I have never feared snowplows.
But starting on Feb. 24, my heart began to ambush me at 6 a.m. every time the plows scraped down my street. The first time it happened, I swung awake to a racing heart. I am not even in Ukraine, yet I woke up terrified that the sound might be an airstrike.
The snow stopped, and so did the plows, but the terror hasn’t. I am the first person in my family to be born in America. My parents, who came here at the ages of 28 and 31 to escape Russian oppression, taught me how to navigate the checkerboard of life while I taught them how to navigate the checkerboard of America.
Four years ago, the new weight of helping my three little cousins navigate life sat itself onto my shoulders, too. Four weeks ago, the weight of war began to crush me, completely toppling our game of checkers.
A 21-year-old college senior, I don’t want to become the permanent mother to my three little cousins. They were just 5, 9 and 11 when their mother was forced to leave the United States four years ago due to visa trouble after 18 years of living here. She was forced to move back to Ukraine, leaving her husband — a truck driver only home a few days a month — and three daughters on the other side of the globe.
I made my only possible move and took my aunt’s place on the checkerboard, becoming a fill-in
mother overnight as a 17-year-old high school senior.
When the war began, a dark oblivion tiptoed around my motherly instincts. I flinched with the news of every missile, now numbering in the thousands. I flinched with every drop of my heart, with every refused droop of my eyelids.
Somehow the sun continued to set and rise, unlike my circadian rhythm. The rhythm drained out through my soul, which I have discovered is an organ, too. It is not made of muscle but of music — music that the heart muscle plays through its fingers of veins on the keys of my ribs. My organ’s pipes clogged. The music stopped. The only symphony came from our phones all ringing at once.
One day, my aunt’s voice on the phone clogged, too, with sounds of shuffling and panic and dropping everything and slamming the car door and driving and stopping and traffic and stopping and no service for hours on end — then silence.
And then a ringtone.
I heard “I’m okay” and then “I’m stuck in a one-lane standstill in the middle of the mountains and I’m almost out of gas and I can hear the sirens” and then the sirens and then no service again and then it was the next day and she was okay. And then she got gas. And then she made it to Poland.
And then it all began again with the next aunt. But she doesn’t want to leave her husband. But she wants to bring her 12-year-old daughter to safety. But she wants to live.
And then it all began over and over and over again with each relative. But they can’t leave. But they all want to live. But they’re too old to get up and leave. But they want to live. But they’re staying. But they all want to live. Freely.
They all want to live, free to express our language and culture. They all want to live.
And then it was Monday and I had class, but I forgot my organs at home. I was just a shell. A tear-stained face. A shaky body at a desk. My body disassembled, scattering itself all over the globe just like my family.
My heart flew to Ukraine because they still haven’t closed the sky. My brain stayed home to keep track of the news, and my eyes melted into my skull to take its place.
I have always lived a game of checkers, switching places with family members, rearranging my organs and losing myself on this infinite board of life, no — death, no. War, no. Genocide. Genocide is not a game, but the one player keeps flicking our checkers underneath his board. From beneath the rubble of our Ukrainian hearts, we will continue to rise.
Editor’s Note: Julia Kashuba is a student at John Carroll University. She wrote this essay one month after the war began.