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Today at the pharmacy...

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

It was early April of this year, and time for a fourth COVID vaccination. I returned to the pharmacist who so kindly worked me into the queue some months back, and this without the rigmarole of an appointment. This earned him the simple but polite gratitude of a six-pack of my favorite imported beer along with instructions on the frozen glass and spicy Thai dinner required to fully appreciate this treasure. I live in a small logging community, and beer goes a long way. This fourth appointment, however, ended on a much different note.


This day I arrived and a small, middle-aged blond lady rather unceremoniously handed me a basic questionnaire. She pointed to a chair and with a slight accent informed me I could return when I was done. Her mannerisms were brusque, but more than that, were somehow familiar. I was a bit more attentive when I returned with the form, curious as to her abruptness, and also challenged to see if I might get her to loosen up a little. Yet she remained all business, and as before maintained what struck me as a safe distance. While I searched for my vaccination card she reached across the counter and said, “Right here,” tapping my open wallet so vigorously that I almost dropped it. She communicated a good deal more with the heated and impatient eyes that rested there atop her white mask, her short and unadorned hair, quick turns and—though I couldn’t see this—her thin lips and unsmiling mouth. She turned her back to me to move away and I remembered where I had so often experienced such behavior. I softly said, “Spasibo bol’shoye,” Thank you very much…in Russian. This stopped the no-nonsense lady cold. Her shoulders settled, she took a single breath and in the same language almost whispered, “Pozhaluysta,” You’re welcome.” She turned around and those brown eyes were no longer impatient; they were frightened.


I told her I had worked for years in the Soviet Union, in the mid and late 1980’s, jointly producing documentary films with the Central Documentary Studio of Moscow. These films were broadcast throughout the Soviet Union and on PBS and The Discovery Channel here in the states. I told her also that her mannerisms recalled so many of the Russian women I had met or worked alongside. “You are Russian?” I asked.


“I used to say I was from Russia,” she replied, “but no longer. My father is Russian and my mother Ukrainian. We are one people. We used to be. No more. Now I am only Ukrainian.”


Under the sane neon light, among hurried customers moving through colorful displays of neatly stacked medicines, I realized what this lady was living with, and that a window had opened—if only for a moment. I asked her if she had family there. This was less of a question than an attempt to understand how someone could endure such terror. She nodded, “It is horrible, what is happening. We just don’t know—everyone is dying.” The fear had returned to her eyes, yet this time it was laced with a dark anger.


More than the endless news clips and sympathetic reporters, the death videos sanitized so as not to overly upset viewers, the home movies of murdered civilians, the drone footage of exploding tanks and destruction beyond description—more than all this, this little lady allowed me to feel the deeper horror of what has been allowed to happen. But this understanding comes with a price, and that is the personal question only I can answer, “What am I going to do?”

 

Afterwords: What am I going to do? These few words awaken a whirlwind, leading to either acceptance or denial. But for now just asking the question, and paying attention to what happens, may be enough.


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