The phone rang sometime around 3 in the morning. I ignored the first call as I thought my dad had forgotten that we were now on East Coast time. He called again, but this time, he called Emily’s phone. She was sound asleep and didn’t answer. My phone rang again, and I finally picked up sensing something might be wrong. On the end of the call was my dad, sounding flustered and a bit in shock.
I asked if everything was okay, and he said that his wife, Tracy (my stepmom), was in the hospital. It took him several seconds to finally getting around to telling me what was going on. Tracy had been rushed to the hospital because she started to stumble with her speech out of nowhere while at her daughter’s softball practice. My dad arrived at the practice shortly after Tracy had dropped off her daughter, a rare moment where both working parents were able to be at the same event at the same time. Tracy wasn’t making any sense when she spoke, a type of “jumbled word soup.” It didn’t take my dad long to realize that slurred speech could be a sign of something much worse. He acted quickly and intelligently and drove Tracy straight to the nearest hospital, which was only a couple of miles away. His response was actually faster than a 911 response call could have been in that moment.
I didn’t learn any of this information until I arrived at the hospital in Colorado. The 3am call was only the basics, and we were told not to be too worried at this point as they thought Tracy had a minor brain aneurism that could be mitigated with non-invasive surgery. My dad told us not to fly out to Colorado yet and that he would keep us updated on what was happening.
Emily, an elementary teacher, went to work a few hours later. She was shaken, but she was determined to teach. I was proud of her for going to work in that moment. I don’t remember the drive to campus, but I remember sitting in my Russian class translating tweets from the Russian government. After class, I went back home. My aunt called a few hours later telling me that we need to get to Colorado as soon as possible. Things were looking bad. I called Emily at work and she came home early for work. We found a flight leaving out of Grand Rapids that evening.
Of course we had flight issues in Chicago. I haven’t had an on-time flight out of O’Hare in years. We missed our connecting flight, and United put us up in some shitty hotel under a bridge at a “discount” rate. I distinctly remember the brownish water coming out of the faucet in the bathroom. We trekked across the street to pick up some snacks and beer from a gas station, the only thing open within a couple miles of us. We finally made it to Colorado the next day.
Emily’s parents picked us from the airport and drove us straight to the hospital. It was a relief to see my family, but I wish I wasn’t seeing them under these circumstances. Tracy’s brothers and sister had all arrived. Her mom was in town, too. Tracy’s dad passed away the June before, a grief that many of us were still dealing with.
I packed hastily in Michigan, and the shoes I had on were insufficient for endless hours of pacing on the hard-carpeted floor of the hospital. The waiting room in the ICU became our encampment. There was a coffee machine that provided some of the worst free coffee I have ever had. I must have had a 100 cups during the roughly two weeks that we were there.
The news on Tracy was a rollercoaster. First it was good news, then bad, then good, then bad. The incessant influx of information from doctors and nurses was difficult to comprehend. Luckily, one of Tracy’s brothers is a doctor. He acted as our translator during the whole ordeal. Even he had trouble making sense of what was happening—no one understood how a woman under 50 with no family history of aneurisms or major health issues could be in the ICU. At this point, she had already undergone one brain surgery.
The first time I saw Tracy in the ICU I felt both relieved to see her in the flesh, but also disoriented as I almost felt like I didn’t recognize her with a huge bandage over her head, a barrier between the problems hiding within and the world outside. She was knocked out and hooked up to more tubes and equipment than Mary Shelley’s monster. She also looked beautiful, a comment that many made during their visits to see Tracy in the hospital. She was naturally beautiful, and everyone joked that she was the only person to make a hospital gown look good.
We held her hand and talked to her while she was unconscious, hoping that our words might trickle into her ears. I think around Tracy’s hospital bed was the most time my family had spent together in a lot of years. We told stories, cried, and reassured each other that life would be okay. Whether we wanted to admit it, we all knew life would go on.
About a week before all of this happened, I met my advisor for our weekly coffee and to discuss my dissertation project. I was struggling to frame my project in a way that adhered to all of the ideas that we had discussed previously.
He very nonchalantly, asked me, “John, what happens after the famine? Life goes on, right?”
It was a simple, yet profound thought. We had talked around this very point for months, but it only made sense in that moment. Much of my early research had actually been about the aftermath of the 1932-33 famine in Soviet Ukraine, I just hadn’t realized it. The dissertation began to take a firmer shape. But just as quickly as these ideas began to marinate, I had to put them on the backburner.
During one of the quieter moments at the hospital, when visitors had gone for the day and others were sleeping on one of the many slightly curved hospital couches, I was fervently typing away at grant applications on my laptop. Grant deadlines don’t stop for the near dead.
I needed the money to go back to Ukraine for the summer to study Ukrainian with my teachers at Ukrainian Catholic University and to work on my research. The grant apps seemed not take on their usual burdensome nature; I just wanted to submit them and be done. I finished two major grants over a two-day stint in the hospital. I won them both. I didn’t care.
I’ve had relatively good success with winning grants for my research, but my second year was unreal. I won every grant that I applied for, something that will likely not ever happen again. The money allowed me to go back to Ukraine, continue my Ukrainian lessons, work in the archives, and make an additional research trip to D.C.. The grants would allow me to escape in Summer 2019 after a harrowing spring semester.
Back at the hospital, visitors increased dramatically every day. Tracy, an educator in Colorado, had worked in her district for years. It’s how she and my dad met. Both were teachers for several years, and both worked in administrative positions when their paths crossed. They met at a Relay for Life walk, and the rest is history. The visitors were kind and expressed well wishes. I didn’t mind the non-family visitors at first, but I began to resent them at the end. They did nothing wrong, but I felt like they were encroaching on our family space. Tracy’s fate was still unclear, and we needed time to just think.
I remember bumping into a friend from high school at the hospital. It was a happy moment to see someone I hadn’t seen in a long time. He was now a doctor putting in his residency requirement at the same hospital that I had been sleeping at for days. When he asked why I was there, I didn’t know what to say. The next I saw him was about a week later. He walked by me when I was sitting on the floor with my head in my hands and tears in my eyes.
Emily had a record 13 snow days over the 14-day period we were gone from Michigan. She only missed one-day of work. A small miracle for us. I didn’t have quite the same luck. The polar vortex that slammed the Midwest did close the university for two days, which saved me one day of teaching. I couldn’t get coverage for the other day, and I reluctantly flew back for two days so that I could teach my sections—a thought I’m still bitter about. I was only back for two days, but most people tried to keep their distance. A few good friends checked in on me, but others didn’t know what to say. I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have known what to say either, but I do now.
Once back in Colorado, things got worse. Tracy’s first surgery was supposed to alleviate swelling on her brain, which it did at first, but the swelling returned. She would have to go in for a second brain surgery. This meant removing another palm-size chunk of her skull. Effectively, half of her head was open. It was a dangerous, but necessary option to save her.
We knew at this point that Tracy would probably never walk again. She would probably have difficulty learning motor skills, and it was unclear if she would even be able to talk. Some of us were willing to take any version of Tracy that we could possibly have. Others wanted their mom back in full form. The possibility of an altered mother, a changed protector proved to be hard to cope with for her youngest son, a twelve-year old boy. He just wanted his mom back. We all did. He just wasn’t afraid to say it.
It wasn’t long after the second surgery that the doctor asked to speak to my dad in a back room of the ICU. We all knew what it meant. The solemn look on the doctor’s face said it all. He was professional and explained everything to my dad and to Tracy’s brother, the doctor. The rest of us waited impatiently. My dad didn’t come out from the meeting. Tracy’s brother came out in tears, in shock, and gasping for words. He told us all that Tracy wasn’t going to survive this.
Tracy was on life support for the time being. There was an option to keep her like this forever, artificially alive and artificially around. Luckily, she and my dad had prepared for this some time ago when getting their wills together. Tracy had told my dad she didn’t want to live like that. It was agreed that Tracy would remain on life support for the next couple of days so that family and friends could fly in to say their goodbyes. Hundreds of people came to see Tracy and say some last words. Her funeral a couple of weeks later would draw just under 2,000 people. She was loved and respected by many.
It was my job to notify some people of what was going on, one of the hardest tasks I’ve ever had to undertake. I called Emily’s parents first. Somewhat distraught, I talked to Emily’s mom on the phone and told them to get to the hospital because Tracy wasn’t going to make it. That was the moment that I fell on the ground and buried my head into my hands. My friend from high school walked by just in that moment.
My dad never left Tracy’s side, and he was with her until she passed. She breathed on her own for about thirteen hours before officially passing on. I wasn’t in the room when Tracy departed this life. I was asleep on the shitty ICU waiting room couches scrunched up so that my six-foot frame could fit on the small piece of furniture. I woke up to my dad putting his arm around me and telling me it was time to go home. I knew then that the end had come.
After Tracy’s funeral, Emily and I returned home to resume work, and we attempted to resume our everyday lives. In short, we tried to move on. We began the grieving process, of which I was all too familiar. As a historian of trauma, famine, and mass violence, I’ve read the literature on trauma and death. It was a new experience, however, to go through the process rather than read about it. I started to diagnose my own grief steps—a flawed and detrimental process. Understanding the rational side of grief as a scholar and undertaking the emotions of grief as a stepson were in contrast with each other. It took me a while to realize this.
I returned to my final semester of classes, one of which was a seminar on historical trauma, a somewhat cruel coincidence. I was responsible for the presentation of Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery in our seminar only three days before I got the call about Tracy being admitted to the hospital. The rest of the semester was daunting. I felt as if my whole January could have been turned into a book about death and trauma and used as a key text for the course. I felt like a subject of historical trauma rather than a scholar of it.
As I continued to work towards my dissertation ideas, I couldn’t help but be fundamentally shaped by my personal circumstances. It was sometime during that spring semester that the discussion I had with my advisor in early January began to coalesce with the death of Tracy. I began to think of the historical subjects I was studying from a different point of view. I had worked on the 1932-33 famine for quite some time, but I had never thought about what happened after the famine, at least not consciously. My work, on the other hand, had always seem to have known.
I began to ask questions about life after the famine. Millions died, but what happened to the millions of others who lived? What did the living do with the other millions who had died? What happened to the children who lost parents? How did families attempt to recover their lives? These types of questions began to make more sense to me because I was asking these same questions of my own circumstances.
Although my last name is Czech, there is also a good amount of British blood in me from my mother’s side. I remember a particular moment after Tracy’s funeral service where I had grabbed off the alter the urn in which Tracy remained. I remember being surprised at how heavy the ashes were. I joked to Tracy in that moment that she would smack me for calling her heavy. The British have a way with death and humor.
This same moment also made me wonder what happened to the bodies of those who died of hunger during the famine. I had visited the mass graves of some famine victims in Ukraine before and knew they were common, but I wanted to know more. The aftermath of death started to haunt me. During my last trip to Ukraine, I made a day of reconstructing the steps of famine victims who fled to Lviv to escape hunger in eastern Ukraine. I conducted research at the Center for Urban History in the center of Lviv to learn more about Pidzamche, a neighborhood to the side of the hill that Lviv High Castle sits upon. I had been to Lviv High Castle numerous times, and never knew that a gruesome story related to famine lay below.
During the 1946-47 famine, the least studied famine of the three major famines in the Soviet Union, thousands of people hopped on trains heading west toward Lviv. The trains stopped short of the main vokzal (train station) and, instead, stopped at Pidzamche train station. Soviet officials stopped the hungry from entering the city, and many were loaded onto trains heading back east. Several hundred were shot on the spot and buried in a mass grave on the side of the station. The former mass grave is now a nicely paved parking lot. A small plaque hangs on the side of the station in remembrance of the event.
After spending time at Pidzamche reconstructing the events, I went over Lychakiv cemetery. The cemetery is famous for the people it houses, but it is less famous for the victims of the 1946-47 famine that are also there. The bodies that were once buried next to Pidzamche station are now buried properly in an underground crypt in the cemetery. Big crosses mark their location in the lower part of the cemetery, which is surrounded by the fresh graves of soldiers who have died fighting the war in eastern Ukraine.
Very few of the dead were lucky enough to have been found and reburied properly. As I researched the topic further, I found out just how important the removal of bodies was to both the Soviets and to the people of Ukraine. Each had their own agenda. The politics of death were contested. The first chapter of the dissertation was born.
I remember taking Tracy’s two young children mini golfing during one of the long days we were at the hospital. At this point, the two teenage kids knew that Tracy wouldn’t make it. It was January and cold, so we went to a mall to play glow golf as a way to get out of the hospital and try and have a little fun. Everyone tried to have fun, but we were all miserable. All I could think about was how these kids would move on after Tracy died. Tracy was their idle, and for good reason. They would be left to negotiate life with a single parent and major chip on their soldier. They had been robbed of family.
There a survivor who testified to the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine in the late 1980s that was about 12 years old during the famine, the same age as my dad and Tracy’s children. The famine survivor talked at length about losing both parents to starvation, surviving on the streets, and eventually winding up in an orphanage. The famine took a major toll. Many children incurred this fate.
Once again, my own worries about two young kids and the aftermath of trauma began to appear in my dissertation work. What happened to all of the kids who lost parents during the famine? I knew about the orphanages and the so-called “children’s colonies,” but I wanted…needed to know more. How did they survive? How did they move on? Did they have a fair shot at life? I was asking a selfish question. I was asking my historical subjects for answers to my present concerns.
The point of all of this has not been to provide a sad story, although it certainly is one. I am sharing this as a form of catharsis, but also as a way to show that our study of history is never separate from our everyday lives. In fact, much of our research is informed by personal experience. Working on the dissertation has provided me with both an existential crisis and a set of answers. Turning to your research for answers can be foolish; it can be like waiting for Godot. There is also the threat of projecting your own circumstances on historical time and place. But it can also be beneficial.
History is important for a lot of reasons, but understanding that others have experienced forms of problems that we face today is humbling. My research has revealed a lot about the aftermath of famine, a topic on which I am now writing a dissertation, but it has also provided some guidance on what happens next. Life does indeed go on, whether you like it or not. The trajectory of moving on is not linear or neat, but it is forward moving. There are moments of disruption, the very nature of trauma, and there are moments of progress. The hardest part of trauma is wanting to go back to the time before the trauma happens—it’s the longing for a return to the past.
The other hard part of trauma is knowing that it never fully goes away. I think this, at least. The night terrors, bad dreams, insomnia, anger, sadness, and lack of understanding is always around. Some days it’s duller than others, but it’s always around.
The historical is always personal. The narratives of the past shape the present, and in my case, I often look to the past to understand the present. I know that the parallels are different, skewed, and not always the same, but there are lessons to be learned from the dichotomy. I am sad to know that Tracy will never get to read my dissertation. She was always a staunch supporter of my work, and she was looking forward to visiting me in Kyiv next year. Instead, my dad and the kids will visit while I am abroad for research. The visit will now be much more than seeing a new place for them, and it will be much more for me than playing host. Ukraine will be a place for all us to better understand how we come to terms with difficult pasts.