The last wish is a meeting with Gorbachev: how an American teenager with cancer visited the USSR
In 1986, an American teenager, Jeff Henigson, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Doctors predicted that he had two years to live. When a charitable organization volunteered to fulfill his cherished wish, he asked for a trip to Moscow to discuss a world without nuclear weapons with Mikhail Gorbachev. Writes about it with the BBC.
In the summer of 1986, when Jeff was 15 years old, he rode his bicycle to the nearest electronics store for spare parts for the superlaser, which he was then assembling. But on the way he was hit by a car.
“She was driving towards me, and the woman who was driving did not notice me, so the car crashed right into me,” Jeff recalls. "I was thrown out of the saddle, I flew three meters and hit the back of my head."
The boy was driving without a helmet and lost consciousness from the blow. He woke up already in the hospital. But Jeff was doing well and was discharged the same day.
But a week later he began to have epileptic seizures. He returned to the hospital for a CT scan, which showed no injury from the accident. But she found a tumor.
“I had two thoughts,” Jeff said. - The first is a plan to stop being a virgin in the summer. I confess that I never did it. The second is to complete my laser. ”
Jeff had big plans for life - he dreamed of working for NASA. And he thought he could impress the space agency by building the "coolest laser" that could reach the reflector left on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts. The laser also allowed him to find common interests with his father, an unfriendly man who served in the navy during World War II.
“I did not know then whether it was caused by the war or something else, but my father kept aloof from all of us. And I thought: this is what we have in common - an interest in science and space. That's why I did it, ”says Jeff.
My father never talked about his service in the Pacific during the period when the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place. But he could talk for hours about nuclear weapons, the threat of nuclear war, and the relationship between the US and the USSR. This obviously influenced Jeff.
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“There was such a film in the 1980s -“ The Next Day ”- about how the Soviet Union bombed the United States with nuclear weapons. I was probably 11 years old and he scared me to death. As soon as I fell asleep at night, I had nightmares about the atomic war. ” - says Jeff.
Jeff dreamed not only of working for NASA, but also of the agency starting to cooperate with the USSR, and not compete with it.
“Even when I was quite young, I understood how fruitfully the US and the Soviet Union could work together,” he says. "It always seemed pointless to me to aim nuclear warheads at each other, even though we could cooperate and do incredible things in space."
But it turned out that Jeff not only did not have time to lose his virginity, but he also failed to finish building his laser. The guy urgently needed an operation. The teenager spent six hours on the operating table - and the doctors managed to completely remove the tumor. And after that there were an agonizing seven days, when he waited for the test results, which were to establish whether she was malignant.
“When the doctor entered the room, I knew from the look on her face that she had brought bad news. She said, "I'm sorry, but you have a malignant brain tumor and it's a very aggressive, fast growing type of cancer." Jeff asked how long he had to live. “Maybe two years,” the doctor replied.
Jeff underwent radiation and chemotherapy and tried to return to school. He also became involved in a support group for teenagers with cancer. “They told me about their wishes, which were fulfilled - to visit Disneyland or to meet a famous athlete. I answered them: "But such wishes are made only by small children?" And they said: "We are children." But I didn't think so of myself. "
The last wish is a meeting with Gorbachev
The Starlight Children's Foundation helped to fulfill the wishes of sick children. Jeff's mom contacted her and two volunteers, Matt and Teri, came to visit them in South Pasadena to discuss his wishes.
“I said,“ I can't help but ask if you can arrange for me a seat on the crew of the next Shuttle to fly into space? ” They looked at me like that ... they probably thought "you are a joker." And then they answered: "Of course not."
Matt and Terry asked Jeff if he had a second wish. And he had it. He just watched The Next Day, the same movie that gave him nightmares, and decided to go to the library to learn more about the topic.
“I was very angry that we were investing so much money in nuclear weapons. I thought they could be spent on cancer research instead, ”recalls Jeff.
So he replied to the volunteers: "I want to go to the Soviet Union and meet with Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss a plan to end nuclear weapons and end the Cold War."
There was an awkward pause.
Then Matt and Teri asked Jeff if he had any other desire - they probably hoped for something simpler to fulfill. But he didn't want anything else. “I said,“ I’ll understand if you cannot afford it, but this is my only desire. ”
Amazingly, the Starlight Foundation took the teen's request very seriously. They included Jeff in the delegation of the organization "Young Ambassadors of America" that was leaving for the USSR and began to look for ways out to Gorbachev. They promised Jeff that they would do their best, but they did not guarantee success.
Jeff's vision of the Soviet Union has been shaped in part by films such as Red Dawn, in which Soviet troops and their allies invade US soil.
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“In these films, the Soviet people were shown to be very belligerent and determined to destroy the United States. Frankly, I expected to see a warlike country with a warlike people, - Jeff admits. “And I was very surprised how different were the people with whom I happened to meet.”
The participants in the trip to Moscow were constantly looking for spies in the crowd, trying to notice the attentive looks and people in raincoats. But in Leningrad, to their disappointment, they saw nothing suspicious.
But in Moscow, a member of the group discovered surveillance. “We say:“ It can't be! Are you sure?" And he replies: “Absolutely sure! When I turn, he turns away and pretends to look away. " It was just like the movies. And he was wearing a cloak. It was cool!"
One of the teenagers invited everyone to count to three together, turn around and say “Hello” to their pursuer in Russian. But Jeff doubted - he did not want to lose the chance to meet with Gorbachev. “But in the end I gave up. And so we count, turn around and shout "Hello", and he turns away and looks at the wall, although there was nothing to look at. Classic, ”laughs Jeff.
In their hotel rooms, the guys noticed pieces of wallpaper that didn't quite match the others. One of them punched a hole and found a microphone. They were auditioned.
“I guess I was really scared only once, when one of the girls went into her room and found two men in her who were rummaging through her things,” Jeff recalls. - It was an alarming moment. I wondered if my things would be searched. I had a present for Gorbachev and I didn't want them to steal it. It was my graduation album, which was signed by everyone at our school. A stupid gift, but I liked it, and I hoped that he would like it too. "
Meanwhile, Jeff was told that they were trying to arrange a meeting with Gorbachev. And one day he was asked to be at eight in the morning in the hotel lobby dressed in a suit taken for this occasion.
“I wanted to ask him if there is any hope of ending nuclear weapons,” Jeff explains. - I also hoped to tell about American children, about what we want. That this is not too different from the wishes of the Soviet guys. We wanted to study, travel, visit each other's countries. The military confrontation between our countries does not help anything, and I wanted to tell him about it and get his opinion. "
But at the moment when his dream was almost fulfilled, everything suddenly collapsed.
Meeting not with Gorbachev
In the hotel lobby Jeff was met by one of Gorbachev's assistants and told that the secretary general was busy. Jeff said he could meet the next day, but the official replied that Gorbachev would not be able to meet with him at all.
“Who knows what was the obstacle to that meeting with Gorbachev. It may not have been planned at all, ”Jeff recalls. "I was pretty upset."
But the official said that the teenager had a meeting with another important person. He was asked to pack everything he needed for an overnight trip into his backpack, put him in a limousine and took him out of town. At the same time, the boy was not explained with whom he was going to talk.
“I was visiting a very nice couple. We had a wonderful time and had a great chat over a great dinner. They talked about different philosophical ideas about how to make life on Earth better and how our countries can peacefully coexist, ”recalls Jeff.
It was only upon his return to Moscow that Jeff told the trip coordinator the name of his host family and realized who he had met. “She said:“ Have you met with Evgeny Velikhov? Do you have any idea who he is? "
Velikhov is one of the leading Soviet nuclear physicists, she said, and Gorbachev's right hand on nuclear weapons.
Jeff did not meet with Gorbachev, but he spoke to a man who played an important role in the arms limitation negotiations.
The conference came to an end, and his graduation album with the signatures of the entire school was handed over to Gorbachev's assistant. Jeff returned to California.
His parents met him at the airport, but the atmosphere was not like a warm welcome. To his disappointment, they did not ask a single question about the trip. When he brought up the topic himself, my father broke the silence. “Dad said:“ I have a question - have you met with Mikhail Gorbachev? ” I said "No". And that was where our conversation ended. I had the feeling that I had let everyone down. "
The course of treatment ended before the trip, so Jeff returned to his normal life.
But a month and a half later, he received a call from Moscow.
“I ran to the phone, and on the other end of the line was Jack Matlock, the US ambassador to the Soviet Union. He said, "Man, we have thousands of letters for you."
The fact is that in Leningrad, Jeff was interviewed by a famous Soviet journalist. He wrote an article about the last wish of an American teenager - a trip to the USSR. At the end of the article, the author invited readers to write letters to Jeff. Thousands of people from all over the country responded to the appeal of the Smena correspondent.
“Matlock told me:“ You see, we are not the US Postal Service, we cannot send you all these letters, but we will send a sample. Good luck buddy. "
Only a couple of letters in English reached Jeff, but the school teacher of the Russian language translated the title of a note about him in the newspaper: “Leaving, I’m staying ...” It was a reference to his illness.
“It made me feel like death was coming again, and I didn't want to be spoken of as a teenager with cancer. So I took these letters, put them in a box and wrote on top in capital letters - "Nostalgia".
But contrary to the dire prediction, Jeff was not on the verge of death. He hid the box away and went on with his life. Time passed, and there were no new tumors. He entered the London School of Economics, moved to London, and then returned to the United States and continued his education at Columbia University. I got a job at the UN. And the cancer never came back.
In the summer of 2008, 37-year-old Jeff returned with his wife to his nursery at his parents' house. He threw away old and unnecessary things, collected what he wanted to take with him, and packed parts of his laser, abandoned many years ago. While sorting things out, he found a box labeled “Nostalgia”.
It was a difficult moment in his life. Due to epileptic seizures caused by the scars left after the operation, he had to resign from the UN. His marriage almost fell apart. And this time he was interested in this box.
“Twenty years ago, these letters made me sad because I didn't want to be associated only with cancer. But this time they came in handy, ”said Jeff.
One of the letters was written in good English and had a phone number at the end. Jeff checked what time it was in St. Petersburg and decided to call. After the third ring on the other end of the line, a female voice answered in Russian.
Jeff asked if it was Svetlana. And indeed, Svetlana answered him. Twenty-three years ago, she wrote a letter responding to an appeal in the newspaper. She was amazed that he was still alive, and she offered to help Jeff translate other letters and find their authors.
“Several people volunteered to translate the letters. Evgenia Zhurbinskaya especially helped. I decided that I wanted to contact these people. I was interested in documentary filmmaking, and the directors with whom I discussed this topic suggested that I assemble a film crew, go to Russia and talk to the people who wrote me letters. "
In the summer of 2011, Jeff flew to St. Petersburg with the group. Over the course of 10 days, they spoke with several of the letter writers they could find. He came twice more, but the film never came out.
“There were absolutely amazing stories,” Jeff recalls. - For example, a certain Nina Ivanovna Dmitrieva, who was then over 80. In the 1940s, as a child, she was walking down a street in Leningrad and heard a roar in the sky, and then the sound of an explosion over a neighboring house. This building collapsed right on her, and debris injured her skull. She survived three brain surgeries during the blockade of Leningrad and still survived. And she was operated on in the same areas of the brain from which the tumor was excised from me. That was incredible! She treated me like her child. "
Jeff also fondly remembers the geologist Nelly Slepkova, who was also over 80 years old. “She told how she was looking for uranium. When I asked why, she looked at me like an idiot. "For nuclear weapons, of course," she replied. "
Jeff also met with the journalist who wrote the very article about his fate
“We had a rather tense conversation. He kept trying to tell me about his success, but unlike other Russians whom I met on this trip, who wrote letters to me, he did not say anything about his family. When I finally asked him, he stopped, looked at me and said: "I had a very difficult relationship with my father." And it was clear to me, because I myself could not build a relationship with my father. "
It took a very long time to fix them. It wasn't until Christmas in 2013, when Jeff was visiting his parents, did he ask his father why he was always so distant. And then he added that it was hard for him to be the son of such a person.
“When I finished, he thought about it and said:“ It's hard for me to hear that ... these claims. ” Then I started to get angry, but he continued: "Exactly the same as I had against my own father."
For the first time in Jeff's life, his father recalled his childhood. He said that his father, Jeff's grandfather, was a Hollywood producer and suffered from a gambling addiction. “He used to bring home to his eternally neurasthenic wife a small fortune, earned on a successful film, and that same evening he put that money into cards,” Jeff's father recalled.
Apart from anger, the children saw nothing from him, and their life was of little interest to him.
“My father was just as cold, but he took care of us. He made a living. He took us on vacation. He always came home for dinner, although sometimes it was two or three hours later than my friends and their families usually dined. He just turned out to be incapable of an emotional connection. He didn't know how to express his feelings, - explains Jeff. “Soon after that, for the first and only time, he gathered our entire family together and said that he loved us. He died a month later. And I am very grateful to him for this reconciliation. "
Now 49 years old, Jeff is trying his hand at writing, whose first book, Warhead, tells his own story. He is currently working on a novel for teenagers.
Jeff's recent MRI hasn't found any problems. But he no longer hopes that the epilepsy will pass.
He stays in touch with pen pals from Russia and even their English-speaking grandchildren. Geologist Nelly Slepkova is in good health, but he has not received news from Nina Ivanovna, who survived the blockade of Leningrad, for a long time.
Jeff is saddened that Russia and the United States are more far from mutual trust. He remains concerned about their nuclear arsenals and the threat of further proliferation of nuclear weapons. He considers this process "a very real and constantly growing threat to the existence of humanity."
“Apparently, Iran wants to get nuclear weapons, and if it succeeds, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will not sit idly by either. The United States has withdrawn from the key arms control treaty, the INF Treaty, and is not going to renew another, START III, says Jeff. - Russia is developing new types of nuclear weapons, and China could double its nuclear arsenal over the next decade. I no longer have nightmares, but the prospect of an atomic war seems to me more and more likely. This is a real cause for concern. ”
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