I’ve been able to make a little of a shift in my mind which has made things dramatically more bearable.

I think it’s a simple shift, but I’m having a hard time explaining it. Let’s see if I can.

It began with the idea that if I saw Nata as my wife when she was alive, then probably that’s how she saw me also. The problem comes in because Charlie has this really clear family sense—he is the one who feels the romantic bond most acutely—and he thinks he’s a boy. So he expects to be a husband. Which brings with it all kinds of societal baggage.

Like that he ought to have been able to protect his wife and baby or at least tried a little harder at it. Middle-schooler aside. He could have made an effort.

And so he feels a profound sense of failture. That’s part of the black hole. On the one hand, Nata is dead and that’s a like living underground with no sun and no flowers and no warm breeze and no birds. On the other, he feels like a failure in life. Nothing else mattered as much as his family, and he could not keep them together or safe.

There is the idea that Natalya still saw me as her child to take care of and to protect, but I think of lying in the grass watching the clouds and it just doesn’t fit. Things have evolved for her. When I think of memories like that, when I think of any the events I can remember that took place after Veroushka was born, it doesn’t quite work. It could work—it would be reasonable to expect a wobble in perspectives when a relationship grows up like that. But there’s no wobble. She is protective of me, but it’s not the same protectiveness you feel for a child. It’s different. She felt for me what a woman feels for another woman when they are in love.

I have been trying to cram our relationship into a heterosexist mold. It kept not fitting. Well, yes, it’s not going to fit.

And what it means to Charlie is that he didn’t fail. He did his best. Natalya did her best. Her best did something different than his best. He was her ray of sunshine—I was. I gave her little bubbles of happiness that kept her wanting to make it through the day. And she saved my life. It’s not really equal, but life works out that way sometimes.

The second piece is really grasping how dire it was. When life is as brutal and destructive as our lives were, staying together is not always the priority. You get out whatever family members you can. In my mind, I have minimized the savagery of it.

I am reminded, really, of the Holocaust and parents who hid their children with strangers or neighbours or anyone who seemed trustworthy—but might not turn out to be—and going off to their terrible fates. You take that kind of risk because the alternative is even worse.

Natalya wanted her family out of that life. She let Veroushka be sold for adoption and she risked her life to inform the authorities about me. She did that because she knew exactly how bad it was. She did that because those things gave us a chance at freedom and a better life. They didn’t guarantee it, but it’s what she could do.

She saved me not because I was a child to her but because I was her family, and that’s what you do if you can. You save your family. And she could.

She was so strong.