14. Searching for Purpose

 

The family emergency event was taken care of and life settled into a routine. I went about my day, went to work, helped out at home, attended church, and spent time with friends. It was far from boring. But it felt so ordinary and bland. It wasn’t anything important. I wanted to make my days count for something significant. There was a desire to do something that made a difference. I longed for something more.

 

The extreme situations I’d experienced had somehow set a bar. The typical lifestyle that surrounded me just wasn’t enough. People I grew up around lived a predictable life. They didn’t seem passionate or highly motivated about anything. I was acutely aware how short life really was, and it felt like I was wasting it. Shouldn’t there be a purpose besides just getting through life?

 

Of course, living with family and helping them out was one of the purposes. I knew I couldn’t stay there forever; I would need another purpose. Church didn’t offer much, either. The youth attended church because that’s what was expected; yet nothing of significant value was taught or implemented. It appeared that life existed for chasing one enjoyable thing after another. Watch an entertaining movie. Order a special coffee drink when going for a walk. Explore a new trail. All that was fun, indeed, but it lacked anything meaningful. I longed for something unusual in my life. Whatever it may be.

 

And miraculously, I stumbled right into it. Aunt Nancy and Uncle Stephen, who resided a few hours away, had kids who were part of a youth group of extraordinary purpose. That group was planning a mission trip to a poor, remote part of Mexico. They had been preparing themselves for months by learning songs in Spanish, having regular prayer meetings, and holding fundraisers for the trip. This was exactly the inspiration I needed!

 

Very shortly after, I made the transition to live at my cousin’s house. It was too late for me to join the group going to Mexico, but it didn’t matter. I attended every meeting they had, helped out at the fundraisers, and began learning the songs.

 

It was such a refreshing feeling to be surrounded by young people who had a sense of purpose. A purpose greater than themselves. Their energy revitalized me. They were on a mission to help. They were going to make a difference. There was this incredible energy with this group of young people who were doing something for a greater good.

 

However, it consisted of a lot of work: purchasing food and household items in bulk to separate them into individual packages, arriving early to prepare meals and desserts to sell at the fundraiser, and remaining late to clean everything up. After that, all the money had to be counted and all the coins had to be rolled up into coin rolls to be taken to the bank. I had never seen such an enthusiastic, unique approach to life. Of course, this youth certainly spent time together trying various coffee drinks and exploring new trails, yet it was a completely different experience. Their daily routine had meaning.

 

Meanwhile, my job search began. I had enough money in my account to last me a few months, for things such as my phone bill, car payment, and extra spending money. But after filling out dozens of applications without any callbacks whatsoever, I began to get worried. This was not good. I never had trouble with getting jobs before.

 

One month went by. Nothing.

 

I expanded my search to temporary job agencies. Towards the end of the second month, I had an interview. Being quite desperate for the job, I arrived an hour early. It seemed more worthwhile to drive around and explore the area. I drove out of the parking lot in my white Honda Civic and thought about how fantastic this job would be. My car had been taken out on a loan, and it was my first major purchase, something I was proud of, but it surely wouldn’t get me anywhere if I couldn’t pay for it. My financial situation was not great. So lost in thought I became, that I also lost track of time. Tires squealing, I popped an illegal U-turn and raced back as quickly as I dared, eyes peeled for any signs of police cars.

 

I pulled in and parked abruptly. Sweating profusely, I used the deodorant stashed in my bag and avoided looking at the clock. Hopefully my car clock was a few minutes early. Or rather, many minutes early. It wasn’t.

 

I didn’t get the job.

 

My hands were bruised from smacking the steering wheel on the drive home. How could I? Argh! I decided to try one more week of regular job applications and then would begin applying at fast food places.

 

Praise the Lord, another interview was set up for me almost immediately, and I got hired on as a customer service representative in a household appliance shop. It certainly was not a glamorous job, as I had hoped for when originally filling out all my applications, but it sure beat working in a fast food joint. But, as ironic as life can be at times, another opportunity became available just one week later: somebody from the Mexico group had cancelled and that spot was available, if I was still interested.

 

Of course I was interested! Everything I had been helping out with would be even more significant if I went on the actual trip! People had booked their spot half a year in advance, and I stopped asking when I learned there were no spots available. The only minor little inconvenience with this opportunity was that the group was leaving in two days. What were my chances? It was a shot in a million but only one way to find out. My supervisor was most definitely not impressed with my inquiry.

 

She looked at me with obvious annoyance. “You do realize you just began working here a week ago, don’t you? Even though I’m extremely supportive of mission trips, the timing is just not going to work. I’m sorry.”

 

What did I expect? That she would let me go? I gave her a short nod and dragged my feet out of her office, while my brain scrambled frantically for another solution. I waited until my lunch break and called Uncle Stephen.

 

He sounded surprised, probably because I was calling during working hours, but most likely because I’ve never called him before. “Hello? Is everything OK?”

 

“Hi, Uncle Stephen, yes, it’s fine; I just have an enormous problem. I really don’t know what to do. I need some help. Do you have a minute?” Before he could say yes or no, I rambled on. “You know how I’ve been so excited about the church mission trip? I really wanted to go but couldn’t but now somebody cancelled and that spot is offered to me and I have just enough money left to pay for that spot. But I also needed a job for so long and finally I got one, but they aren’t letting me take a week off to go on this mission trip. What should I do?” My heart was thumping furiously as I paused for a breath.

 

There was a gap of a few seconds on the line. Then Uncle Stephen said, “Now, I can’t tell you what to do.”

 

What? That’s what I needed right now! I desperately needed somebody to tell me exactly what to do, because I didn’t know! That’s precisely why I had called him in the first place!

 

He went on. “You have to make this decision yourself; it’s your life.” He spoke thoughtfully, selecting each word carefully. “I have a question for you: how often does an opportunity such as a mission trip occur?”

 

I closed my eyes to focus on the question. My foot was tapping rapidly against the cement ground. I was sure that organizations supporting mission trips existed, not that I knew of any off the top of my head. “Well, I ‘ve never had that opportunity, but it finally presented itself. To me this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

 

“Alright. Next question: how often do opportunities for employment occur?”

 

That was easy. “All the time, just depends what kind of a job.”

 

“Yes,” agreed Uncle Stephen. “Certain opportunities exist less often, and others more often. Make your decision based on that.” And that was the end of the conversation. It was the greatest advice I’d received in a long time.

 

I was too chicken to quit in person, so I called it in that evening. Then I began packing for Mexico.

 

This trip was a critical factor in helping me begin the journey of discovering who I was as a child of God and what exactly my purpose was on this earth.

2. Valerian Root

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My dad didn’t take his test results well. He came home, stretched out on our blue couch in the living room, covered himself with a thin blanket, folded his arms, and waited to die. He had the latest stage of cancer so thoroughly spread out, that even the doctor was surprised how dad was still alive at this point. The prognosis – one month of life left.

 

Two years prior to this, my dad got a job, which required a health checkup. On that exam, a few little spots were discovered on his lungs, and a biopsy had been recommended. It was of concern because we had lived in Ukraine, where a few years prior the Chernobyl disaster had occurred. But my dad, he was a man. Macho man. Superhero. He wasn’t feeling pain anywhere, so why in the world should he get a biopsy done? If it were truly something serious, he would be feeling pain, and that would justify getting the biopsy. Well now it was too late. The cancer had spread; there was zero hope of any kind of treatment helping. In fact, it had spread to a part of his brain, which was causing the seizures.

 

The second time he had a seizure was no less scary than the first. He fell to the floor, and half of his body was jerking and trembling uncontrollably. Again, I made a familiar phone call, the ambulance arrived, and off we went to the hospital. We were informed that as the cancer grows, more seizures would take place. And they did. I began to dread waking up, not knowing if that would be a day where another seizure would happen.

 

My dad was a very disciplined, brilliant man. Immigrating into the United States of America at the age of 34, he immersed himself in all the English language programs and books he could possibly find. Within a year he was the designated translator/interpreter in our social circle. That year I went into first grade and learned the language there. We would have a competition of who knew more English words.

 

“Dad, I have a new one today!”

 

“What is it? I learned many words today too, I bet I already know it.”

 

“Nope! What’s hotdog?”

 

That was the one word that stumped him, because literally hot and dog are two words, which made no sense combined, and hotdog was a food item that I saw in the cafeteria that day. It felt so good to outsmart my dad.

 

Each morning before the school bus picked me up, dad would give me a Russian language book, from which I needed to read, and if I was done quickly, to spend the remainder of the time practicing Russian handwriting. He always ordered books from a book company, and sometimes he would let me browse through the catalog to choose a children’s book too. These were days before we had the computer or Internet or iPhones, so our free time was spent playing tag, riding bikes, or reading books.

 

One day somebody recommended a natural cancer treatment book to my dad. This did wonders for my dad’s attitude; it was as if he got another shot at life. The next day a juicing machine appeared in our kitchen, followed by bags of vegetables. I remember chopping up beets, celery, other greens, and carrots. My siblings and I took turns making juices; we would sneak a few sips, especially carrot juice. My dad began juicing furiously, hoping to cure the cancer. He ordered a giant box of special herbs from another country.

 

I baked some rolls for him, his favorite, ones that were labeled “Daddy’s Buns” in the recipe book. Each buttered bun had one raisin at the top for decoration. This was a recipe I had perfected because dad encouraged me. He supported most of my little projects. Sometimes I felt that since I was the oldest, I was his favorite. Once I wanted to bake bread, so I called my aunt, got the recipe, and had the ingredients purchased. I had no idea what dough was supposed to look like, and my mom was busy tending to the young babies, so it was completely up to me. The first water/yeast batch didn’t rise, so I just mixed it in with the remaining ingredients and got a lumpy sticky batter. The “dough” needed to rise, so I poured the batter into five bread loaf pans and stuck them in the oven while I went to school. Hopeful that the batter would rise since it had more hours in the oven, I was disappointed to find the same lumpy batter at the same level in each loaf pan. They baked for hours. Finally they seemed to be fully cooked. The final result was a brick bread that looked identical to an actual brick. I tried it; it was disgusting.

 

My dad sawed off a corner, tasted it, and said, “Delicious!” and ate a few more bites. I was very sad the bread didn’t turn out and was ready to toss the loaves into the trash.

 

“Nonsense! Bring me some foil, I’ll wrap up the remaining loaves to put in the freezer and I’ll eat them later while I eat this one up!” His encouragement kept me going, and I eventually learned there were cooking books in the school library that I could check out and keep experimenting. Yet these Daddy’s Buns he wouldn’t touch because of the strict juicing requirements.

 

People began visiting us, praying for us. The seizures continued. I stopped going to school. My mom had to deliver the baby, who was the 10th child into our family, so one of the relatives drove her to the hospital. My dad’s mother came to stay with us. She was a fantastic baker, yet a terrible cook. Her bland combination of water, noodles, potatoes and carrots, which she called soup, was appalling. It challenged me to do a cook-off, so the next pot had a flavorful soup like the one I’ve seen mom make. Grandma baked delicious kolach, yet she couldn’t tell me the recipe because everything was made “na glaz”, or by the eyeball method. Since I had more time, I followed her around and recorded how much of each ingredient went into the recipe.

 

By this point my dad received a hospital bed, which was situated in our living room. He had a steel walker and managed to hobble around that way. Then one day, a worker from Hospice Care arrived. She said she needed to talk to us about what we are doing, what are our plans after dad passes away, does he have a will, and so forth. I’m not sure why it was a shocker to me, probably because most of the people who visited us kept saying “we will pray for you” and “your dad will get healed”, and here was this woman saying these very morbid sentences. I got angry with her.

 

“No thank you! Our dad will get well! We are praying very hard, we believe in God, we believe he will get healed! So there!”

 

Not sure how effective my outburst was, because the woman kept talking, and saying phrases like “it’s hard” and “being in denial” and “comfort care” and eventually left a packet for us.

 

As my dad’s health deteriorated, he was moved to a nursing home where he could receive 24/7 care.

 

Some elders from churches came and urged us to pray more intensely. They had several suggestions and questions.

 

“Perhaps this is God punishing you? Were you very disobedient to your parents? Or you’re not praying enough? You don’t have enough faith?”

 

In horror I recalled all the times I disobeyed my parents. For some reason I was the troublemaker; I would talk back, I would tell jokes and make my siblings laugh in church, or I didn’t pay attention during a sermon. But I thought I was fine, since I’d already served my punishment by either getting the “switch” (tree branch whipping) or standing an hour or two in a paper-bag in my time-out corner. I must’ve been born naughty. When I was even younger, I got the stinging nettle punishment. When I disobeyed, dad would get a stinging nettle plant and glide it over my leg until it was completely covered in a most unpleasant burning, itching sensation. And here I was, disobedient and naughty to such a degree that God was punishing me by making my dad have cancer.

 

“Or perhaps there are some hidden sins he needs to confess?”

 

I listened to the uncomfortable dialogue of people attempting to find all the faults in my dad’s life. He read a lot of books, too many books. Perhaps he was swayed by weird teachings? He ordered many books from a catalog, who took the orders? It was a woman? Did he spend too much time talking to her? Was something else going on? These concerns were brought to him. Anything remotely suspicious or less than ideal living was a factor he had to deal with: he made phone calls, apologized to anybody who might have ever gotten offended by him.

 

We took turns visiting dad in the nursing home. These visits were more tolerable because they didn’t include the sterile, antiseptic smell of hospitals that made me nauseated.

 

One such evening I opened the back door to welcome my mom from the nursing home. She had grandma with her.

 

“Um, mom? Why is grandma with you? She usually stays with dad.”

She didn’t meet my eyes.

 

“Um, mom?”

 

She looked at me. Then in a barely audible voice, she whispered, “They let dad go tonight.”

 

What kind of an answer was that? Did he get healed miraculously?

 

Mom! What do you mean?”

 

She opened the medicine cabinet, which was located right next to the door, and took out a round container of valerian root. She shook out a few capsules and handed them to me and put a few more in her mouth.

 

“Take these, they will calm the nerves.”

 

And then I knew what she meant.

 

1. Ambulance Ride

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I clasped my hands tighter and tried to keep myself from trembling as I sat between the two paramedics.

“Do you want to go really fast?” asked the driver. I nodded, not sure why he was asking me. “How about the sirens? Should we make them loud?” I nodded again. Why was he asking me that? He was the driver, those were his decisions to make, not mine.

The other paramedic asked me how old I was. “Twelve,” I answered.

“And you speak Russian?” I nodded.

“Your English is great! How long have you lived in America?” I shrugged. Why do they keep talking to me?

“That’s really neat! I wish I knew two languages! You know that you can be a professional interpreter? They make really good money! You’re the youngest interpreter I’ve ever met!” He sounded impressed, but I couldn’t tell for sure.

 

Out of the corner of my eye I could see cars flashing by as the ambulance raced to the hospital.

“Is…is my dad gonna be OK?” I asked quietly. My knuckles clenched harder than I thought possible.

“That’s why we’re taking him to the hospital. There are some very good doctors who will take a few tests to find out what’s going on.”

 

The emergency room was ready for my dad. A nurse was talking through each step that she took. I wasn’t paying too much attention because my dad had regained his consciousness and there was no need to interpret anything. He looked helpless and kept offering me a weak smile each time I looked at his face. I jerked with a start when the nurse mentioned drawing blood. That I could not handle, even if someone else was getting the procedure done. The ominous-looking needle, the outstretched arm, and the strong sanitized smell of the hospital was almost too much. Shifting my seat loudly, I turned my head and closed my eyes.

 

Earlier that evening, the whole family had been gathered in the living room for the daily devotional time. We usually sang a song or two and prayed. My favorite part was when each person got to choose a random number and my dad would read that verse if that number was available from the page of the Bible that he’d selected. The goal among the siblings was to choose a verse that wasn’t on the page so that another choice could be made. Most choices = winner.  It didn’t take much to entertain us. All of a sudden my dad yelped and grabbed his leg. “Help! My leg! Something’s happening!” and he fell with his back to the floor and stopped moving.

 

My mom lifted her third-trimester belly and shuffled over, calling his name, shaking him, trying to get him to wake up. All the kids froze, just momentarily, then chaos took over. Some began to wildly jump around, others cry, and since we were in prayer position, still others began praying really loudly. In absolute panic I sprinted to my parents’ room and grabbed the phone. It took several attempts before my fingers landed on the 3 digits correctly and the line began to ring.

 

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
One of the most dreadful feelings is when you need help, but you can’t request it. The words weren’t coming out of my mouth. It was like a bad dream.

 

“Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?”

 

“Ah! Ah! Help!” I croaked. It wasn’t easy trying to force words out and breath at the same time. “My dad. Help! Ah…Dying? Please help!”

 

God bless her heart; the operator told me to take a few deep breaths and began asking questions that I could answer with one or two words and the next thing I knew, she told me to go unlock the door because an ambulance had arrived and they needed to come inside. It wasn’t just an ambulance, there were police cars and fire trucks too. The commotion brought out all the curious neighbors. The medics tried to figure out what happened. I heard the word “seizure” a few times.

 

Since my mom’s English speaking skills were limited, I was the person to accompany my dad to the hospital.

 

I heard my dad call my name. I turned my head. His smile wasn’t fooling me for one second. “They’re done with the blood draw. Everything will be fine, you’ll see,” he said.