to be seen, but they soon came pouring out into the courtyard. The little blonde, Natalya, who had so charmed me on Friday with her spirited singing and her personality, attached herself to me, plunking herself right into my lap. I sang a little, and she tried to sing along, which made me fall a little more deeply in love with her. Bev suggested that we ask the children to sing, and we did--and they did. I recognized some of the songs that they had sung before, and sang along when I could, with Natalya looking back every now and then to see whether I was singing, whether I was listening, perhaps to see whether I was still paying attention.

When the singing ran down, amidst an argument over the correct way to sing one song, I cast about for something else we could do together--and so I began to play "1-2-3-Whee!" with the kids. It was a simple little thing that Chris and I had done often with our own kids and our niece and nephew--scooping them up in our arms, dipping them on one, two, and three, and then dropping them and catching them again and exclaiming "Whee!!"

The beauty of this, of course, is that one need not explain to play, and I could count in Ukrainian. Of course, once I tried this on Natalya, she wanted to do it again, and again, and over and over. Soon there were two others who wanted "dropped" as well...and then three or four...so I scooped kids up and "dropped" them and counted and spun and swung them for just as long as my back could hold out.

Singing and laughing
When I physically could not keep the game up any longer, I got out my postcards. They were a big hit, and I signed each one, letting the kids pick out a card they liked and then writing my name in Cyrillic and my address in English. I gave away all but two or three cards. Ivan had bought some suckers at the street market that morning, and they, too, were a big hit. I helped open them and mediated almost wordlessly between some arguing factions.

Then we were called in for lesson time, and I went, too. As I sat in the back of that long hall, listening to children repeat Scripture and listening the the prayers, I began to cry. All I could think was that I knew--I knew better than to play so closely with the children. I sat there in the dimness and knew that I had had the choice to stay back and keep a bit of distance, and I hadn't done it, and now my heart would certainly break.

Natalya sat on my lap and other girls hemmed in around me, Katya most often, but others too--too many to know their names or keep track of who they were. One child would begin to recite a verse from memory and then Irina would call on someone else and it would switch and switch again. In this way, they recited a whole chapter from the book of Matthew.

Katya and KatherineThere were group songs and songs by smaller choruses of children, and a skit with children playing the roles of the wise and the foolish virgins. And all this time all I could think about was Natalya and Katya, their hands holding mine, their faces and hair so close to my own.

Then it was time for prayer, and I knew that meant that we would be leaving soon. Of course, I cried, trying to repeat the Lord's Prayer with my breath catching and dipping and breaking. Natalya and Katya and other girls were pressed against me trustingly, lovingly, as though we had known one another forever. Images ran through my mind, of Natalya's hair falling in her facce and Katya with a face like my own, twirling and dancing in a dress too big for her. Natalya, so small that that she looked to be five or six, but was really the same age as my oldest son, nine. The both of them, sneaking looks at me from their prayers, seeing me cry and wiping my tears away.

As I prayed, I thought, "God, how can I leave them here?" But I had no choice. So I listened to the prayers arising from this crowd of children and I cried and cried. When I managed to pull myself together and try to retain composure, one of the girls would hold my hand or touch my face, and I would cry anew.

When the prayers were over, Victor told them that we had to go, and Natalya didn't want me to leave. I knelt down to hug her goodbye and she wouldn't let me go. She held me so tightly and so close that I could hear her breath, feel her heart beating. I didn't want to even breathe, because I just wanted to hear her in that moment.

I didn't want to cry any more. But oh, I cried. I hid my face in her hair and I cried and cried, kneeling in a doorway and buffeted by the feet and legs of children passing through and knowing that I was making a spectacle of myself. And still we sat and held each other and cried.

Finally, though, the leaving could not be put off and I had no more tears (so I thought). I made it to the car, almost smiling, almost able to walk without feeling the pain in my heart. I kissed and hugged every little girl that I could reach. I waved. I smiled, for them. And then, once the car left the gate, I cried and cried and cried.

If Natalya hadn't cared...If she hadn't stuck so closely to me...If she hadn't cried...I would have been okay. But she did care. I would swear (and this is not something I say lightly) that, for those few short hours, we did love one another, even knowing nothing about each other but that we were there and we were friendly and that we sang.

In my head, she is not Natalya. She is my Natalya. Mine. Surely, knowing that I will never pray again without thinking of her should give me some right, shouldn't it?

I will never, never forget. But she will. I know she will. Were I ever to go back, a year later, years later, she will be different. I will be a blur to her. She will never be able to know how strongly I felt during those hours. She will not know that, had I the chance, I would have taken her home to be truly mine. She will not know that her name is still in my mouth when I pray.

I think that is what hurts perhaps most--that I had so much I would have longed to say, but could not. Not even with an interpreter. Perhaps it is best that way.

I did not have to go. I did not have to play, to hold her, to be involved. I knew the risk. I don't regret it--not even a little. But I wish that love and compassion did not have to hurt so very much.

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There was more to this day. There is more I could say; the homesickness, the sadness, the delight of an e-mail from home. But none of that is what I will take home with me. What I will hold always is the memory of my Natalya.