December 5th, 1941: Leningrad-Russia
“Tatyana! Tatyana! Look up there to the right… there …it’s Virgo…she’s dancing!”, Ivan pleaded as he juggled his seven-year-old daughter in one arm while pointing over head at the star filled winter sky with his free hand. But it was no use. Tatyana was too distracted.
Squirming vigorously to free herself; “I’m scared papa. I want to go home…PLEASE!” Tatyana’s fear drenched screams could barely be heard over the mass hysteria of panicked voices that packed in all around them on the train station platform.
Earlier that morning, Tatyana’s day had begun with the promise of adventure and excitement. Tonight, she would be joining hundreds of other children on a forty-eight-hour train trip to a national ballet camp in the city of Molotov. Each child was allowed only one piece of luggage. Her tiny suitcase was packed and ready.
Seated at a small round kitchen table in their tiny drab two-bedroom apartment; Ivan called out to his awakening daughter, “Tatyana, come to breakfast! We have much to discuss.”
“Oднy минутy, папа”, Tatyana replied. One-minute papa. Down the hallway Ivan could hear her humming the melody to Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. It was moments like this: Tatyana singing, smiling, laughing that provided Ivan an escape from the apocalypse that lurked outside their front door.
Ivan divided the last of their food rations onto two plates: each one receiving one piece of bread, three tablespoons of boiled buckwheat and a small piece of dried fish. Ivan set one of the plates down on the table. He then reached across the table and picked up the letter that he had read more twenty times over the course of the last six days. Again, he read the government letter in shocking disbelief, as if for the very first time:
ATTENTION CITIZENS Of LENINGRAD:
As the German Army’s months long blockade continues to cut off all food and essential supplies into our city, the threat of mass starvation is imminent.
Three weeks of enemy aerial bombardment has decimated Leningrad’s water supplies and has knocked out electrical power to several districts. If you can obtain water, please boil it before drinking.
Recently we have learned that an all-out NAZI invasion is likely to commence within the next few days. These evil forces will spare no lives. Men, women, and children will all be slaughtered in the wake of Hitler’s aggression. We must protect Russia’s children- The Future of Russia. For the Motherland!
It is therefore decreed that all citizens of Leningrad are here by mandated to evacuate their children out of the city of Leningrad no later than December 5th, 1941 11:59 pm.
We are Russians- we will overcome!
And… just like previous times when reading the letter; a sickening title wave of fear and despair consumed Ivan from head to toe. Tatyana’s humming grew closer to the kitchen. Choosing to hide the government orders from his little princess, Ivan quickly folded the paper in half and shoved it deep into his pant pocket.
Dressed in a thick gray robe, moth eaten socks, and fingerless wool gloves to fend off the freezing temperature in their apartment, Tatyana pirouetted into the kitchen as though she was center stage at the Mariinsky Theatre auditioning for the lead ballerina role in Swan Lake.
Kissing Ivan on his cheek, “Good morning papa!”. Tatyana quickly sat down and scooped the buckwheat onto the small piece of bread. Devouring it all within seconds.
“Morning princess.” Ivan replied, setting his plate on the table as he sat down across from her. He continued, “We need to leave as soon as you are finished eating. Miss Chernyshevsky from downstairs told me that the food line over on Petrov Street is extremely long this morning.”
Tatyana swiveled her chair ninety degrees to her left and gazed down the hallway towards her father’s closed bedroom door. “I miss her so much sometimes I can’t breathe.”
Six months had passed since Ivan’s wife, Larissa, lost her battle against cancer. Since her death Ivan struggled in the morning to get out of bed. His only purpose, only joy, in life was raising Tatyana. They had grown closer over the past few months. They were each other’s laughter, pillar of support, beacon of hope, safe place, shopping buddy, best friend. They were inseparable.
“Sweetheart, I know you miss her.” Ivan replied, “She's up in heaven now. The cancer can no longer hurt her. She’s watching over us…protecting us…loving us.”
The smallest of smiles briefly appeared across Tatyana’s face. She finished her breakfast and hurried off to her bedroom to get dressed. Nine minutes later she was back in the kitchen. Ready.
Bundled up in multiple layers of clothing to keep warm, Tatyana and her father descended the apartment building’s three flights of stairs. Understanding that they probably would not be returning to the apartment before the train left, Ivan took Tatyana’s suitcase with them. Overnight two feet of fresh snow had accumulated up against the apartment building’s front door. Exerting a fair amount force, Ivan managed to push the door open just wide enough to allow the two of them to slip through.
The smell of smoldering timber, burning rubber tires and human waste saturated the city air and forced anyone outside to cover their nose and mouth. Smoke from bombed out buildings and vehicles stained the sunlit sky in shades of orange and browns. As Ivan and Tatyana navigated their way through the rubble of brick, jagged concrete and twisted metal, freezing temperatures started to infiltrate their tattered waterlogged boots.
Every morning Leningrad’s refugee population grew larger and larger. Unable to leave the city for fear of being shot by the enemy, the destitute now occupied every doorway and nook and cranny within the city limits. The emaciated frozen bodies of men, women and children-young and old- dead from starvation, littered the city streets like toppled statues. Day after day, pedestrians roamed the ice-covered streets and sidewalks; silent zombie-esque creatures with vacant eyes and sunken facial features, all desperately searching for the closest food line. And once in line they waited …and waited for hours upon hours in hopes of getting a meager ration of food. Often- only to be turned away without food. Day after day.
Two blocks into their morning journey Ivan and Tatyana turned the corner and spotted a food line one hundred yards ahead. Just loud enough not to call attention to anyone nearby Ivan said, “Quick Tatyana- run and get in that line!” Tatyana took off like a gazelle and quickly secured a spot in the line. Ivan followed close behind, passing three people kneeling beside a crater in the street caused by a mortar blast. All three people were plunging buckets and tin cans into the murky water filled hole. As the day limped by, Ivan and Tatyana successfully occupied two food lines, where they were able to obtain two days’ worth of rations. As the sun began to set Ivan and Tatyana sat down on a frozen curb and shared a small piece of bread.
Ivan was the first to speak, “Sweetheart, I am so proud of you. I want you to have a wonderful time at dance camp and…”. Sensing that Tatyana wanted to say something, Ivan paused.
“It’s…just…I don’t want to leave you here all alone.”
“I’m never alone. You are always with me in my heart. Tatyana, every night I promise to search the sky for the Virgo constellation and think of you. If you ever feel lonely look up - find Virgo and know that I will be looking up too…thinking of you. She will always bond us together.
“Ok…but you’ll write to me every week, right?”
“Of course, princess.” Ivan replied, gazing down at his wristwatch – 8:34pm. “Hurry along now, we’ve got three blocks to go before we reach the train station. There’s bound to be long lines to get onto your train!” They both stood up, brushed the snow off and starting walking hand-in-hand towards the train station.
Ten minutes later they arrived at the train station. Ivan’s crowd prediction was correct. Before them stood a crowd of four-hundred-twenty: parents, children, and grandparents. Each and every one gathered there, swirling in turbulent ebb and flow currents of confusion, tears, desperation, and hopelessness. To make things quicker, Ivan picked Tatyana up in his arms and bulldozed his way deep into the crowd, eventually making his way up onto the train platform. There they waited two hours.
Ivan closed his eyes for a moment. Breathing in the stinging minus forty-degree Celsius night air was becoming more difficult the longer he stood outside waiting…dreading the departure of the train. For weeks leading up to this night he could feel the exhaustion creeping in…feeding like a relentless cancer on his ability to think, analyze, and make appropriate decisions. “How can I do this to Tatyana …she won’t understand” he thought.
Then just before quarter after eleven the station’s loudspeakers crackled to life, “The number seven train from Leningrad to Molotov leaves in five minutes. This is the last train of the evening. All travelers must board now.”
Suddenly, Ivan felt the force of the crowd push from behind as desperate parents made sure their children got on the train and safely away from their dying city.
The first train whistle bellowed.
Tatyana felt the crowd’s urgency and panic. She knew something was wrong. “I’m scared papa. I want to go home…PLEASE!”
Ivan reached the train car’s doorway. A porter grabbed Tatyana’s suitcase and chucked it into a pile behind him.
“Papa please don’t let them take me!” Tatyana screamed. “I don’t want to go!”
Choking back the tears Ivan shouted over the top of the crowd noise, “We have no choice sweetheart.” The porter snatched Tatyana from Ivan’s arms as Ivan screamed, “We’ll be together again soon. I love yo..” The porter and Tatyana disappeared into the train car. Ivan was absorbed backwards into the crowd as others pushed forward with their children. Minutes later the train and his little princess vanished into the darkness. Weeping, Ivan turned and started his journey back home.
Propped up against a train car window, silent… in shock, Tatyana sat wide awake motionless amid the chaos and adolescent screams. Staring up at the stars and replaying her dad’s words… “she’s dancing”.
Ivan locked the apartment door behind him, slipped off his boots and walked into his bedroom. Moonlight crept in though the torn drapes.
Sitting on the edge of his bed, holding a framed wedding picture Ivan whispered, “Our princess will be safe soon Larissa.” Then Ivan collapsed in exhaustion.
Three days passed before the news finally hit Leningrad. Within minutes notices were being posted all over the city:
In the early morning of December 6, 1941, the number seven Leningrad train, while in route to Molotov, came under heavy enemy aerial bombardment. There have been no reports of survivors.
Sobbing, Ivan paused in his apartment doorway. “It’s my fault Tatyana’s dead. She begged me to let her stay. I’m so sorry Larissa… I failed you both.” Ivan exited the building and kept walking straight out of Leningrad’s city limits and straight into German machine-gunsights.
December 1st, 2005
Clutching her water bottle, the sixty-six-year-old Chief Intensivist busted through the doors of Massachusetts General Hospital’s third floor physician’s lounge. Finding herself all alone she collapsed into the overstuffed sofa. Closing her eyes, “Two more hours…honestly I’m getting too old for this…” Doctor Beaumont thought.
Again, the lounge doors open. Her eyes remained shut.
“You sleeping?”, the male voice inquired.
“No Bruce. Just resting.” Doctor Beaumont replied.
“I guess I’ll be covering your shift for the next two weeks.”
“Yea, I heard. Thanks Bruce.”
“Where are you going on vacation?”
“Downtown to get fitted for a new leg and then someplace to hibernate, far away from this flu pandemic.” She replied.
“To each their own.” Bruce chuckled, “Mind if I turn on the television? I’m recording today’s Good Morning America show for my wife.”
“No, go ahead.” Shifting…her body sunk deeper into the couch cushions.
The television woke up, “Welcome back to Good Morning America. And now back to Seattle for the conclusion of our main story, once again here’s Sandra.”
Bruce piped in over the tv host’s commentary. “I would love to visit Seattle. I hear...”
Doctor Beaumont’s eye’s shot open, “Shut up a minute Bruce. I want to hear this story.” She sat there, frozen on the couch. Mesmerized. As the story ended, she turned towards Bruce, “Can you make me a copy of that entire story?”
“Sure” Bruce replied.
“Now?” she asked. “I need to get to Seattle ASAP!”
“I’ll copy it to a DVD. Tatyana, I promise you’ll have it in your hands within the next five minutes.”
Overcome with joy, Doctor Tatyana Beaumont raced out of the lounge shouting, “Fantastic Bruce …I’ll meet you at the emergency room’s main entrance. I’ve got a flight to book.”
Tatyana entered Boston’s Logan International Airport Delta Preferred Member lounge. She ordered a martini and asked the bartender for use of their television and DVD player. Flight 213 to Seattle began boarding in twenty minutes. She inserted the DVD into the machine, the Good Morning America video began playing automatically.
Sandra appeared on the television screen. Standing outside the Fletcher Nursing Home she began her report. “Good Morning America! I’m here with NASA’s very own Ed Fitzgerald. Ed what’s going on here?”
“Well Sandra. I am here today on behalf on NASA. NASA is proud to commemorate and pay tribute to living heroes. Today we honor Ivan Lebedev with this plaque for his invaluable contributions to America’s Space Program.” Ed replied
“I must be dreaming. I heard he had been shot by the Germans.” Tatyana thought, “If this is a dream …I don’t ever want to wake up.”
Pressing Ed for more details Sandra asked, “Unfortunately due to the Swine Flu pandemic we are unable to do a face to face interview with Mr. Lebedev. What can you tell us about him?”
“I’m afraid not much Sandra.” Ed replied. “Ivan is a very private person. All that I have been able to learn about him is rather tragic. He lost his wife and only daughter in World War II during the eight-hundred-seventy-two day seize on Leningrad, now known as Saint Petersburg. His wife died of cancer and I believe his daughter died in a train bombing. Shortly after their deaths Ivan was recruited by America’s Space Program because of his aerospace expertise and work in Soviet Astronomy.” Tatyana paused the video and took a sip of her martini.
“No one told him I survived…” she whispered to herself. She began to cry.
From overhead came, “Now boarding flight 213 to Seattle”.
Aboard the plane long forgotten memories kept Tatyana in tears for the entire flight.
The moment the plane landed at SeaTac Airport in Seattle the stewardess flipped on the overhead speaker. “Welcome to Seattle! The current time is 7:53pm. We hope you enjoy your stay in the Emerald City”. Tatyana grabbed her bag and raced off the plane. Bypassing baggage claim she immediately hired a taxi to drive her straight to Fletcher’s Nursing Home. While in transit Tatyana contacted the Fletcher’s Nursing Home’s head nurse Judy and confirmed that due to the virus visitors were not allowed inside the facility.
Judy met Tatyana at the facility’s main entrance. They sat down on a nearby bench.
Tatyana, “Thank you so much for meeting with me.”
“I’m honored to help you. Your story touched me.” Judy continued, “As I mentioned on the phone, your father is in good health. There is nothing wrong with his mind as far as any test would show. He’s just…”
Tatyana cut her off, “He’s just what?”
“In the eight years Ivan has lived here he has never shown any sign of being happy.” Judy answered, “He never smiles. Never laughs. He refuses to interact with anyone. Over the past fourteen months he’s only said one word…Virgo”
A worried look came across Tatyana’s face.
Judy stood up, “Come with me. You’ve waited long enough.”
Tatyana sprang to her feet and followed Judy across the moonlit sidewalk that followed the length of the building. They turned left and continued walking the path as it snaked around the back of the building. Eight-foot-high by eight-foot-wide windows lined the entire backside of the nursing home giving each resident full views of the ground’s lush flower beds.
Before turning to leave, Judy pointed to the one window where the drapes remained open. “That’s his room.”
Tatyana approached his window slowly as not to startle him. She peered through the window into the dimly lit room. Sleeping in a wheelchair less than ten feet away, Ivan sat facing her…snoring. Tatyana recognized her winkled and frail eighty-nine-year old father instantly. Tatyana sank to the ground. Exhausted, sleep overtook her.
Tatyana awoke around one-thirty a.m. to find Ivan inches away from the window, wide awake… watching her. She stood up. Their eyes met. “Papa!”, she screamed.
The thick glass window blocked all sound going into and out of Ivan’s room.
Watching this strange woman’s lips moving...Ivan’s vacant eyes blinked.
Tatyana wiped the tears from her eyes. Placing both palms on the window and leaning in as close as possible, she turned her head to the left then to the right. “Look it’s me … Tatyana…your daughter.”
Ivan looked over towards his bed and began turning away from the window.
“NO!”, Tatyana cried pausing in a panic. “How do I make you understand?” she thought.
Tatyana started banging her fists on the window. Ivan turned towards her. Tatyana looked up into the moonlight, found Virgo. Pointing up towards the heavens she again made eye contact with Ivan and mouthed the words “She’s …dancing!”
Ivan gazed up at the stars, paused, then again into Tatyana’s eyes. Ivan began crying, “princess?”