When my mother, Anita, died, I felt relieved. I was 32, and I'd had the same reaction when my father, George, passed away 16 years earlier. Their deaths—my mother's from alcoholism, my father's from a car accident in Ukraine—were ugly. And I welcomed them.

My parents were intellectuals whose careers allowed them to travel the world, but that's not how I experienced them. My father was cold and verbally abusive; my mother failed to protect me from his rage, even when she was sober. Tenderness between them was in short supply—they barely seemed to like each other. I saw myself as a casualty of their abundant flaws: My low self-esteem was the result of my father's violent temper; my anxiety, the product of my mother's addiction.

But while cleaning out her filthy, cramped house, I found something that sent goose bumps across my limbs: a collection of fiery, vulnerable love letters my parents exchanged during their early courtship and marriage, when work separated them. My father had written, "Whenever I leave you...there is an emptiness inside me, a true aching of the heart." In another, my mother rhapsodized, "Our love is wondrous; it has a life almost of its own." I read their words in shock.

After that, I made it my mission to understand who they truly were. I crisscrossed America in my car to speak with family members in their kitchens. I met one of my mother's old boyfriends in a Pennsylvania diner and my father's coworkers in plush hotel bars. I wandered the University of Chicago's leafy campus, where my parents had met, with my mother's best friend from college. The following year I went to Ukraine to see the country my father had fled as a child—and returned to after Communism fell in the '90s, when I was a teen. I'd seen him as a selfish workaholic, living an ocean away from his family in America. But his friends and coworkers said he'd labored over the decision, that helping rebuild his mother country was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. What he'd done wasn't self-serving—it was ferociously brave and optimistic.

Frequently, what I learned broke my heart. My mother had hinted at her difficult childhood, but spared me some of its grimmest details: Her complicated birth required doctors to break her tiny clavicle, which meant her mother couldn't hold or soothe her for several months; her father abandoned the family soon after and did at least one stint in a mental hospital; later, she was repeatedly molested by an uncle. How could such a cursed beginning lead to anything other than a tragic ending?

What upset me most, though, was something I already knew but hadn't understood. My older brother, Yuri, died from pneumonia just before his first birthday, and they'd waited to tell me until I was 10. While going through their belongings, I found a diary my mother kept while Yuri was hospitalized, where she'd recorded his declining health and her anguish after his death. "My arms ache to hold a son who was once mine...I would sell my soul to the devil to hold and cuddle him again." Consumed by sorrow, my parents became increasingly isolated from each other, and that isolation created a river of resentment between them that my birth couldn't bridge.

Devastating as it was, this information was a gift, shining a light into the murky corners of my childhood. My father policed my behavior so intensely not because he was a dictator, but because he was terrified of losing another child—his anger was misplaced grief. And I finally understood that my mother wasn't weak—she'd had to be unimaginably strong to survive the loss of her parents, son, and husband. The soggy drear of her final years wasn't her giving up, but her giving in to a lifetime of pain, finding it too awful to bear.

What I'd uncovered led to a revelation: With all this information, I was no longer a victim. I was the product of complicated people who'd done the best they could. Today, I'm proud to be their daughter—a person who's replaced pity with compassion. That compassion opened the door to the emotional prison where I'd long kept my parents. And, in turn, it freed me.

Yurchyshyn's memoir, My Dead Parents, will be released in March.


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