Updated: Aug 16, 2020
The sky is pitch black on this late September night as is typical throughout the fall and winter in Ukraine. Whatever little light the moon shares creates a gloomy glow, causing the leafless trees to angrily shake their lifeless limbs at me whenever the wind blows. The night is dead silent. The autumn breeze softly rustles the tree branches high above my head. The unearthly calmness only seems to magnify and highlight every sound coming out of the woods as my heart beat raises its tempo and becomes a deafening thump in my ears. The sound, akin to the drums of war beating their hellish rhythm, only to be broken by the sound of a snapping twig or a rustle in the bushes. All of this adds to my paralyzing fear. The darkness is petrifying. Any moment now the monster is going to crawl out of the abyss and drag me into the eternal blackness. The only thing that keeps me going now is the need to empty my bladder and bowels. The pain is only exacerbated by the fear in my mind. Who knew that the lone journey of a 6-year-old to the outhouse at night would be so freaking scary.
That’s how my little childhood mind remembered it. Going to the outhouse at night was the scariest thing ever because I had to walk alone through our back yard on dark Ukrainian nights. I could get away with peeing on the nearest tree but taking a dump, well I was too big to use the baby potty which meant the trek to the outhouse for me. Little did I know that I would have to walk through the darkness on my own for decades, fearful and alone, trying to find a way to relieve the pain that filled my heart and soul.
I was born in 1984 in Frunze, Kyrgyzstan. A few months later I almost died in a dysentery epidemic. The local government put me in quarantine with my mom. My cousin who was around the same age as me died in about three days. Being a believer, my dad would come to the hospital daily and pray that God would save me and promised me to the Lord should I survive.
Our family moved between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for a few years then ended up settling in Shepetivka, Ukraine just as the Soviet Union was about to collapse. I’m the oldest of 6 children and at that time I already had a brother and a sister. As a result, at five years old my mom taught me how to lock the door and left me in charge of my younger siblings as she went shopping. By shopping, I mean she would stand in line at a local market where a truck would arrive with the town’s rations of bread, milk, and vegetables.
Our little house did not have indoor plumbing so we had to carry water from a well that we had in the yard. We also had an outhouse which I was obviously deathly scared of at night since there weren’t any lights outside. Being the oldest meant I had to help out at home and learn how to fend for myself. I had to learn how to light a gas stove and fry myself some eggs for breakfast. Lighting the stove was always a scary exercise because I had trouble with the matches due to my little shaky hands. If my first few strikes were unsuccessful, I would be met with a blue fireball from the gas that was running unlit for too long.
My dad would ride his bike to work at the other side of town. He was a minister in the church and also worked at the watershed where he would make sure the water was pumping to the whole town. With his ministry and work, we did not have a regular schedule with our dad. Often, I would spend hours in fear “just waiting until my dad got home” because I got into trouble. I mostly found out what I did wrong after I got a spanking or a whipping for it.
I loved exploring and reading stories, but I would often be petrified with fear because I didn’t know if I would get in trouble for something I did or not. Most times my curiosity would win over. Living in an old house meant there were constant projects dad was working on. I would get yelled at for not helping unload bricks from a truck or not helping dig up sand to mix the concrete. There was no such thing as an idle hand. When everyone is working, I had better be pulling my weight. I was required to help, a lot. From the age of 5 onward I would help dig trenches for the potatoes we planted, gather the berries, feed the animals, help with the laundry, sweep and wash the floors of the house, and get water from the well. If I made a little mistake or messed up, the first thing my dad would say was, “what a stump” or if the offense was worse I would hear, “ot nepotrib” which means something that’s about to be thrown away.
Living in a house without indoor plumbing meant we had to go to the public bath house in the city. The experience was fine because the boys would go with my dad most times. However, when it was time for me to go to school, I had to get washed more often and so my mom would take me to the bath house. This meant I had to go with her to the female side, a terrifying prospect for a little boy. All I remember were naked women’s bodies all around me of all ages and sizes, and me just standing there, my seven year old hands shamefully covering my nakedness and not knowing what was happening.
We had plenty of fun and great experiences as a family, going out into the woods and picking mushrooms and berries, having picnics, going to church together, or having family worship. Even in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances for my parents I had no doubt they loved us even though my dad never told me he did. They cared for us when we were sick and made sure we had great Christmases. Our town only had a couple paved roads, so in the spring most roads would get really muddy. Since I would have to walk to school, there were moments where I would be up to my little knees in mud, crying and trying to not lose my boots, slowly making my way home. It was my dad who would ride his bike all over town looking for me. What a relief I felt when he picked me out of the mud and rode me home.
But all those words and experiences in my childhood built up a set of lies in my heart about who I was, who God was, and what life meant. God was a loving God, but He required perfect obedience and utmost excellence.