Gripping a 12-inch-tall bronze replica of the Statue of Liberty behind my back, I smiled at the 10-year-old boy who locked his hazel eyes on me expectantly. Maksym had made one request before my return to his home in Ukraine.
The past 16 hours, I’d carried the American figurine through four airports, customs, and finally to the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro. It was June 2019 and there was no mistaking the tension of war with the country’s aggressive neighbor. As the Ukrainian interpreter, who met me at the airport, and I folded into a small car, I spotted a banner outside that urged “Stop Russia!”
We drove down the center-city boulevard, once known as Karl Marx Avenue, grabbed a cup of strong coffee, and headed to a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. I was there as part of a journalism fellowship. I’d met Maksym’s family twice previously, six months earlier in Ukraine and then again in Washington, D.C., for Memorial Day weekend. Both times were at gatherings organized by Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) for those whose loved ones have been killed or died while serving their country, and, in this case, at war — something Maksym and I have in common.
Pine and oak trees created a canopy over the alleyway that led to Maksym’s cinder block home. In the tight foyer, his mother, Svetlana, greeted me with a hug and nodded toward her son. I held up the Lady Liberty statuette.
“Svoboda!” Maksym exclaimed in Russian. Liberty!
Four summers earlier, when Maksym was only 6, he and his mother heard his father’s voice on the phone for the last time. Yakiv Huba, a military officer, had sounded tense, Svetlana recalled, but told his wife and son that everything would be all right. Maksym was especially eager for his father to return home and accompany him to his first day of school. But that day came and went. For five months, Maksym and his mother waited for news. Finally, Yakiv’s remains were identified; he’d been killed on the day he’d last told Maksym he loved him.
My own father was killed during the Vietnam War hours after my birth in 1970. Vietnam was difficult to reconcile for the country and for the families of service members who were killed or missing in action. Our grief felt silenced, at least in my home. My personal history made this visit to Maksym’s home all the more important to me.
Maksym led me through the narrow kitchen, past his pet turtle sitting near his pull-out futon bed in the hallway, and into the family room. On the far wall rested a small chest of drawers displaying all that he held dear: his father’s medals, the plush puppy dog his father gave to his mother on their first date, the last family photo before Yakiv left for war, and a miniature Ukrainian flag. Maksym added the Statue of Liberty to the display.
He sat down in an overstuffed chair, struggling to hold back tears. At his school, he was the only child whose father had been killed, he’d told me at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors event held earlier in Ukraine, and he’d never spoken to a young person with a similar experience. I told Maksym that he was very brave to remember his father. I was 27 before I met another “child” who’d lost a father to the Vietnam War. All these years later, I know that it’s in the sharing of our stories that we begin to heal.
Maksym slid one hand under his leg and said in Russian to his mother and me, “I wish for good for my generation, and I hope with all of my heart that no other child will lose their moms and dads.”
The boy adjusted himself in his chair and looked toward his mother. She smiled at him through her own tears, as if her son had just taken a first step.