February 9, 2018

A Valentine’s Day reflection

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February is the dreariest month, happily interrupted by Valentine’s Day, the holiday dedicated to love. Relatively new to Ukraine, it’s long been established in America. I remember exchanging flimsy cards in grade school asking every kid in the class to “be my Valentine.”

Ah love… There have been a billion songs, poems, movies, paintings, novels, operas, letters about that ineffable emotion, its absence generating as many expressions as its presence.

I’ve been blessed to have both received love and bestowed it. For me it began, I know, when my parents – stateless and penniless survivors of war and imprisonment, their desperate flight from tyranny having brought them to a refugee camp in Austria nearly a thousand miles from home – discovered they’d have a child. From that moment forward, they began to nurture me. As with millions of others in 1947, it took love to bring a child into an uncertain world and faith that it would all work out. But then, welcoming a child is nearly always an act of faith: that life will go on and somehow the boy or girl will grow up and continue the mystery of human existence.

As it turned out, an entire generation of other couples made the same decision my Mama and Tato did (or, given circumstances, accepted the inevitable.) We’re the “Baby Boomers” and now the growing wave of Senior Citizens. Ah, love… ah Valentines Day.

It’s celebrated with bouquets, greeting cards and chocolate. I’ve enjoyed bestowing all those on my wife, often ending the day with a nice restaurant dinner. “My favorite meal,” she’d say. I met Chrystia at a zabava (ball) in 1987. We were married a year to the day later and to our joy discovered we were blessed to soon welcome a son and four years later a daughter, which challenged us to embrace the same love, which for me began in a refugee camp, only in far more comfortable circumstances. At the time, we didn’t ponder the fact that someone had changed our own diapers, toilet trained us, sent us to school, provided three square meals every day, instilled values and then let us go when adulthood came.  Now it was our turn.

Like most couples, we shared late-night duties tending to the fears, anxieties and wants of little ones, but that too had its rewards. When our Olesia was no more than 2 years old, she started calling me night after night at 2 a.m. “Tato, tato…” And because it was me she called, I had to go, bleary-eyed and drowsy: “Yes?”

“Tuck me in,” she’d say.

Indulgent as I was, I’d do as she asked, knowing I’d be hearing from her half the night if I didn’t. During the day, we’d practice how she should cover herself and let her father sleep. My wife, who had done double and triple duty with both our son Mykhas and our daughter, was supportive and amused.

As for Olesia, she got past that uncomfortable phase (for me) until one night weeks later, I heard the same 2 a.m. call: “Tato…” Weary, I got up to see what the problem was. “Tato,” she said in a sleepy voice: “I love you.”

“Wow,” I thought. “Wake me anytime.”

But love has many permutations – as many as there are people: romantic, of course; nurturing children and being nurtured; but also caring for an elderly parent; celebrating holidays and milestones with family. There are friends, community, nation, country, God, the Church, a sports team, school, a beloved pet, a nursery full of plants, a garden… you name it.

And, inevitably, there’s bidding farewell. Is it strange to muse about death in connection with Valentine’s Day? For me, no. I heard the word love over and over at a funeral for Luba Darmochwal in Cleveland just before the New Year. She was a lovely lady who with her husband, Michael, raised four beautiful daughters who now have families of their own. Her day-to-day love for family was expressed with a tender touch, a warm word and, these days, an e-mail or text. How do I know? Because her children told me. She loved them and they loved her.

There’s more: speaking for the community, Lida Bazarko invoked the word love when she spoke about “Pani Luba’s” generous life, how she put that emotion into action volunteering with the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America, Plast, Ridna Shkola (Ukrainian studies school), the Church. Like tens of thousands of others, Pani Luba also came to America as an immigrant from the DP camps, and as a parent and activist enriched her community and adopted country, helping to sustain it as the vibrant, interesting and nourishing place it’s been for generations.

Every week, I read The Ukrainian Weekly and Svoboda to catch up on news about Ukraine and learn what goes on in other communities, large and small – New York, Chicago, Detroit, North Port, Philadelphia, Seattle, Los Angeles, Hartford, Minneapolis, Houston, Akron, Binghamton, Watervliet, Boston, etc. – even those on other continents, wherever there are lots of Ukrainians or a few. I know the events reported don’t occur just of themselves. Someone like Luba Darmochwal makes them happen.

And every week, I also read that this person or that – born in Ukraine, in a DP camp or America – passed away. They were active in the Ukrainian National Association or some other fraternal organization, Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization, the Ukrainian American Youth Association, Ridna Shkola, Soyuz Ukrainok, the local Ukrainian museum, the Democratic or Republican Party, the Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist or Pentecostal Church, the credit union, sports club, etc. – institutions which have sustained the Ukrainian vision over the generations, but only because of people like those memorialized in the notices. Nearly all were volunteers, products of loving families and themselves driven by the love that originally nurtured them.

Love is universal. Jesus refers to it repeatedly in the Gospels. You’ll find it in Confucius. Extolling it, the Beatles became billionaires.

Which is why I like Valentine’s Day. Like virtually everyone, I’m hard-wired to both love and to welcome love. So may I suggest that you share that emotion in some way with someone close or who’s become distant. It doesn’t have to be on February 14. Every day counts.

As the Beatles sing, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make…”

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