When my new friend Meg (Margaret Syvachenko) pulled into the grocery market, I assumed we’d be getting a bite to eat, but my day (and my world) was about to get much bigger. As we walked through the mainly empty parking lot towards the front door, she brimmed with excitement, explaining that this store had been closed for weeks and was re-opened only today. We were halfway to Borodyanka (about 15 miles from Bucha), arguably even harder hit than Bucha, and there had been nothing for miles but smoking rubble, bloody sidewalks, and the stench of death.
Meg explained that she needed to pick up a few items for her friend, and that I needed to meet him. She proceeded to literally fill the shopping cart (half of her car trunk), with meat, eggs, vegetables, milk and other things you and I might grab for the week. Just like us. But there the comparison ends.
I would soon discover that my new friend Margaret, out of her own pocket, was shopping for a local veterinarian who owned what used to be an animal hospital in Borodyanka, before he slipped away from the office to go stay with his mother as the russians rapidly approached.
As we carried the groceries in, I met Roman’s mother and hugged her, then turned to the frail man, soon-to-be larger than life to me, and Meg introduced us. I could have sat and shared with Dr. Roman Biloshytskyy for hours, but the twenty minutes we spent together honestly nutshell my entire two weeks away.
The “orcs” broke through the front door and soon Roman would find himself kneeling as a captive with eight others, on some gravel road with hoods on. It’s not my place to share the details of this atrocity here; I wouldn’t embarrass my new hero for anything.
But I will share this, because it was perhaps the highlight of my entire mission. The month-old bruises and gash in his head from the rifle butt to his skull begged me to ask, “Please don’t feel any pressure to discuss this or answer any of my questions. But I must ask you. As you were beaten and bashed, what were you thinking? Tell me, ‘Where was God?'”
He had shared with me earlier that, like me, he had been a man of faith, and had tried to live the life he felt he had been called to. He hadn’t evacuated because his calling was here. He felt the people and families he served through their animals needed him here. We were from two different worlds, but are forever united by our own respective horrific chapters, and I needed to ask this. I’m not sure why, I just needed to know Roman’s answer to what C. S. Lewis called “the age old question,” why a loving God would allow such suffering; “Why do bad things happen to good people,” in The Problem Of Pain.
Dr. Biloshytskyy paused and drifted to the place I’m quite sure he visits often but wishes he never had to go again. “As I was kneeling there, I was afraid for the future. I was afraid that the events of this day would cause me to lose my faith going forward. But in the moment, ‘Where was my God? Did I feel abandoned?’ No, as I lay bruised, battered and bleeding, I saw glimpses of light through my hood and I knew.”
My bottom lip began to quiver with his next words, “Christ was laying beside me, crying with me between blows, and lifting me with the strength I no longer had, as the orcs shouted demands that i get up again.”
I dislike books and movies with sad endings, where the bad guy wins, or even a story line where it’s hard to know who the good guy is. It’s not that horror and devastation don’t belong in a beautiful story, but I need a just ending. And so I was so relieved to hear these words from my colleague.
“And so now, how is your faith? As you knelt there you were afaid it would be lost, and you’d be without a compass. Have you lost your faith?” No, he gently explained, my faith is stronger than ever. As a matter of fact I have found my life is refocused and grounded on those things that are really important. I used to look forward to my holiday time, and was feeling the slow burn of a long career; but no longer. I wake with enthusiasm and look forward to each day as another chance to make a difference with the people I meet and the patients I see.
I survived because I’m supposed to keep going.” “Here for a reason,” I agreed.
Heroes don’t have to be famous or be given huge stages. Heroes are much like saints – ordinary people who do extraordinary things when challenged with tragedy and loss. And these are not exceptional stories. These are wartime stories of helping each other and being “my brother’s keeper.” My two weeks walked me through story after story of such heroism. I’m humbled to have been in the presence of such greatness – the doctors, soldiers, first responders, and volunteers who run towards the fire, and help each other. Because it’s the right thing to do.
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