A tiny pink prayer floats in the midst of a thousand others arcing up to Heaven. Anguish, fear, and pleading form the fabric around helium bubbles of hope. Some are voiced as desperate ramblings, bargains and promises. Others are mute supplications, wordless beseeching from overwhelmed spirits who have nothing left to say. A few thanks are scattered in this cloud, like salt, making this onslaught of asking more palatable. So many prayers, invisible and yet strong enough to bear the weight of the world.
Iryna’s plea, the pink one with a tiny flash of glitter, is not for her. It is for her brother. It is a simple plea. It is for bread. It struggles through the crowd, gets jostled and pushed off course. But it stays true and steadily, steadily rises to reach the ear of God.
It is the early days of Ukrainian independence from Russia. The euphoria of their declaration has dissipated like the bubbles in celebratory champagne. Now comes the clean up and hangover. The hard work begins as Ukraine works to redefine their autonomy, and redirect their efforts to their own sovereign state.
Hyperinflation, a destabilized currency and a shrinking economy make for a hard landing back to reality. Add to that equation the fallout, literally, of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Life in Ukraine is a slog, an uphill battle as politicians duke it out for control of the country.
But none of this makes any sense to an eight-year old girl. All Iryna knows is that she is hungry, her brother is starving, and there is no guarantee of hot food on the table at the end of the day.
Iryna’s mother works at the railway station, cleaning train parts. There, a cadre of women do backbreaking labor, using strong chemicals with no protective gear. It’s dangerous work, but they have no choice. They shoulder the welfare of their family, the feeding of their children. They do what needs to be done.
It’s Pay Day. Her mother has waited for hours in line to get paid, in cash, only to have the pay clerk slam the window shut in her face when her turn finally arrives. Yet again, they have run out of money to pay the workers, and Iryna’s mother faces the prospect of three hungry children at home, and no means to buy groceries for them.
Iryna is lucky, in a way. She gets one meal, lunch at school. But her brother is too young for school. All he has is an empty belly.
It’s been three days since he’s had food. He cries piteously to his mother, but she can only massage his stomach and whisper words of comfort. If words were edible; he would have a veritable feast of love.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never fill me. Words are not manna from Heaven.
Iryna prays to God, asks for bread. Just that, nothing else. She explains that she doesn’t want it for her, but for her brother. She doesn’t ask for any other food, just please, God, bread for her brother.
A miracle happens. Overnight, the heels of bread in the breadbox regenerate themselves, become a full loaf. It happens over and over again. Whenever the bread dwindles down to the last two slices, the next day a new loaf appears.
It’s sturdy black bread, the kind that nourishes and stays in your stomach for more than five minutes. It has a solid heft, defying those who scoff at miracles. It is heavy, peasant bread, and it sustains one little boy.
Iryna never asks how the loaf renews itself. She doesn’t want to know the earthly mechanics of how it happens. She doesn’t want to see the smoke and mirrors involved. In a way, she needs it to remain a miracle, a symbol of hope that life will get better, and that there is a God looking after her.
Fast forward twenty five years:
Iryna is in America now. She recounts to me the first time she went grocery-shopping here. She marvels at how $300 in Ukraine gets her a few pieces of meat, and some staples, but here in America, she can fill three carts to the brim.
It is a miracle hidden in the everyday. It’s not dramatic like the unending black bread, but it is a wonder, nevertheless.
Iryna sends up another balloon of a prayer, this time clothed in sunny yellow with a daisy attached to it. This time, it’s a whisper of thanks.