Flat White

A year of death and of unknowing

24 March 2022

2:00 PM

24 March 2022

2:00 PM

Though we may still be in the early stages of a long, bitter conflict, an estimated 7,000 Russians and 1,300 Ukrainians have died.

As Russia’s aerial bombardment continues and Ukrainians valiantly continue to resist, those numbers will rise. The horrors of everyday life for those in active combat zones are unspeakably grim. But the burden is not theirs alone. It is shared by those who love them and who have no idea if, when, and in what condition their sons, boyfriends, and husbands will come home. This uncertainty and anxiety is the worst kind of pain a person can feel. And it to those suffering from this insidious unknowing that this piece is affectionately dedicated. 

For most of us, Ukraine is a world away, but death is a universal experience. Over the holidays this past year, I learned that a friend of a friend had been killed on Christmas in a car accident. The deceased twenty-something had just purchased a house with his partner. 

In high school, my favorite English teacher once told us a similar story about a young man who drove cross-country on his motorbike to see a girl only to be hit and killed by an automobile while on-foot once he had actually arrived. 

Last week, Abraham Joshua – a teacher, Princeton grad, and child of immigrants on his way to medical school – was struck and killed by a truck in San Francisco. 

Having buried my mother at the age of 13, I learned early in life the meaning of permanence. Like the three aforementioned victims of senseless tragedy, she was gone forever. In all of this, there was knowing, a luxury not afforded to those with loved ones on the battlefront. 

The internet has recently exploded with pictures of families torn apart by the war in Ukraine, typically of a man who is staying to fight juxtapose a wife, a girlfriend, or his children who are leaving for safer soil, be it in western Ukraine, in Europe, or anywhere other than where they are.

These goodbyes are the hardest, precisely because they are rife with uncertainty, with unknowing. Separated by war with one half moving through an active battle zone, communication is not always guaranteed, and life and death are often mere seconds apart.

War does not sleep. One trigger or pin pull and the lives of young men with hopes and dreams and aspirations are blown into extinction.

While their husbands stand and fight and their sons are shipped off to battle in a faraway land, Ukrainian wives and Russian mothers live with the festering horror of relentless uncertainty. On the one hand, there is hope. But juxtapose that hope is a cruel imagination, conceiving always of how that unspeakable worst-case scenario has played out.

The sole tenant of a house built for two, the small-town girl who carries with her an eternally broken heart, the immigrant parents who have buried their 23-year-old son, and a thirteen-year-old boy who has just said goodbye to the epicenter of his world – they are all victims of senseless tragedy, of a cruel universe responsible for the theft of bright young lives full of hope and promise and aspiration. Theirs is a grief that’s eternal yet definite.

Those waiting to be reunited with their husbands and children and friends in Russia and Ukraine have no such luxury. They will fester in unknowing, taunted mercilessly by hope. War is a horror no statistic can sufficiently encompass.

Scott Newman is an award-winning author and Associate Editor at Quillette. He graduated from Princeton University with a degree in history and currently resides in Sydney. 

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments