How can I ever stop replaying those last few moments in my head?
The airport’s international departure terminal is bright. White walls. White floors, glistening. New. Floor to ceiling windows line sides of the building, letting in as much natural light as possible. The entire terminal is wide open, with a high arching ceiling. It gives the illusion that everything is shiny and happy, full of fresh air and sunlight.
The crowds are small on this day. People mill about in small handfuls, the lines are short and the staff is still in good spirits.
Misha and Mariana know they are going back to Ukraine today. We wheel their overstuffed bags to the counter. I hold my breath while the lady weighs them.
36 pounds and 44 pounds.
My bathroom scale wasn’t wrong. Sigh of relief. Those bags have so much crammed inside. They’re like the epitome of American wealth and consumerism.
I imagine Foster Mom’s eyes bugging out of her head when she opens them at home in Ukraine and finds space bags vacuum sealed with snow suits, dresses, and heavy sweaters. All of it was donated by friends from the Ukrainian church. Beautiful clothes, name brands, new with tags.
Of course none of this will matter to the children. They will just know they are warm and loved in a country full of war, uncertainty, and facing lack of resources during the long, dark Ukrainian winter.
The lady working at the luggage check-in counter is Russian. She speaks to the kids, and she smiles genuinely. She checks our extra suitcase brimming with donated shoes and medical supplies for free. We had been praying she would sent it through for free since the extra baggage fees for international travel are steep. She knows that these kids need shoes and medicine, and she thanks us for our generosity. She asks about the hosting program and writes down the website to check it out later.
What are the chances of having a Russian lady checking in our luggage? Funny.
There’s time to kill before we have to send the kids through security. We sit in the standard terminal black seats facing the huge windows. Misha and Mariana sit in my lap and kiss my cheeks and hold my hands. We don’t talk much.
I think about these being the last moments I’ll ever have with them, after all the love and hard work I dedicated to their hearts this summer. The last time I’ll ever hug their bony little bodies, or feel their lips on my cheeks. They like to kiss first one cheek, then the other cheek, and then Mariana will try to kiss my lips and giggle or Misha will kiss my forehead. It’s been our daily ritual, ten thousand kisses a day.
Mariana exclaims over each airplane she sees out the window and asks if they are all going to Ukraine. At one point Misha sobs silently, but I hug him and kiss his soft cheeks and stroke his hair, and he stops. We laugh over Henry. We bribed him with a red sucker to get him to stop crying and he managed to coat himself from head to toe in red sucker goo.
Henry is a good distraction. Misha and Mariana go with me to the bathroom to bathe him in a sink. They adore Henry.
Then suddenly it’s time to walk over to the security line.
Long snaking elastic ropes mark off the line area. There isn’t anyone else in line, it’s only our group of Ukrainian orphans.
Everyone says their last goodbyes to the host children. Tears are shed, hugs are given, see you later’s are called out. The kids bravely walk up and down the roped off area, making their way to the front where they will be checked in and sent through security, out of our reaches.
But Misha and Mariana won’t walk up to the front with the other children. They grip my hands, clinging tightly on either side of me. They abandon their carry-on bags in the floor, so the chaperone and one of the other kids grab the bags and keep walking to the front.
I take a deep breath and lead my little ones up to the head of the line, where the rest of the group is waiting for them. My two are the youngest kids, physically and emotionally. The others are all standing tall, smiling and encouraging Misha and Mariana to go with them. The other kids have said goodbye to their host parents and they already have their emotional walls up. The ones that they’ve built to protect themselves from loss. They aren’t crying. If anything they make blank faces, avoid eye contact.
The other kids in the group all know what it means to be an orphan. They understand. They aren’t flustered by my two crying children because it happens in their world all the time.
The lady at the desk takes the stack of passports, and says the children must carry their own passports through security. Everyone looks at us, me trying to be strong and encouraging for my little ones, trying to let go of their hands and give them over to the chaperone and the other children, and Misha and Mariana refusing to let go.
Suddenly in unison Misha and Mariana lose every bit of self confidence they had gained this summer.
They wrap their sturdy little arms and legs around my body, squeezing as tight as they are able. Hanging on literally for dear life.
I don’t know what to do.
They scream as loud as they can. Misha is screaming Mama. Mariana is sobbing and yelling. They won’t let go of me.
I just spent seven weeks pouring love into them, earning their trust, teaching them to be confident and strong.
That is all washed away now, as we stand in a brightly lit airport terminal in Atlanta clinging together and sobbing.
I try not to cry. Seeing me cry will only upset them more. But how can I help it?
The entire terminal goes silent. Everyone turns to stare at the scene unfolding. People sort of gather around, staring at these two hysterical children making enough noise to wake the dead.
I’m not embarrassed. I feel frantic. I didn’t anticipate this happening.
Oh but I should have. I should have known they wouldn’t let go of me, even though they seemed excited to go back to Ukraine to be with their siblings.
Security guards come over. We cannot stand there blocking the entrance to security.
They want us to move back to the end of the line.
I stare at them. My brain is unable to formulate any response. Do they not see what is happening right now?
They are annoyed.
I try to move, but Misha and Mariana won’t let their feet touch the floor. They don’t want to let go of my body. They know my arms have held them many nights, cuddled them, and kept them safe when they were afraid of the whole world. Why would that stop now?
I manage to half drag them over to the edge of the roped area.
Security guards follow. Serious faces.
You can’t stand here.
I can’t get them back through the tangle of ropes marking off the security lines. They are too hysterical.
I am unsure how much time is passing. Everything stands still.
Am I still breathing?
Everything inside of me is screaming that this is wrong. Every fiber of my being is saying NO.
Take them and run. Go back to the car, wherever it is, in that maze of parking garages and elevators. Take them straight home, where they are safe forever. Don’t let go.
But I know I have to let go. Those are the rules. There are visas, international politics, security guards, and thousands of dollars of plane tickets.
They will miss their flight if I don’t let go immediately. It will be boarding in just a few minutes.
Everyone is still staring at us. Misha and Mariana are still screaming, sobbing, shaking, and sweating. Pure terror, they are begging me to save them. Not letting go of me. Not touching the floor.
I look around helplessly at a sea of concerned, annoyed, and fascinated faces. I make eye contact with the coordinator who is seemingly miles away across the terminal.What should I do?
Then the worst moment. Possibly one of the worst moments of my entire life.
The part I can’t stop replaying in my head over and over.
I know it had to happen. I let it happen. I had no choice.
Andrii, the chaperone, came back through security. One of the other host dads, a large man, came over to us. Together they used all of their strength to pry the children off of me while I stood there helpless.
Misha’s shoes flew off. Mariana started gagging. They were both screaming as loud as they possibly could, their screams echoing off of the arched ceilings and the bright white floors, bouncing from window to window, and breaking my heart into thousands of tiny pieces.
Misha reached for me as they hurried him away.
Frantic screams. Panicked screams. Moya mama! Moya mama!
He struggled as hard as he could, kicking and hitting, his little arms and legs pounding in a futile attempt to escape the strange man’s arms and run back to me. To run back to love and safety.
Mariana sobbed loudly. Limp. Defeated.
Misha and I made eye contact for a split second. His eyes were desperate. Pleading.
I stood there, silent tears escaping my eyes and pouring down my cheeks.
I listened while they screamed on their way through the metal detectors, still being carried to prevent them from running back to me.
Their screams grew fainter as they got farther away.
After a minute I could no longer hear them. They were both defeated then, I knew. I could picture them sitting silently in the seats, sobbing.
The other orphans were comforting them. I could take solace in that knowledge. One of the teenage boys had taken Misha in his arms and carried him through the metal detectors. He was kind, whispering in his ear and not reacting to Misha’s kicking and screaming. He too knows what it’s like to be taken from your family.
They all know.
I stood there for a moment, as people gradually stopped staring and went back to whatever they were doing before the world stopped turning.
I walked away.
Because what else could I do?
Empty handed. Numb.
In the car the back seat was empty. My own children seemed so quiet.
Leaving the airport without Misha and Mariana felt very wrong. I feel like I betrayed their trust. I stood there while they were ripped off of my body, and I sent them to a country with an uncertain future. Without a steady supply of food, where hot water and heat have been announced to be cut off for the first part of the winter due to gas supply issues. Where orphan funding has no been cut to nothing. Where families in one half of the country are killed by bombs and shot in crossfire.
I sent my babies there to that place. I smothered them with kisses and whispers of love as they sobbed, and then I stood still while they were taken from me.
I had no choice.
I’m not sure how to recover from this, how to stop that horrible moment from looping through my brain on repeat.
I’m powerless to do anything. I can’t go get them. I can’t keep them. I loved them, and I let them go.
Now what do I do? Once your life is forever changed, how do you go back to living? The world stopped turning in that horrible moment, and it has yet to start up again. People are walking around and smiling, eating, going about their daily lives. They don’t realize that for some of us life is forever altered, hearts are broken.
I’m not sure what to do now. Where do I go from here? I know that the love was worth it, despite the fact that we had to say goodbye. Always choose love, right?
I don’t understand, maybe I never will.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn bush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”