It was a recurring dream. I was floating on the open ocean in a white rowboat with red trim and a lopsided mermaid carved on the prow. There were no oars, I was at the mercy of the wind and waves. As the boat climbed the wall of a wave and slid down its backside, I lay curled in the bottom, cold and nauseous.
I awoke from the dream in an unfamiliar hotel room. I had learned that it didn’t matter where. I had even learned to fall back asleep before figuring out what city I was in, and where I was going next. It was October 2016, and I was in the middle of a 6-week lecture tour of the Middle East and Europe, presenting the new cholesterol-lowering guidelines to physicians. My mission was important. Everyone knows that heart disease is the number one killer in most countries, and lowering cholesterol reduces risk proportional to the amount of lowering.
“Lower is better,” I said many times a day. In theory, if physicians heeded my words, thousands of strokes and heart attacks could be prevented, and lives saved. Despite the theory, I was worn out. I had already visited Cairo, Dubai, Doha, Manama, Beirut, Istanbul, Ankara, Bucharest, and Sofia, and would finish in Moscow and Kazan after two stops in Ukraine. In my younger years, such a trip would have been an adventure, but now I was old, broken-down, jaded, cynical, emotionally and spiritually bereft. I had worked too hard for decades. I was separated from my wife and estranged from my children.
My plane landed at the Boryspil International Airport, on the outskirts of Kyiv, where I was met by two women, Oksana Mazur and Yulia Romanenko, from the Ukrainian Association of Cardiology. The plan was to drive to Vinnytsia, a small city southwest of Kyiv, 296 kilometers, and 4 and a half hours away, according to Google. I would give a lecture there to 200 cardiologists at their annual meeting.
Vinnytsia was known for two things. Everyone talked about the chocolate factory. No one talked about “The Last Jew of Vinnytsia”, the caption on the infamous photograph found on the body of a dead German soldier in World War II, showing a kneeling man about to be shot in the back of the head by a member of the mobile death squad of the Nazi SS. I urge you not to google this image because it will fester in your brain like a piece of shrapnel for as long as you live. Fortunately, nothing like that would ever happen again, I thought.
We soon left the 6-lane highway and were rolling along country roads, passing fields of cows, forests, and villages. Oksana and Yulia bantered in Ukrainian part-time and spoke perfect English to me part-time. Oksana was a thin blonde woman in her 30’s, with a baby and a husband at home, a gold cross around her neck, and a traditional approach to life. Yulia was tall and attractive, with black hair, a solid, substantial woman in her 40’s. She turned out to be resourceful in the face of the unexpected, and to have cheeks that turned pink when she drank slivovitz, but I am getting ahead of myself.
“Professor, what is your opinion, how many teeth should an 11-month-old boy have?” Oksana asked playfully. Oh, so that’s what they had been talking about.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “but my Grandma’s formula was baby’s age in months minus 6, so my answer is 5.”
“My baby only has 2, but he has been walking for 2 months.” Oksana couldn’t help but sounding proud. Yulia and I both affirmed that her son was brilliant.
They asked me about my children. I told them I had 3 ranging from 16 to 21 years old, and that they were wonderful. I told a couple of amusing stories about them, but didn’t mention that I hadn’t seen them for nearly 6 months. To change the topic I asked why there was a line of trucks beside the road, and Yulia replied that they were there to transport the potato harvest. Talking about my children had made me feel sad and defensive. I wondered how long it had been since I had talked about them happily, the way we talked about Oksana’s baby.
The leaves were changing color, just like at home. At the end of most villages, a painted religious icon faced the road, brightly colored, and well kept up, in contrast to the dull-looking houses. A brown rabbit scampered across the road. A huge dog lay in front of a ramshackle house. We talked and laughed. Yulia had spent a year at college in Southern California, and claimed that she could surf. Oksana was skeptical.
I was doing my best to act like a normal person and not a big-shot professor, and I was grateful that they were not treating me with any special deference. I asked questions about their country and about themselves, for I was curious and their answers were interesting and sometimes unexpected. These two women and a long drive through the backwoods of Ukraine had certainly improved my mood. A heavy dose of the real world or the simple life, or something. My life was a mess, but this was helping.
There was almost no traffic. At intersections and forks in the road, Oksana and Yulia would engage in animated discussions in Ukrainian, before choosing a direction. The asphalt road became gravel, then a dirt track. It occurred to me that we were lost, but instead of being alarmed, I felt part of an adventure.
Oksana stopped in front of a general store in the next village and asked a woman sitting out front for directions. She pointed and moved her hands to suggest turns and wagged her finger as if to indicate don’t go that way, accompanied by staccato instructions, while Oksana nodded. She got back in the car and within minutes we were cruising down a broad highway that we had somehow missed.
An hour later we were pulled over by a car with a siren and a flashing red light. A stocky policeman with aviator sunglasses, a potbelly, and a big flashlight (at midday) gestured for Oksana to roll down her window. The policeman shouted at her and she gave him hostile, monosyllabic answers. He returned to his car and Yulia explained, “The police in our country are corrupt. He is not part of the national police or highway patrol. He will let us go if we pay him a bribe. He told us to wait here. He hopes we will get tired of waiting and give him something.”
After 20 minutes, the cop returned and told Oksana to get out of the car. She stood toe-to-toe with him as he continued to berate her. I’m not sure what happened next. I think the cop reached for her, and a second later he was rolling on the ground, holding his groin and moaning. He retched, and a trickle of brown fluid slid down his cheek. Oksana looked at him scornfully, slowly got into the car as if nothing had happened, fastened her seatbelt, checked her side mirrors, and leisurely drove away.
“Don’t worry, Professor,” Yulia explained. “This happens all the time in Ukraine. Our government is fighting police corruption, but it is a struggle.”
Oksana added, “Some women like me study martial arts, because we feel unsafe.” Oksana probably weighed less than half as much as the policeman. I mumbled something about how I felt I should have been doing something to protect them.
They laughed at that. Yulia reached between the seats, patted my hand, and said, “Thank you, but we can look after ourselves, and we won’t let anything bad happen to you.” I felt like a young boy who had been dropped into an action movie, fighting on the side of the good guys, who in this case were girls. Things seemed so black-and-white in Ukraine.
We got to Vinnytsia late, but still had lots of time. Oksana explained that my visit would not bankrupt the Ukrainian Association of Cardiology because she had booked us into a new hotel, possibly the best in the city, at a special rate of the equivalent of $24 per night. We laughed at that. I viewed checking into a hotel as a bleak ritual, wait in line, show my passport, fill out a form, get the Wi-Fi password, find the elevator. I can’t remember the last time I was laughing while checking in.
I quickly looked at my accumulated emails and deleted handfuls of them. One was from my wife Ann, who reported that our oldest son Pete, a 21-year-old medical student, had been arrested late one night for “public urination” on the medical school doors. Ann was upset, and I was immediately angry with Pete. He was an A student, and I thought he should be smart enough to stay out of stupid trouble like this. I promised Ann I would call him from Moscow to tell him what we thought of his behavior.
We went to the National Pirogov Memorial Medical University, where the meeting was being held. The main building was pink and grandiose, with 6 tall columns rising from the portico to the roof. I had read a bit about Nikolay Pirogov beforehand. I asked Oksana and Yulia whether I should briefly say something nice about him at the beginning of my lecture. I wanted to be sure that there was nothing controversial about him, and they assured me that there wasn’t.
I was pleased to see that the lecture room was small, because a lecture always seems more exciting in a jam-packed room. The meeting organizers could not afford a professional medical translator, a sound booth, and headphones for everyone in the audience; instead, I was introduced to an elderly cardiologist who would provide serial translation; that is, I would do a few sentences, then wait while he translated.
He had wild white hair, a more neatly trimmed beard, ruddy cheeks, rimless glasses, and an old tweed suit that would have looked more dignified if it wasn’t accompanied by mud-caked work boots.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Professor,” he began, with a cultivated British accent, “It will be my honor to translate for you. I will try to add a Ukrainian perspective to your lecture.”
“Oh, Doctor Kravchenko, you don’t have to do that. Just translate word-for-word, as well as you can,” I replied with some alarm.
All the seats were taken, and the rest of the audience was standing along the side walls and at the back, or sitting in the center aisle. I could tell that something was wrong soon after I began my lecture. I always watch my audience intently, and they were not responding as expected. Some of them smiled when there was nothing to smile about, and some wore quizzical expressions on their faces. Something was wrong with the translator. When I stopped after a 20-second segment, he went on for more than two minutes, and when I talked for more than a minute, he translated that in less than 10 seconds and looked over for me to continue. He paid no attention to my slides, which were being projected on the screen behind us.
I had been talking for less than 10 minutes when Yulia sprang from her seat in the front row and firmly ushered Doctor Kravchenko off the stage and into her seat, announcing something in Ukrainian as she did this, then turned and smiled at me, adding, “Sorry Professor, I will take over from here.” A smattering of applause broke out from the audience.
Yulia spoke with enthusiasm and conviction. While I was talking, she found a long stick behind the piano in the corner of the stage, and used it to point to the important features of the slide as she described them, just as I was doing with the electronic pointer when I was speaking. She nodded eagerly when I was speaking, as if she were affirming what I said and couldn’t wait to translate it. I had given variations of this lecture a hundred times, and I realized even as I was speaking, that it had never been easier, and that Yulia was the reason. She was providing the enthusiasm, she was making it special and unique for her audience. I could coast.
When Yulia finished the last comment on the last slide, she looked at me expectantly, and I enunciated very carefully, “Vwasi saprosa,” the phonetic equivalent in Ukrainian of “Do you have questions?” Or so I thought.
Yulia burst out laughing, “Ah, the Professor speaks Russian! He is asking if you have questions”, and then presumably repeated her statement in Ukrainian. The audience laughed and applauded. Then they asked questions for an hour. I have always thought of the question period as the most important part of my lecture because it helps physicians translate theoretical concepts into actions that will help patients.
An hour later 3 large mugs of beer arrived at our table in a dark corner of the hotel bar. We had changed into jeans and sweaters, and were in relax mode. Except I didn’t feel relaxed. On one level I had been happy and laughing all day, but on another level I felt despair, a despair that had been growing for a long time. Today it was so much worse because for once I could see the gulf between what I was and what I could have been.
“What was with that crazy Doctor Kravchenko?” I asked.
Oksana replied, “He is a militant vegan. He kept saying things like ‘The esteemed professor is saying that we should lower cholesterol, but my broader view is that everyone should adopt a plant-based diet’ and then ignoring most of your statements.” We all laughed. I was glad that Yulia had intervened and told her so.
She smiled, “We didn’t drive all the way to Vinnytsia to hear a lecture from Dr. Kravchenko,” she paused, then spoke earnestly, “Besides, I understand how grueling your life is and how important your lectures are. I wanted to help you.” Yulia’s blue eyes shone. I was touched.
I sipped my beer. “What do you two do for fun,” I ventured.
“I read my bible,” Oksana replied quickly, “and practice Combat Hopek. That’s a Ukrainian martial art.”
“I do a lot of things, but not very well,” Yulia added, “Play tennis, cook, collect art, usually reproductions are what I can afford. And I read a lot of Ukrainian literature.”
“I don’t know many Ukrainian writers,” I replied. To be honest, I knew none. “Which ones do you like?”
“Oksana Zauzhko, Maria Matios…Lina Kostenko,” Yulia paused to think, “And even Iryna Vilde. She published back in the 1930’s. One of her classics was The Butterflies in High Heels.”
“Are they all women?” I asked.
“Yes,” Yulia answered. She smiled but did not elaborate.
We tumbled out into the dark streets.
“What do you like to eat?” Oksana asked.
“Ukrainian food,” I quickly replied.
“What kind of Ukrainian food?” Oksana persisted.
They laughed in unison, “There is no such thing!”
They chose a place named Trofey that served Ukrainian and Georgian food. I ordered borscht and shashlik. They argued about whether to attempt to poison the professor with the restaurant’s homemade wine. I said they should try. It was not very good, so Yulia also ordered a bottle of Georgian wine.
Oksana cleared her throat and raised her glass, “Professor, on behalf of Ukrainian cardiologists and both of us, we thank you for coming to Vinnytsia to lecture. We realize that it is an out-of-the-way place, and a lot of trouble for you, and we appreciate it.” She smiled at me.
I blushed, I could feel it. I have always had difficulty handling praise, and at that moment I felt vulnerable. I was overcome by a flood of painful emotions. I picked up my wine glass.
“Please, just call me Francis,” I said. I tried to laugh, but my hand shook and some of my wine slopped onto the table. I started to cry. I felt like a child. I wanted to go to my room and throw myself on my bed.
“What’s the matter? Are you alright?” Oksana and Yulia both looked alarmed.
“I’m sorry,” I blubbered, “I have been stressed out for so long, and here I feel much better, I feel good, really, I don’t mean to be crying.”
They each took one of my hands and patted it and murmured phrases in Ukrainian that sounded comforting, as if to a child, and after a minute I began to feel better.
“Professor, I mean Francis, you work too hard. You just need to let it all go for a while,” Oksana urged. She asked if I had ever tried slivovitz. The waiter left the bottle on the table.
“This will help,” Oksana said, laughing. She was right, it did, and after two small glasses, Yulia’s cheeks turned bright pink.
“Oof, it’s warm in here,” she muttered.
As we walked back to our hotel, we were quiet, lost in our thoughts. An old memory surfaced: we were at the beach house, Pete was 4 that summer when we got the puppy. Pete and I would let him out to pee before bedtime. To teach him what he was supposed to be doing, Pete and I would both pee into the dark backyard and cheer him on. We continued this joyous ritual all summer, even when the puppy learned what to do. My anger toward Pete for peeing on the medical school doors had dissipated. I would call him from Moscow for sure, but not to berate him. I would see how he was doing, and I would encourage him. I was proud of him.
That night as usual I dreamed that I was floating in the white rowboat with the red trim, and the lopsided mermaid carved on the prow. But unlike all my previous dreams, I could see land, a green strip fronted by a sandy beach, perhaps a mile away. And I had a makeshift sail, a tattered blanket attached to a piece of driftwood. I basked in my new dream, and awakened refreshed.
Our drive back to Kyiv the next morning was uneventful. That evening after my lecture there Yulia took me out to dinner at a fine restaurant. She told me that I couldn’t leave Ukraine with only the experience of Vinnytsia cuisine. Oksana was happy to see her husband and young child, after one night away from home. After the restaurant, Yulia gave me a brief tour of the city.
We stopped at a site overlooking Saint Sophia Cathedral. It was an immense, irregularly shaped building, a collection of different sized towers jumbled together, green roofs topped by gold crosses, a separate majestic belltower like a tall, layered wedding cake with a golden dome, all of it radiating stability, history, dignity, and beauty.
“It has been here for more than a thousand years, Yulia,” I said, “What does it mean to you?”
“I’m not religious,” she searched for the right words, “It’s my country, it’s our history, it’s who I am. When I was in California, it was beautiful, I loved it, but it wasn’t where I belonged.” She paused and added, “This is my home.”
We sat silent for several minutes, silent, absorbing the cathedral.
“Francis, I want to tell you something. But first I admit that my friends tell me that a big fault of mine is that I give everyone advice,” she continued, “I admire you and believe in your work, but I think you need to go home for a while. I don’t know exactly what home is for you, and maybe you don’t either, but you would feel better connected to your roots. I hope you will stay in touch. I hope we will be friends.”
I had never told anyone, but I told her of my dreams of the white rowboat, the red trim, and the lopsided mermaid carved on the prow.
She smiled, “My grandfather was a fisherman on the Black Sea, near Odesa. He had a rowboat exactly like that.”
The next morning my early flight to Moscow via Warsaw was delayed. I wandered around the airport, and at the far end of one of the terminals saw a group of about two dozen Ukrainian soldiers in uniform, presumably awaiting a flight to the Crimea and Donbas regions in the east of the country, where the conflict with Russia was smoldering. They looked so young, like high-school students, not soldiers. My son could have been standing among them.
Six years later, I follow the war in Ukraine closely. Yesterday Oksana emailed me from Warsaw, where she has fled with her 7-year-old son. She wrote that Yulia had been killed instantly by a Russian rocket in Kyiv during the first week of the war. Yulia, who got me back on track, and changed my life. Now hers is gone.
David Waters is a semi-retired cardiologist who lives in San Francisco with his wife Bobbi and Kerry blue terrier Trey. He has published a series of essays in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, describing poignant patients and the social conditions contributing to their illness. He recently began writing short stories, which have appeared in the San Antonio Review and 34th Parallel.