The Donbas became a powerful magnet for Jacques. A year later, we returned—and this trip was rougher.
5/15/00 At Donetsk airport our cab driver, Sasha, said he was a coal miner, too. He and J struck a deal for him to take us to the mines. A young man we met last year, also Sasha, will come along to translate.
5/16 We found Lyudmila again. She said that when word had gotten around of J's return, his shift supervisor, Marusya, had come forward. J's reaction: "Oh my God."
Lyudmila guided our car through mud ruts and gullies to a splintery wood fence. The woman who came from behind it had a beautiful face carved with deep lines, a gold tooth surrounded by missing ones. She took one look and said, "Vanya!" They embraced and began talking—in fluent Russian! It was eerie, because J's Russian is rusty at best. Marusya chattered away, full of memories; he responded in a trancelike way. I didn't realize till later that he was in the grip of a full-blown flashback.
Marusya invited us in, warning us that she'd given up housekeeping, since her husband was senile and wandered around at night wrecking things. J decided on the spot to get her a washing machine, too. There's a special kind for places without indoor plumbing—you pump and heat the water, and the machine does the rest.
Marusya's house was small, sagging, and crookedy. Through a doorway we could see her husband lying on a bed in empty-eyed misery. Terrible as her situation is, I was prevented from feeling too sorry for Marusya by her absolute lack of self-pity, her hard vitality. She has an almost aggressive quality, as if the only way to keep such a life from flattening you is to push back harder.
5/18 Last night, J started to cry harder than he ever has. It was natural and necessary, but it wasn't easy, and it didn't give him ease.
In the morning, he was sick—dopey and confused, and so weak that our driver, Big Sasha, had to help him into the cab. We stopped at Dusya's to unload the washing machine we'd promised her, and she invited us to stay for dinner.
J was silent while everyone else laughed, ate, and drank vodka. Halfway through dinner he needed to sleep so badly he almost keeled over. We stumbled inside and lay down together on a bed. J was breathing too rapidly. Was he having a heart attack? He fell asleep almost immediately while I anxiously watched over him. After a while I understood with relief that what he had was a fever. I was pretty sure he was just reacting physically to seeing Marusya, the hardest emotional hit he'd taken since Omar died. Around 4 A.M., back at our hotel, his breathing slowed, and from then on he was fine.
Soon after we came home, something miraculous happened. Jacques got an e-mail from a 13-year-old boy named Josh Overton in Springfield, Oregon—one of the towns traumatized by a school shooting. Josh was looking for a fresh copy of Donbas for his teacher, Steve Hess, who was about to retire. Mr. Hess's copy was falling apart—understandably: He had read Donbas aloud to his classes for 28 years. "Vanya's" story of survival had gripped Josh so powerfully that he'd gone from failing grades to enthusiastic A's.
Getting in touch with Josh and his teacher transformed Jacques's life as much as returning to the Donbas had. Finally he knew he had been heard. "This is the most popular book I've ever read to kids," Steve Hess told him. I realized something new about Jacques: His story, more than his genes, is who he is and what he needs to pass on. He'd longed for children, but not of his body—children of his story.
Into our life they came in a rush. In September of 2000, we flew out to Oregon and an overwhelming welcome. Three more teachers at Hamlin Middle School were reading Donbas to their classes. The kids unfurled a banner saying WELCOME VANYA & ANNIE, signed with dozens of messages, from "Stay cool, dude!" to "This book gives me courage to keep going even when it looks impossible."
We Hear You!