Summer and rain

There are other memories too. Other bits of things surfacing. Not horrors. The joy we carved out within the interstices of horror.

Sharing a swing in a park somewhere—maybe the same park where we watched the clouds. I remember swinging there when I was small and held on tight to Natalya while she did most of the work. But I think we shared a swing later too. We made out on those swings—not when we were swinging high, obviously, but just drifting. There is a whole boxful of swinging memories with her.

I keep thinking about frozen things: mainly lemon popsicles. Those seem to have been the best. There was a drug store with an ice cream counter. For a while, it was her strawberry—until she switched to orange—and my mint. We traded cones, licked each other’s. It seems to me ice cream was a quarter in those days. We could manage that much at least sometimes. Or we had only one cone between the two of us and shared that.

But Natalya had to try all the flavours—it wasn’t always the same with her. She had to have each of them at least once before settling down on a favourite.

I remember these things and then I wonder: Did this really happen? Am I mixing this up? Or making it up entirely? Was the strawberry my sister’s favourite and not Natalya’s? And I don’t know, but I’m sure about the orange. Some of it probably is wrong. Maybe some of it is confused. Still, at least some of it is right.

In these memories, it is perpetually summer. It can’t have always been summer though, and I remember running home from somewhere in shaky high heels behind her, our wet hair streaming with rain. Then shivering together until the hot shower could warm us up again.

I remember, too, coffee on late, cold nights. Hers was always more milk than coffee, it seemed, and sugary. But over time I started to prefer mine black. Opposites, in that, but the same in so many others.

And it’s all so good. Except for the stuff in between. Except for the main things. Except for the reason she was there at all and the reason I knew her in the first place.



A number of small things came to light over the last few days—we had a holiday on Monday, and I meant to do some other things, but it came down to just processing.

There were roses on the table when Veroushka was taken away because it was the day before my birthday and Natalya had bought them for me. The coincidence of the date somehow deepens the wretchedness of it.

Then also I remembered something about the cross.

When I first began to think about Natalya’s cross, I had a very clear image of a cross in my mind, and yet it was the wrong cross. It wouldn’t have looked like that and I know it didn’t look like that.

I thought for a while I had an image of a generic cross in my mind: that happens sometimes. I have a symbol in my mind for the thing rather than the thing itself. But the cross I remembered was my cross. She gave it to me when I was small, and I brought it with me to see her, although I could not wear it at home. It was an ordinary, plain cross and not an Orthodox cross, because that is what she would have been able to find.

I hid the cross in between our meetings, and when we met again, she helped me to wear it. When we were apart it helped me to feel a little less scared of what was being done to me and of what was being done to her.

After she died, I buried it in the back yard, and so I no longer have it.

It strikes me how important she was and at the same time how little trace is left of her life outside of my memory. There are these little bits of her, and yet they are gone too.

I was trained as an archivist, and so I have in my mind the idea of people’s lives as processes that generate detritus: we all have trails of documents and objects and ephemera which give evidence of how we lived. And yet with her, there is so little. She lived without any genuine public record of her life. Her immigration documents were false, she had no bank account to create statements, no taxes, no social security number, no school enrollment forms, no report cards, no official record of her life after the age of 10 when she disappeared out of Russia. There are perhaps only receipts of small cash transactions, but those could be anyone’s and they are gone now too.

Her body was burned and the ashes and bones and whatever was left dumped where, I think, no one ever found it. The little things she owned—they were there, yes. The silly white teddy bear I gave her for Valentine’s Day, the book she read to me over and over again because it was the only book available for her to read, the cross she inherited from her grandmother when the old woman died. Where are these things now? I don’t know. Anywhere. In a landfill, burned, melted down to make some other piece of jewelry. Not kept as a reminder of her brief stay on this earth or in anyone’s life. There is only what is in my head. It underscores the invisibility of her life—the invisibility of the lives of all children who are trafficked.

When I was a child and for many years after, I didn’t have any idea how to grieve, or that grief involves decisions about what to keep of a person to remind you of them. I let go of everything, without considering what to keep and what not to. I didn’t know also that the past is meant to continue on into the present and the future. I only knew about amputation: we did not grieve in my house, and we did not know how to grieve. It is only as an adult that I have learned.


Hannah starts to come into the present a bit, which sounds like a good thing and yet never goes well. When this happens for the parts, they nearly always freak out.

Very often, the freak out centers around having an adult body. So Hannah notices having breasts only it absolutely does not compute for her that these are breasts and she thinks she has some kind of rare, horrible disease. I try pointing out breasts on other women in the music videos she is watching, but there is just no connection. It does not register at all that these are the same bit of anatomy.

When she finally calms down, her next thought has to do with time. Time has passed—a lot of it—and Nata has been dead for all of it. What takes over at that point is shock. Somehow, it is more horrible for Nata to be dead for decades than it is for her to be freshly dead.

I am not very good with shock. I don’t know what to do about it. I try to stay warm and make sure I eat and stay hydrated and beyond that, I’m not very sure what helps. It is not clear-cut in my mind the way fear or sadness are. So I struggle with it.

I think also it’s harder on me because I tend to look at it as an emotion I ought to be able to skip over. More than other feelings, I want a shortcut for it.

But shock and horror are a big part of what happened. Despite the routine nature of the abuse I suffered, as a child there was always one piece of it that was just unfathomable: Why would you want to do this? Why would you want to hurt a little girl in this way? How can you not care it is hurting me?

Every single time. How can you do this? How can shattering my mind be worth less than a pair of shoes?

And in Natalya’s case, Why would you kill a 17-year-old girl?
And not just execute her, but beat her brutally to death?

I know quite a lot about sociopaths now, and I can imagine why Yuri behaved the way he did and why my father behaved the way he did, but I didn’t know any of that then. All I had was horror at how other human beings can behave. And maybe what I know now doesn’t really help.

There’s something else about it that is hard to deal with also: Natalya’s sacrifices make it very, very clear how dreadful being trafficked was. I can minimize it in my own mind to some extent so that I can avoid confronting the full extent of the horror of it, but Natalya’s choices won’t allow me to.

Natalya willingly sent her baby off with strangers knowing she would never see that child again because almost any life seemed better than growing up being trafficked. Natalya thought her own life worth risking to get me away from it.

It was that bad.

And human beings did that. It’s easy to see Yuri as a monster and to assume he did what monsters like that do.

But he was a human being, just like the rest of us, with the same knowledge of right and wrong, the same capacity to see the suffering he was causing. He may have lacked affective empathy—watching us suffer did not make him suffer—but he didn’t lack cognitive empathy. He did not lack knowledge of the law or of society’s standards. He knew.

He knew he was hurting us. He knew it was wrong. And it is so hard to fathom that he did it anyway. He did it for things that seem to matter so little in comparison to what we lost: He did it for money and he did it for power, and it’s so hard to imagine how either one of those things can be worth another human being’s basic sense of safety or dignity.

I cannot understand that degree of evil. I have tried, and I cannot.

Separation anxiety

From time to time, it becomes clear that a developmental hurdle didn’t get cleared. I dissociated the distress, but I didn’t master it.

In grieving, I noticed the little ones hadn’t grasped the fact that there are limits in life. There are things human beings can’t do. Not just things they won’t do, but things they can’t do. Like bring the dead to life again. There was a lot of fist-pounding over this and it took a while, but I think they get it now.

I think they (I) didn’t clear separation anxiety either. I think we never got to a point where a mental image of a caregiver was comforting enough that we could stop having meltdowns over her absence. We didn’t get there, I think, because the separations were so traumatic and they needed so much more soothing than a normal separation.

My natural mother was not reliably soothing and it does seem to me now that being placed in care severed that attachment permanently. I was taken away from my foster parents with no warning and no ongoing connection afterwards. And Natalya I kept being forced to leave without any assurance as to when I would see her again or any space to acknowledge her as an important figure during her absence.

So separation is an important part of the trauma. It’s not a violent trauma. It’s an internal trauma—it’s simply an intense feeling I couldn’t manage independently and had no help with.

It’s a big part of my life now. The twins miss Nata. They miss her quite frequently. A mental image isn’t strong enough yet to be enough. It helps slightly—not nearly enough to be worth doing if I have other options.

If I am at home, I go hug a rolled-up blanket. This is reminiscent of the way Nata held me when I was small and tired or sick or in pain—with my head on her shoulder—and it is totally magic. Like the brakes have suddenly been engaged. Everything inside relaxes. But I have to do it 20 times a day, and it’s hard to stay patient. It’s hard to remember I needed this. I needed someone to be there and no one was. I needed it more because I was deeply traumatized and there was so much more anguish to soothe. I needed the grownups to help me feel safe, and they didn’t. So I have to do it now, and it doesn’t happen in a day or two or even a few weeks. It can take quite a long time.


Assembly was in the National Language today and for bits of it, I tried to understand—from time to time, I miss something important when I don’t pay attention enough to at least know when there is something I need to know and don’t. Mostly, my mind wandered. I watched the students to make sure they were behaving and I watched the puppies that had come to play.

Something clicked in then for me. Death is a stop. It means something ceases to change or to grow anymore. What was becomes permanent. However it doesn’t erase it. Your perspective on it continues to change, that’s true. But the fact of it never changes. Only your view can evolve. In that way, it is like a story you have gotten to the end of. The story is over and you can go back and re-read the story, but there is never any “what happens next.” There is no next. It is over.

The loss a death creates is so much the loss of that “next.”

I didn’t understand death when Natalya died and I’m still working out what it means. That ending is part of it.

There was the loss of the physical aspect of her existence—her smile, her hugs, her voice, the immediate, instinctive comfort she gave me. And there was the loss of “next.”

At the time, it felt that what had already happened was also lost, because I was the only one who could remember her anymore, and I was coping by trying not to remember.

I also did not feel I had permission to remember. One must move on. One must “let go.” One must live in the present and not the past. These messages were so omnipresent and compelling that I felt I had no right to remember and no right to my unique experiences. It seemed the only thing the past can do is make you miserable, and the main work is to notice that the present is not the past.

But people who talk about the now still want chicken soup when they are sick, because that is what they were given as children (maybe). They still have cake on their birthdays because that was what they always did. People take the good bits of the past for granted and try to excise the bits of it that are causing them pain. They don’t really mean let go of it all. Just the parts of it you don’t want. Which seems silly.

In any case, they are fighting biology. You never win that way. Our brains are meant to notice the present, imagine the future, and be reminded of the past all in a seamless, ongoing way. What we need to do is regulate better, not “let go.” “Letting go” is a losing battle.

Anyway, I ended up excising everything. In doing that, I became unable to move through the process of grieving.

When Natalya died I lost my connection to the best parts of my past. I lost the person I shared an important history with: both most of the worst parts and the best parts. I lost the person who knew best who I was.

One thing I’m understanding about loss is there are things you don’t get again. Some things you get other chances at and some things you don’t. No one else will know from experience what I was really like at 5 or 7 or 10 or even 13. No one else was there for so the main parts of it, and what they saw of the rest of it was either distorted by their own problems or flattened by my own refusal to share what I really felt and thought.

So that connection is gone.

I can tell someone based on what I remember and they can try to imagine, but no one will ever know without my telling them. No one will ever know things that I have forgotten about myself from those years. There is no longer anyone who was there who can decipher my incomplete memories because they know more about it than I do. Only I know who I was.

After she died, the loss of that connection translated into a sense of unease I could not describe or name. It was as though I could never feel “normal” or comfortable—not exactly anxious, but just strange, as if I were in the wrong country or the wrong house, the wrong something.

And it’s a loss. I can name that now. I can describe it.

It hurts, but that’s not the main thing, it turns out. The main thing is that it exists, that I know it there. I understand its cause and in that way I know myself. I know I am there also. It is my experience, and my experience is real, even if it is not always very pleasant.

Shared history

I didn’t really know how things were hitting me yesterday. I was really busy, and I seemed to be okay. Then I came home and after a while I just started crying and eventually I went to bed. It seemed easier to cry cuddled up in blankets with the lights off.

Yesterday was a different kind of anniversary for me, and it seemed to have raised a whole new kind of grief. I don’t know what the connection is between that particular anniversary and loss is, but I know the loss I’m grieving has to do with the loss of feeling known an understood.

When Natalya died, the person who automatically knew a lot about me without having to have everything explained died also. My connection to the good bits of my childhood died. A shared history died. The person who saw me grow up died.

I lived in such a constricted, particular world, that no one outside that world knew much of use about me. I don’t have a shared history that is meaningful with anyone else. I don’t even any shared sense of culture with anyone. It’s not that I can’t be understood, but I have to be prepared to explain everything in order to do that. There are a lot of very ordinary things about other people I don’t get either.

I’m not even entirely sure what I mean. I can think of some examples—they are things I didn’t realize myself until recently, but they are my childhood. I have mentioned the buttons. When Ruthie is upset, she likes to hold onto a button or something with a kind of raised texture. Or a strap. A bra strap will do.

Natalya would have remembered this: You always used to hold onto something—my cross or a button or a tank top strap. That’s one small thing, but it’s as though after she died there was no one who remembered me. No one knew who I was or who I had been.