Essays On War

Julia Musakovska. People like these

People like these

We decided to celebrate that New Year together.

My New Year’s Eve memories with Anya are very vivid: she stands by the window looking like a Middle Eastern beauty, her face covered by a veil. I remember that celebration in a rented apartment in Lviv a long time ago. There was a costume party, cheap champagne, and a pig made of mashed potatoes stuffed with minced meat. We were so young that it felt like we had to call our parents in time and let them know where we were and with whom.

Last fall, Anya lost both her parents within a span of 10 days due to the coronavirus. They were her greatest support and comfort in this world, and her relationship with her parents was how I imagined a perfect one to be, filled with so much support, warmth, and unconditional acceptance.

It is impossible to comfort a person in such profound moments of grief, for one can never fully heal a broken heart. There are few practical things one can do for a friend in this case, so that’s what I focused on. We last saw each other long ago, because we live in different cities, even though they are not very far away. In better times, we met more often, but the pandemic and daily fuss of life had kept us apart.

Friendships like this last for years, despite any distance and what life throws at you. We first met virtually at an online literary forum and immediately found common ground. Anya differed from others in how natural she seemed in poetry writing. People like this speak to you, and even before you meet them in person, the sincerity of their words is like music to your ears. When you finally meet face-to-face, the eyes confirm everything. Eleven years ago, Anya became my son’s godmother. My child has grown up, and Anya’s own children have become adults. They have grown so much that I once did not recognize them in the audience during my poetry reading. Friends like these are almost like family. You don’t need to meet every weekend or holiday and share all the details from your life. You can stay in touch, be there for each other when you really need it, enjoy your time together and bask in the warmth of each other’s presence, as if you are charging your batteries.

Hanna „Anya“ Osadko, Oleksandr „Sashko“ Osadko. My close friends, from my nearest and dearest.

„I’ll bring a roast duck,“ Anya let me know before her New Year’s visit. After hearing this, I decided to bake some fish. We always knew how to negotiate. Anya came with a duck and Sashko, whom we hadn’t seen for a long time, perhaps even several years. He worked as a construction worker, sometimes going abroad, and put in a lot of effort to provide for his family adequately. Their apartment in Ternopil breathed the fruits of his labor. He had an eye for details: family photos under glass, interspersed among the ceramic tiles above the dining table; floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, paintings of Anya and Yurko, their son, lining the walls.

Anya and Sashko were always the perfect married couple and had been together since they were young. They’d jointly experienced just about every milestone in their lives, from summer camp to having kids and building a home. They also fixed up an old house in a village in the Berezhany region; they replaced the windows, and Sashko planted a large garden next to it, where Anya grew her roses. On the second floor, he’d arranged a workshop for Anya: there were wooden shelves with many cans of paint, boxes with supplies for painting, glasswork, and various other craft materials.

Anya is incredibly versatile, not only a talented artist but a poet and craftswoman. At home I have a lot of decorations and trinkets created by her, as well as herbal teas and dried mushrooms that she collected. She and Sashko always liked picking mushrooms together. For them, it was a form of meditation.

Many years after they married, Anya learned that Sashko had a way with words, too. His cheerful, life-affirming stories caused a sensation at the Gogol Academy, a self-publishing online literary portal that was popular in Ukraine in the 2000s. This man, who always was bold in everyday life, dared to publish his work only thanks to the power of his wife’s persuasion. Sashko took online popularity lightly, having never taken his literary endeavors seriously. And this was a pity, really.

Autumn 2021 was a difficult time. I came to Ternopil to present a new book, but Anya and I could not meet. Both of her parents were sick with Covid, and she, fearing that she was also ill, decided not to put my health at risk. It was strange to talk to her on the phone while we were both in Ternopil. We did not know that even darker times with terrible challenges lay ahead.

Even before the start of the New Year, the media started raising concerns about a major Russian offensive. “What else can we do? Just go and fight!” said Sashko on our last New Year’s Eve together. He had no doubt what the answer might be. We chatted for a long time over champagne while Anya and Sashko recalled their trips to Rome and Bakota and rafting on the Dniester river. We took funny photos under the Christmas tree, decorated with bright stuffed animals, ornaments, and stars made of fabric and felt, many of them created by Anya. Everything around us seemed unreal. The irreparable losses caused by the pandemic still hurt, but we wanted to think that the worst was already behind us. The future looked uncertain, and we stared at it like confused children. But not Sashko. The god of irony, he was full of dark jokes, so it was difficult to recognize that carefree Stakh–his pen name from the Gogol Academy– who told his stories about the great Chupa from the Cabra clan (chupacabra, of course), old Yuzyk, and cheerful brother-in-laws. Sashko turned out to be more mature than all of us.

He was sitting in his black sweater at the table in our living room. I will always remember him like that. To this day I still see him in front of me, and feel his presence in my home.

Sashko joined the Territorial Defense Forces on the second day of the full-scale invasion. For him, there were no other options than to take up arms and defend our country from the Russian invaders. His deep knowledge of history, which Sashko had always been interested in, showed that there was no other choice. He understood that the aggressor would  only go further if unstopped. During the first few months of the war, Sashko trained and served in the Ternopil region. Anya worried to the point of nausea and hoped his body armor would arrive from Luxembourg in time to be sent to the frontline. I was with her during this unrest. Sashko sent many photos from his service and always added: „Everything will be Ukraine,“ a popular saying that emerged since the invasion.

This story is written in the past tense. On my birthday, July 9, Anya, as usual, called to convey her best wishes and then alarmedly added that Sashko was not answering her calls. I remember telling her faith creates miracles and that she had to stay positive. In the evening, I opened Facebook and read Anya’s post: „My husband Oleksandr Osadko passed away today near Sloviansk, in the Donetsk region. He was a member of the 25th Airborne Assault Brigade.“ I reread the message several times, reopened the app, and even rebooted my phone. I guess I was hoping that these small actions would change reality. But Sashko died. He’d sacrificed himself in a Russian tank attack, saving his brother in arms. He jumped into the trench with another soldier and covered him with his body, saving his life. The godfather of Sashko’s children, who’d served with him, brought the terrible news to Anya. I suspect this is probably what a total blackout of the heart looks like.

I remember how Sashko and Anya started learning to dance the tango. I’ve only seen a video of them dancing together on stage once, and I thought they had a perfect sense of each other’s rhythm. I am sure that tango will forever remain the sacrament of their marriage. When Sashko went to serve in the Armed Forces, he even took the call sign „Tango.“ Waiting for him from the front, Anya bought herself a new silver tango dress. Soon after the death of Sashko, this dress caught her eye and ended up in the trash. Could there be any tango but the one they danced together?

It is impossible to find the right words when addressing your friend who has lost three of her closest people in less than a year. I have never cried as much as I did in those days: sharp pain and a burning, albeit irrational, sense of guilt. A closed coffin, a familiar smiling face in the photo with a black ribbon, yellow, blue–in the national flag colors–and white flowers for the fallen warrior. The church was full of people, including many of his comrades in arms. My dear Anya was a black bird with a red feather, so small, steadfast, and brave in her grief, her sorrowful children, Yurko and Sofia, standing alongside her with darkened faces. During the funeral service, an air siren went off, a notification of another threat of a missile attack on the region. It howled until we arrived at the cemetery, where dozens of flags waving over freshly-dug military graves were visible.

Two of Sashko’s fellow soldiers, who had also perished in the Donetsk region, were buried that day. Three graves, three families broken by immeasurable grief. There is no sound more deafening than dirt falling on a coffin. Anya froze in the middle of the crowd, like a figure made of black stone, clutching a folded flag to her chest. She shuddered from the force of her sobs, but remained standing upright.

My Anya is like thousands of other Ukrainian women who lost their loved ones in the fight against the Russian invasion. They lost those who mattered the most to them in this world but did not give up. A month or so later, Anya again began to sew traditional Motanka dolls again. „Sashko would want me to create,“ she kept repeating. Art is also about freedom.

People like Sashko have left behind a priceless gift for which it is impossible to have enough gratitude. It is the gift of freedom, which sadly, is won at the cost of one’s own life.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan

*** Editor’s note: A book of short stories written by Oleksandr Osadko was published posthumously in 2023 by the Old Lion Publishing House.