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Being far from family sucks
and yet, here we are
This is part two of a two part essay - you definitely don’t need to have read the first part, but it’ll probably enhance the experience of this one by idk 15% at least.
The other day I took my 1.5yo son Wilder to the giant cemetery near our house. I figured it’d be a great place to kill (sorry) a few hours—all that green space to roam, cool statues, and a subtle, spooky vibe to get us ready for Halloween.
What I didn’t expect was for Wilder to zero in on the gravestones themselves, all of which laid flush with the grass, hopping from one to the next like a demented bunny of death. You know how people always say “over my dead body”? So yea, he was doing exactly that.
I followed behind, reading the inscriptions below each person’s name: “Daughter, Wife, Mother,” read one, the next “Father, Grandfather, Great Grandfather,” and a third “Son, Husband, Loyal Friend to the Community.”
Not once did I see a gravestone that said “Actor” or “Writer” or “Makeup Artist,” or any of the other professions we spend our lives striving toward.
It feels like the gravestones are trying to warn me in a spooky ghost voice: ‘look at what’s important,’ they say, ‘look at how we are remembered, look at how little it matters to those who love you that you’ve been in an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles’.
And yet I, my wife Lauren, and the rest of our overachieving friends live our lives as if the opposite is true: first and foremost, pursue a career, no matter how far it takes you from your family.
And for what?, I wonder, as I keep strolling past the gravestones of these rich people, some of whom had the money to put up little statues meaning clearly they were successful professionally but STILL have no mention of their professional lives on the gravestones. One dude’s setup is particularly fancy - a marble wall and several statues— so I look him up on Wikipedia. He was a big time LA engineer, involved in land stuff? Nice. But who cares? Not anyone in his family, all of whom simply saw him as a father, a brother, a husband.
The thought of being far from Wilder makes my stomach hurt, a gnawing ache that longs for him, a physical pain in my actual body, and he’s only a year and a half! I can’t imagine how it feels for my parents to be across the country from me and now, their grandson.
I feel guilty and responsible, especially since becoming a dad myself.
Are we making a huge mistake, being so far from my parents in Rhode Island and Lauren’s parents in Atlanta? How could the decision to be in Los Angeles possibly be, as my parents say when describing the beets they’re gonna have for dinner, a healthy choice?
Being far away from family sucks
Watching my dad’s relationship with his dad, my grandpa Alik in Milwaukee, feels like staring into a crystal ball and seeing my future: a how-to manual titled Adult Children of Aging Parents Who Live Far Away For Dummies With The Last Name Dobrenko.
A few months ago, my grandpa Alik got a new oven. Provided for free courtesy of his senior living apartment building, the new oven was perfect in every way…except one: it didn’t make a “ding” sound upon reaching the temperature you set it for (the old shitty oven did do this), so Alik refused to use it.
My dad, one thousand miles away in Rhode Island, heard about this from Alik over several irate phone calls, tried to reason with him, explained how that really wasn’t a big deal, but Alik wouldn’t have it--this was an outrage, it would not stand, or in this case broil. It would not broil.
My dad then bought Alik an add-on thermometer thing through Amazon but, still, it wasn't good enough, and Alik demanded a whole new stove so hard and for so long, finally my dad asked the apartment's management if Alik could get a whole new oven unit to which they of course said "um, no." To this day, Alik is still very unhappy about the brand new oven.
This encapsulates my dad’s relationship with Alik - love multiplied by guilt multiplied again by more love, creating a near obsession of always being there because you are not there, staying close because you are so far.
My dad calls into every single one of Alik’s doctor’s appointments, translating between an irate Alik and the doctor trying to help him.
He also calls Alik several times a day, just to check in, to say hello, to make sure everything is okay. If Alik doesn’t answer for over an hour, my dad panics. Usually Alik is just napping but you never know. What if he wasn’t? What if something bad happened and no one was there to help?
I see how hard it is on my dad, and I know that unless something big happens— either we leave Los Angeles and move closer to my parents or they leave Rhode Island move closer to us—this fate awaits me too.
Except I’m afraid that I won’t be nearly as caring, as positive, as loving as my dad is about it all. Like, my dad never complains about any of it - not the oven thing, nothing. The very thought of complaining about taking care of your parents would be unfathomable for him, like me complaining about having to drink water1. Prioritizing anything else would be nonsensical, like planting a tree in the concrete2.
Whereas, like, for me, complaining is sort of my whole deal.
A few weeks ago
I’m at home taking care of Wilder who, since beginning daycare, has been sick 100% of the time and thus had to stay at home which is very much the opposite of daycare but the lord works in mysterious ways.
Wilder’s napping when my dad calls to say hi on his weekly drive from Rhode Island to my grandma Nona’s place in suburban Massachusetts. Nona is my mom’s mom, and much like Alik, she is incredibly well cared for by my mom who calls her at least five times a day to make sure she eats all her meals, takes all her meds, and most importantly knows when Dancing With The Stars is gonna start3.
My dad and I don’t usually have time to connect like this, one on one, so I try and savor it and really listen as he opens up about how hard it is being so far from Alik, how he wishes Alik would eat healthier meals instead of all the weird shit that he spends his days cooking - fried fish. fried chicken, fried everything, and how it’s all been so much harder since his mom, my grandma Emma, passed away three years back. When Emma was alive, she kept things in balance, a Jewish Yin to my grandpa’s Soviet Yang. Now, it all feels impossible.
My dad seems different today, more open, more honest somehow. Gone is his usual positive PR campaign about how everything is going to be okay, replaced by a tender sadness, fragile. Three thousand miles away I can hear him getting choked up, holding back tears as he says, “The best feeling is when you call your parents and they pick up the phone.”
And before I can respond, he says hastily “I gotta go,” and hangs up.
I know that he didn’t really have to go. He was just getting too emotional and didn’t want me to hear it, so I call back right away and tell him it’s okay, and he says I know, and we keep talking though I can’t help but think about how far away he and I are, how I would love to give him a hug right now. What if something god forbid happened to him or my mom? How would I handle being a six hour flight away?
Suddenly I feel like I’m watching the conversation from above, unable to ignore the poetic tragedy of it all: there’s me and my dad talking about his dad and my son, both sick, and all of us far away, longing to be close.
He says he’s going to call me back on Viber, an app similar to WhatsApp that I think is big among the Russians, so we can do a video call—he wants to show me something. The whole thing feels like That One Big Scene in The Movie That Will Definitely Get Nominated For A Bunch of Oscars.
I prepare for an emotional conversation, digital face to digital face, but instead of my dad’s smile I see an image of a blurry yellowish strobe light, hazy, pulsing.
“...what am I looking at?” I ask.
He flips the camera so I can see him, also fuzzy, pixelated, Blair Witch vibes, an unlit face at 360p quality, tops. “Can you see me?” He asks.
“Yes” I say, seething with frustration about how poorly I can see him.
He flips it back to the strobe light. “It’s an outdoor fireplace...at the hotel near us.”
“Yea it’s cool,” I say, though I can’t help but see the pixelated blob as a way too obvious metaphor for our entire relationship: rather than sitting around the fire together, staring into the bright embers like the cavemen used to, we have to settle for this low resolution, pixelated bullshit simulation, fuzzy and grainy and bad.
Quick but essential aside:
The humor of my dad saying how important it was for your parents to pick up the phone and then IMMEDIATELY hanging up on your own son was lost on me until just now, writing this. This is Da Vinci level shit, a comedic genius walking among us, beyond his time. DoVincenko perhaps.
Why’d You Do It Tho?
The other day a friend asked me, “wait, so what made you leave New England and head to Austin and then Los Angeles?”
The question broke my brain. I didn’t have an answer, not really, because it never really felt like I was making a Decision. It was just sort of...the thing you did: lose yourself, chase your dreams, find yourself a few years later, successful, rich and famous. THEN you could worry about kids and family and all that bullshit that seemed to be guaranteed unless you really fucked it up.
I certainly wasn’t sitting there at age 18 wondering “how will this move away from home affect my parents ability to spend time with the kids I will one day have?”4
This was the air we all breathed—The American Dream x The Millennial Hustle, that timeless collab, a hypnotic cocktail, alluring yet, by design, always just out of reach.
Though I wasn’t the first in my family to fall for the American Dream. That distinction goes to my parents.
Welcome to America
When we came to the US from Ukraine in 1994, the original plan was for all of us - my parents and I, my grandparents Alik and Emma, and my aunt Inna with her son / my cousin Georgie - to all end up in Milwaukee. But then my dad’s cousin, my uncle, strongly urged my parents to consider Sharon, MA, the suburb where he lived: the schools were some of the best in the country, it was close to Boston where there was tons of great tech work, and Milwaukee? That was old news, cheese farms and Harleys.
And so my parents, clueless but determined, made what I think was probably the hardest decision of their lives: to settle in Sharon, MA while the rest of our family went to Milwaukee.
“Do you have regrets about it all?” I asked my dad on a phone call the other night.
"It isn't right,” he says, speaking out loud the words I imagine play on repeat in his head, “seeing my dad once a year.”
"What would you do differently, if you could do it again?”
"I'd try harder to get my parents to move closer to us. I’d fight for that."
But would they? After setting down roots in Milwaukee? I sorta doubt it, though I don’t tell my dad that.
“Moving to Sharon wasn’t ever supposed to be forever, but it was,” my dad continues.
That’s the thing about roots - once planted, they grow. The metaphor of a family tree isn’t right exactly - more like we each become our own little tree, rooted into place, braiding our roots with those of all the trees around us as friendships become community, work becomes identity, and change becomes impossible.
The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave, especially for those whose trees have been moved all the way from the USSR. Sure all the trees of a family are connected underground via the woodwide web of mycelium, but still, its hard for a tree in Rhode Island to come kick it with a tree in Los Angeles on short notice.
So what do we do?
Is it already too late for Lauren and I? Are we stuck here in Los Angeles whether we like it or not? Or could we move back, be closer to family? And if we could, do we want to?
We do talk often about leaving. Even though LA is an incredibly welcoming city with cheap rent and easy to navigate full time employment for all actors, writers, and makeup artists in the film industry, there’s just something...off about it.
Yes, the possibility of success in film & tv was the siren song that brought us here, but wanting to stay here has become about much more than that. Our people are here, and they’re all having kids too. Wilder’s best pal is a lil dude named Wiley, the son of two of our best friends Chase and Steph. Last night we had people over outside—Wilder and Wiley were playing as the dogs ran around and the adults ate pizza. It felt whole. It felt like home.
Whenever my parents visit, my dad tells me how lucky I am to have such amazing friends. “You have no idea how lucky you guys are, to have those friends. We had those kinds of friends in Ukraine, but it just isn’t the same in Rhode Island - there are great people here, good friends of ours, but it can’t ever be the same as it was.”
But there’s a certain feeling of wholeness I can’t get in Los Angeles—seeing my parents playing with Wilder, watching the people who made me playing with the person I made, I feel defined, full somehow, aware that I belong and that I matter because my existence makes their perfect relationship possible.
During visits, I’ll just sit back and watch the three of them, all fully immersed in one another, playing, joyful, enlightened. I never see my parents that happy, and it makes sense, being a grandparent is the bonus round - you struggle through parenthood and you’re rewarded with another little nugget baby who you can spoil but not worry so much about.
And if we live this far away, am I preventing my parents from their hard earned bonus round? From that blissful nirvana of hanging out with a little idiot as he jumps from gravestone to gravestone which actually they would never allow? Will I regret not being closer to them? Yes.
BUT I’ll also probably leaving LA and all our friends behind to...hang out with my parents?
Ring the bell yet again for the Both Are Trueness of it all - regret here, regret there, regret everywhere! Maybe that’s good though.
I seesaw daily between the “We Must Make a Big Decision To Save The Family” and “Let It Be” schools of thought. Neither is true5, really, because this isn’t the simple black and white decision one makes in a movie, the grand gesture after which there are no more problems. That framework is way too simplistic for what we’re talking about here.
In reality, we get to choose every day, regardless of where we live, to stay close through the small gestures that together add up to that ineffable feeling they call family. I do believe that no matter what happens, we have prioritized and will continue to prioritize our families. Perhaps the very existence of this essay is some small proof of that.
In the end, as with all things, it comes down to control and our very annoying lack of it when it comes to just about everything. These grand gestures of moving closer to family to assuage guilt are mirages that promise to make the fundamental pains of love go away. But they can’t go away. Love is by definition painful.
There is no right answer - neither grand decision - to stay or to go - is true, and so we’re left instead with the beautiful mess of life, an endless dance of choosing one another in spite of the distance, over and over and over again. If nothing is perfect, than everything can be, and so it shall.
In spite of being far from Emma and Alik as a kid, I was super close with them, visiting every summer, forming deep bonds that have lasted all the way to today - visiting museums, swimming in indoor pools with Emma, roaming the flea markets with Alik who haggled more than any other human being I’ve ever met. I remember those visits in vivid detail because they were special, just as I remember the day to day life of staying at my nearby grandparents Nona and Vova after school - playing Sonic on Sega, demanding more french fries way before even finishing the ones on my plate, speeding through pages of math problems my grandpa Vova would write for me on yellow legal pad paper.
The beauty of family being a healthy choice is the endless ways in which it can be experienced - the flavors, the ingredients, the timing, the tastes - regardless of the details, they’re all made with love—memorable and delicious, they all taste like home.
This is part two of a two part series - catch up on part one here: My dad refuses to drink water.
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Knock Knock, Let’s Talk
I loved all the incredible comments from y’all in the first part of this essay - truly they bring me life and make me laugh and not feel so alone which is the whole thing we’re doing here at Both Are True Industries. So I wanna hear from ya! Some prompts to get the juices a-flowing:
What words do you want on your gravestone?
What’s your relationship like w your parents or grandparents? Has it changed since becoming an adult yourself?
If you are a parent or grandparent, what advice do you have for the youth about how to best stay in loving connection with you?
What’s your fav thing to cook in the oven?
A big part of my dad’s ability to handle all this is a campaign of unrelenting Positivity PR—his go to catchphrase being “it’s all gonna be okay” to which I often respond in the least zen, most rage way possible, “what if its already all ok!?” (in general he is our family’s PR machine, for example whenever he flies, he makes sure to watch Kimi, the movie I acted in last year, and tell everyone he’s sitting near about it. A text message from him a few days ago read: “just told two more people about Kimi. Pro bono.”
Only certain meals need to be checked up on, my mom tells me. Pizza and ice cream—those will be eaten without any check ins. The other stuff—salad, chicken, eggs—that stuff requires constant monitoring.
No time for such drivel as I devoted the entirety of my brain space to solving the problem of how to ship LSD down to Austin in time for Austin City Limits. Answer: dissolve the LSD on small candies. Sprees, to be exact. then ship candies to Austin in a package full of candy. Worked like a charm, btw, sort of. I did not account for the fact that the LSD also got onto the rest of the candy in the bag which I ate for what became a week long microdose that, frankly, wasn't all that bad.
Footnote to the footnote: I was worried about my parents seeing this part but they’ve already read the essay and said it was amazing and one of their favorites so….we’re in the clear.
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