I felt guilty because I was guilty. I switched my eight-month-old son to formula not because he was ready but because I was ready to embark upon a trip halfway around the world without him. It seemed like a good decision at the time. But when the day came to kiss his little forehead and gaze into his trusting hazel eyes one last time before planes, trains, and technology separated us, I almost changed my mind. He’ll be okay, they said. When you come back, he won’t remember that you were ever gone. Go, they said. My heart echoed their encouragement. I really wanted to go. It promised to be the adventure of a lifetime.

Bye, bye babies

Russian note takingFor three weeks in the winter of 1992 I traveled across western Russia, only months after the fall of the Soviet Union. My two companions and I journeyed from St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) to Moscow to small villages in the far north. I kept pictures of my baby son and his toddler brother in a notebook inside the camera bag that I lugged around. While it had been hard to leave both boys behind, I knew that my oldest son could make some sense of the words: Mommy will be back soon. Let’s count the days on the calendar. My baby, however, would have no comprehension. His momma had vanished.

He couldn’t see me following the two missionaries around with my video camera. He couldn’t watch as we nurtured relationships with people who craved a message of hope in a nation where their individuality had been suppressed for so long. He couldn’t understand how the images and stories I captured would be transformed into a video and brochure to later share with supporters.

Meanwhile, back home

My children did not hear a word from their momma for three weeks because Wi-Fi and cell phones did not exist for the masses as they do today. Most days were a flurry of activity, but in the quiet down times, I second-guessed being there. Thankfully, those moments were few and the day to leave actually seemed to come way too soon. After tearful hugs and promises to write letters to our new Russian friends, we began the long trip home.

At last we returned to the US and finally got off our plane where family and friends could still greet passengers right at the gate. I practically ran to my boys when I spotted them in the welcoming crowd. My older son jumped up into my arms and hugged me tightly. A friend who was holding my younger son carried him to me. With wide eyes, my baby scanned my face as I reached out and took hold of him. I wondered if he would recognize me or wiggle away from my foreign touch. Within seconds, he smiled, nestled his little head against my shoulder, and clutched my jacket. All was well with my world.

Still, over the next two decades, I often wondered if our time apart would leave a psychological scar. Would he grow weary of hearing how I had sacrificed being there for him as baby so I could travel to Russia? Would he harbor resentment?

Three little words

Red SqaureI got my answer in the middle of the night 23 years later when a text message from him chimed on my phone: “Moscow bound momma!”

He had spent the summer after college graduation backpacking around Europe and had one final stop before returning home. A little more than 24 hours later, I received another text from him: “Moscow:).”

This was followed by a string of pictures; one I recognized as Red Square. I had taken a similar shot once upon a time.

I texted back: “My heart is happy.”

He replied: “As is mine!”

And just like that, all guilt vanished.