A: . If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone?
When I was in the Congo I lived this. Watching Patrique murdered in front of me as he pleaded for my life to be spared, I knew it was only a matter of time and I would be joining him. My body weakened by the untreated malaria, deprived of nourishment and sleep, I watched them drag each man away until I alone remained kneeling in the dirt of that compound. I think I had made my peace with dying without even realizing it because I remember pulling my hands off of my head and sitting on the ground even though I knew they might kill me for it. I think it was in that moment I knew I needed to make my peace, I needed to prepare myself for my death.
I used to be very religious, I'm slowly finding my way back after too many years away, it seemed only right to ask God to hear my final words and deliver my messages of good-bye. I managed to get to my knees again and the words came much easier then I expected them to. I don't know why I never told my father how much he meant to me before that day. I think of all the years he was there for me, burying his own pain so that he could support me as I endured the worst kind of pain any husband and father should ever have to face.
I made my peace with God on that day. I asked him to pass on my final words to my father. Mostly though, I asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness for all of those years I wasted grieving. Forgiveness for all those years I wasted blaming myself for things over which I had no control when I should have been living.
I learned from that day. I've told my father what I held back for so long, and not a day goes by that I don't tell Abby how much I love her and what it means to have her in my life again.
This time, I'll have no regrets.
Friday, June 29, 2007
A: . If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone?
Come this November, it will have been sixteen years since I buried Danijela and our children in that Vukovar cemetery. Sixteen years since all of the dreams I had for the future were buried along with them. I look back at all of the years I wasted, all the years I let my grief control my life and I realize how lucky I am to have been given this gift of happiness a second time.
I made so many mistakes when Abby and I were together the first time. It's hard to say just what went wrong, maybe it was because I wasn't ready to let go of the past, or maybe it was because I was too afraid of what the future held. I know Abby saw it, how could she not? Why else would she tell me I was still married to a ghost when we ended it between us? I know I can't take all of the blame, Abby was battling her own ghosts, her mother, her father, her brother, her failed marriage, neither of us were ready the first time around.
Somehow though, we found our way back to each other and standing here now, our son Joe in my arms, this is my moment of triumph, our moment of triumph. Once more I can call myself someone's husband, once more I can embrace being a father, after sixteen years, I am finally whole again.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
A. Do you prefer being around men or women? Are those closest to you tend to be men or women?
When I was young, most of my friends were male, those I grew up with, who I went to school with. We hung out together like most kids do, played football, talked about girls, our future, and more then a few times we got drunk together.
When I met Danijela that changed, she became the world to me and we talked about everything and nothing. I had started college and I had added a few other women into my circle of friends but none became as close as she did, and then she died.
I no longer allowed people to get close to me, men or women. I cut off the friendships I'd had from childhood and retreated into myself and when even that wasn't enough I left my home and family.
Until I came to Chicago I was determined that I wouldn't let anyone close to me again, because getting close meant talking about my past and that was something I couldn't do. I would have succeeded if not for Carol, somehow she found a way in, and once she had opened that door, others soon followed, Abby, Carter, Sam, but none of them got as close as those early friends had. None of them until Abby found her way back to me.
It's funny how a few years change things, Abby and I are talking, and not only has she become my wife, but she's become my best friend. For so long I didn't think I would know that feeling again.
I'm no good at keeping secrets. When Abby became pregnant with Joe, she didn't want anyone to know, especially those at the hospital. We weren't married, maybe she was afraid of what people would say, I don't know, but how could I keep something like that to myself? I was so happy when she decided to keep him. At first I just told my father, all those years that he had grieved the loss of his only grandchildren and now I could finally tell him he would have another. It wasn't wasn't just having a grandchild that was important to him you understand, it was knowing that his name, our name, wouldn't die with me, but, it would continue on.
I did a little better with keeping the wedding plans secret, or at least I was able to keep them from Abby. I told everyone there was a mandatory staff dinner and with Hope's help we organized everything from her dress, to the flowers, to Joe being present. I think the only thing that could have made it more perfect then it was would have been if my father and her mother could have been there.
As I think about how happy I am now I do realize that there is a secret I've kept, one of those that I don't want to admit even to myself. I think the reason it scares me is because of the fact that had the faith I denied for so many years not been so strong, I might well have acted on it. For you see, my secret is that I...for many years... I had a death-wish. If I hadn't been Catholic and believed that by taking my own life I would have never been able to one day reunite with Danijela and my children, I might not even be here, Joe wouldn't be here, and that scares the hell out of me. To think that I came so close several times, that I taunted death, but somehow, my life was always spared even when others lost theirs. So, I guess I can keep a secret, if only to remind me, that I can't give up, because I never know what the future might bring.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
There are so many things that I want to hold on to, so many moments that I hold in my heart because I have no other way to remember them. How can I possibly choose one over another? How can I say this moment is any more or less important than that?
I look back at those few precious years I shared with Danijela and I treasure each second as if it were a diamond of carats beyond measure. I think of the first time I saw her, the first day we spoke, our first date, the moment I proposed, the day we were wed, and our first night as man and wife. I close my eyes as I call each scene to play and wish for the luxury of a photo album knowing that one no longer exists.
As much as I cherish those memories of Danijela, how do I place them as more important than the news that she was pregnant with our first child? I see the beauty she seems to radiate, her joy at becoming a mother, even as she complains over the size of her belly as it swells. I remember my reaction when I first felt our daughter kick, and the plans we made for her birth as we shared the news with our families. How can I place any of these though as more treasured than that actual moment when we welcomed our daughter Jasna into this world, and I first held her in my hands?
I think back on those first years that Danijela and I were parents, and again I wonder how can I possibly choose one moment? If I had the luxury of sorting through a stack of photographs, could I choose just one from so many? Do I pick her first word, her first step, her first Christmas? But, then again, if I choose one here what does that say of how I see the news of Danijela's pregnancy with our son?
If I had thought we knew joy at awaiting the birth of our first child it seemed only to grow as we counted the months until our second would arrive, and then he was here, our son, Marko. All that we experienced with Jasna seemed at times forgotten as we juggled an infant and a toddler plus my going to medical school and then the move to Vukovar. The years went by so fast and before we knew it they were no longer babies and then there was the war.
Oh God, those are the memories I don't want to remember but I always will. I want to hold onto the last images of them as I left the apartment that final day, their excitement at knowing I was going to the market and with luck there would be the treat of cheese and fresh bread when I came home. I want to remember their smiles and the sound of their voices as they yelled, "Good-bye Tata!" I want to remember how it felt to hold them in my arms, and their kisses before I walked out the door. I want to remember the last time I would tell Danijela not to worry, even though I knew that she would until I returned.
Any and all of these moments I would love to hold onto but, the one that comes back with the most clarity is the one I most want to forget. The one when I return to find my son's lifeless hand reaching for help from beneath the rubble that has buried him alive in his crib. The images of my daughter and wife, barely clinging to life, and the hours that I would spend struggling to keep them alive before losing them both. As much as I want to hold on to the memories of their lives, it always comes back to the memory of those three caskets sitting in that snowy cemetery. No matter how many years pass, nothing can change the fact that I failed them, I lived and they died, all because I went for bread and cheese. I left them home where I thought it was safe, and I was wrong.
"Luka, you need to hurry, we'll need to be leaving within the next half hour if you don't want to miss your train." Josip Kovac's voice carried through the small house to the bedroom where his youngest son was finishing the last of his packing.
"It's not too late to change your mind." Niko Kovac's words stopped his brother before he could respond to their father and he glanced to the doorway, a half-folded shirt still in his hand.
"I don't want to get in another argument with you." Luka's expression immediately reflected the exasperation of a conversation that had been going on for far too long.
"Leaving isn't going to change anything, Danijela and your children are still going to be dead, Luka, no matter where you run away to." As much as he hated causing anymore pain to his younger sibling, he knew too that he couldn't stand by and say nothing as their father was doing.
"You did not just say that to me." Luka threw the shirt into the suitcase before whirling on his brother, his eyes blazing.
"How dare you, what gives you the right to tell me what I can or can't do to help me get through this?" It was taking everything he had not to cross the distance that separated them and he could feel his nails biting into his skin with the tightness of the fists his hands had settled into.
"You're angry, you have every right to be...so hit me, I don't care, but don't run away. Stay here and deal with it like the man you are." Niko knew he couldn't know everything Luka was feeling, but they all felt the loss, and he couldn't understand how leaving family and friends could make that any easier.
"I've made up my mind, Niko." Grabbing the rest of the clothes off the bed he shoved them roughly in the suitcase and slammed the lid down.
"It's too hard for me here, at least if I'm working on my degree I'll be too busy for anything else." He flipped the latches on the battered luggage closed then grabbed the handle.
"I never thought you were a coward." Niko's words were meant to hurt and they did, the expression on Luka's face grew cold and as his jaw tightened he stormed across the room, stopping eye to eye with his older brother.
"How dareyou even go there..." The urge to throw a punch became unbearable.
"You're done. Don't even talk to me anymore." He brushed past him roughly, deliberately knocking him against the wall as he passed on his way to the stairs.
"Luka...let's go." The sound of Josip Kovac's impatient voice sounded again. This wasn't how he would have liked to say good-bye to his brother, but there was no going back now, and it certainly wasn't his place to be the one apologizing. He headed for the stairs. Maybe one day they would find a way to make things right, but not today.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Some years back, Carter, Susan, Abby, Gallant and I had to attend an all day class on a Saturday for work. The class happened to take place on a pretty snowy day and the instructor was late, which left the five of us with quite a bit of time to talk. I'm not exactly sure how the conversation started, but Susan and Abby were talking to Carter about how much he was worth, and of course the rest of us began to talk of our families as well.
My father was a train conductor when I was growing up, and as I remember it, we never had a lot of money, but we always had enough to get what we needed and more importantly, we were happy. For me that is the strongest memory of growing up.
Later, when I married Danijela, it was harder for us, I was a student, I didn't make very much, and soon she was pregnant so she could not work. Then, we had first Jasna, and later Marko, and she had both of them to look after and so it was only what I brought home, but still we were always happy.
After the war began I think I learned for myself what it must have been like for my father when I was a boy. You want to give your children everything and when you can't, you have to put on this face, and not let them see how hard it is. The worst feeling for me then was knowing my children wanted something very simple like eggs, or sweets and I couldn't give it to them. Somehow though, I found a way to make do with what I could give them, and as hard as it was Danijela and I tried to do everything in our power to give them back the happiness that war was stealing from them every day.
I think about how unhappy I was before Abby and I found our way back to each other and before Joe entered my life. I had all this money, I bought a fast car, I drank, slept with too many women, but none of it could fix what I really needed. I was ready to throw my life away, ready to get myself killed, because nothing mattered, I wasn't happy, and money couldn't buy that not matter how much I tried to let it.
Things are good now, Abby and I are married, Joe is healthy and growing big, I've resigned as Chief and am back to being just an attending so I can concentrate on the patients, on why I became a doctor. Yeah, I can finally say, life is good, we're looking forward to the future and everything it brings with it, but, most importantly, we're happy. I can't ask for more then that.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
"I was so lost back then
But with a little help from my friends
I found a light in the tunnel at the end" -- Lily Allen
"The Way Back"
"Luka, Tomo is at the door." Josip Kovac eased the door to his son's room open as he made the announcement, though he wasn't sure if he was awake.
"Tell him to go away." The younger man turned on his side so his back was to his father.
"You should at least talk to him, you haven't seen him since you've been home.
"Tata, please, I don't want to see anyone, just tell him to go." As he spoke fatigue hung heavy from his words, prompting Josip to enter and come to his side.
"Luka, I thought you were past this. No one can change what happened, but you've had time to grieve, now you have to think about moving on." As he spoke the man took a seat on the edge of the bed and laid his hand on his son's shoulder.
"We all miss Danijela and the children, we always will, but you can't spend all day laying in bed mourning their loss." As he spoke he caught the glimpse of the small photo before it was hidden from view beneath the sheets.
"It was different there, Tata, there's too much here to remind me of them." For the first time the young man turned to face his father, revealing the fresh tears staining his face. Pulling his son to him, the elder Kovac wrapped his arms around his shoulders, then found himself tightening his hold as they began to shake.
"Let it out, Luka, let it out." As he coaxed the release from his younger son Josip found it hard not to shed his own tears for the losses, Danijela had been his daughter-in-law, Jasna and Marko his only grandchildren.
"It'll get better, I promise you that, come on, wash your face and change your clothes, Tomo is still waiting for you." After giving him a kiss Josip rose from the bed, and made his way to the door, pausing just short of clearing it. "Go get drunk with Tomo, I give you my permission so you won't have to sneak in after I'm asleep." Maybe it wasn't the solution to his finding his way back, but it was a start, and at least here he was no longer alone.
Saturday, June 9, 2007
"Tata...open." 2 year old Joe Kovac started to climb onto the bed thrusting the roughly wrapped packed toward his father, even before the man had fully opened his eyes. "Open, Tata."
"Good morning to you too, Joe." Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Luka reached for the package before realizing that his wife stood in the doorway of the bedroom watching the scene unfold. "Morning to you too."
"I tried to get him to wait but he wanted to give it to you now." Abby smiled as she offered her explanation. "Do you want some coffee?"
"Please." As he accepted her offer he sat up in the bed, making room for his young son beside him with the action. "What's this, Joe? It's not my birthday."
"Tata..." The boy recognized the teasing for what it was even at his young age and instead of saying more simply tapped the small package with his hand, smiling despite his growing impatience . "Open, Tata."
"Okay, okay did you make this yourself?" His own smile grew as he started to loosen the ribbon, revealing more of the hand-decorated newsprint that was wrapped around the small package.
"I like your paper." Taking care not to tear it he eased each of the pieces of tear loose, then laid it to the side before moving to the box itself.
"Is it a new car?" He glanced over at Joe at the question.
"No car in house, car too big, Tata." No longer satisfied with simply sitting beside his father and waiting, the toddler climbed onto his lap and opened the box himself.
"Here's your coffee." Abby sat the cup on the nightstand before taking a seat beside him.
"Joe..." Luka's smile broadened as he lifted the clay square bearing his son's small hand-print from the box.
"World's Best Father." He wiped at his eyes before wrapping his arms around the toddler, drawing him into a hug then giving him a kiss.
"I love it, thank you, Joe." He passed the plaque to Abby so she could see it before he turned his attention back to Joe. "It's the best present I've ever gotten."
Friday, June 8, 2007
There was a time when my brother and I were inseparable. When we were boys I looked up to him, he was older then I was and everything he did I wanted to do, everywhere he went I wanted to go, he was my hero. If you had told me then that there would come a time when we would not even talk I would never have believed you, but that's exactly what happened.
After I lost my family I felt like my life was over. When I left the displaced person's camp after leaving Vukovar, I tried going back to Zagreb, and then to my Grandparent's farm, but there were too many memories and as much as I hated to leave I knew that I couldn't stay.
Janko and I argued for days over my decision, he accused me of running away, but I didn't see it that way, I couldn't see it that way. Leaving was the only thing that made sense in a world that hadn't made sense since my family had been killed. In my mind everything about Croatia was tied to Danijela and my children, and only by leaving could I start living again.
I miss my brother, miss what we had between us, but, I had to make a choice between staying in a place that stirred memories that brought such sadness, or leaving in the hopes that I could find myself again. My feelings about him had never changed, but I had, I guess I always hoped that one day he would understand. Maybe one day he still will.
Fate chooses your relations, you choose your friends. - Jacques Delille
"How long have you and John been friends?" Luka opened his eyes at Gillian's question, not quite sure he had heard her correctly over the sound of the helicopter as it took flight.
"Pardon?" He started to push himself up on his elbow only to have her stop him.
"Just lay still. I asked you, how long you and John had been friends?" The Canadian nurse adjusted his IV before retaking her seat next to where he was laying.
"I don't know that we're really friends." Even as he began to clarify the complicated relationship he and Carter had between them he realized how it must sound to her.
"We've worked together for years." He paused, struggling for a way to explain.
"He risked his life coming back here to find your body when he thought you were dead, that sounds like someone who is more then just a workmate." Gillian reached for his hand as she spoke, though she tried not to look at the bandages that concealed the raw wounds that encircled his wrists. Reminders of the electrical cords that had been used to bind them while he's been held by the Mai Mai.
"It's hard to explain." Luka lifted his free hand to rub his eyes as he once more tried to explain.
"Abby and I used to be together, I think he thought she still wanted to be with me, or that I wanted to be with her." He released a weary sigh, the simple act of talking draining him of what little strength he had.
"Luka, he didn't have to come back here, he didn't have to put his life in danger by going back to Matenda or finding the Mai Mai, and he certainly didn't have to arrange for the transport to get you home. It sure sounds like Carter is more then just someone you work with." Even as she searched for more answers Gillian realized she wasn't likely to get them, Luka was fading, and the discussion was one they would have to continue later.
"I know..." Luka's words were growing softer as his fatigue grew stronger.
"Maybe Abby sent him...have to ask..." The words drifted off as his breathing slowed and his eyes closed.
"Maybe..." Even as she offered the compromise she found herself doubting it, she'd seen how Carter had reacted to the news of what had happened to Luka and Patrique over the several days she had been with him. She'd seen his reaction when they'd reached Matenda, when they'd found Patrique, and when they'd learned Luka was alive, no...he wasn't there because someone else wanted him there. As she brushed Luka's bangs off of his forehead Gillian found herself smiling, Luka might not realize it, but, he had a friend in John Carter, a friend who was willing to put his own life on the line for him, she should be so lucky.
"Dr. Luka." Sakima knelt on the dirt floor next to where Kovac lay.
"I have some water for you." She held the metal cup of water to his lips, letting the liquid dribble between them, as she tried to rouse him. For two days they had been in the tiny windowless hut, two days during which they had been all but ignored except for the brief moment when the blanket had been pulled aside and the pan of water and cup of pulverized maze that was supposed to feed the three of them for who knew how long had been thrust into her hands. She was worried about her daughter, but she was equally concerned about the doctor who had saved the young girl's life, and it was at his side she now knelt as she tried again to bring him around. The malaria he had contracted at Matenda was growing worse and without medication; she tried to force the thoughts aside.
"Dr. Luka, please...you need to drink something." Having already seen too many die from untreated illnesses, and fearing he could easily be next she tore at the hem of her skirt, ripping loose a section of the thin fabric. How many days had it been since he had taken anything? She had to get him to eat or at least drink something. Dipping the scrap of cloth in the water she squeezed the excess water from it, then pressed it to his cracked lips. It wasn't much, but hopefully it would be enough to at least allow him to hold on until help came. If help came. She couldn't give up on the hope that somehow they would survive this.
"That's it, just a little more." As he first came around enough to suck on it and then opened his eyes a crack, she smiled in response. She had no way of knowing what plans the Mai Mai had for them, but, she would do whatever she had to if it would help her daughter and the man who had saved her life survive. Dipping her fingers in the water she brushed them across his fevered brow, only to have him lift his still bound hands to her, stopping her hand.
"Please?" The word was little more then a whisper as he made the plea, then offered up his hands to her again.
"I'm sorry, I can't...I don't know what they would do if I did." Knowing what she'd already suffered through at the clinic, she shot a quick glance to her daughter then back to him as she covered the electrical wire that was wrapped around his wrists with her hand. No,the risk was just too great, she couldn't take the chance that Chance might suffer that same fate. Applying a slight amount of pressure she coaxed him to lower them again
"Maybe, the next time they come back I can ask, but, I have to think of Chance." She swatted a fly away as she watched his face for his reaction, then let her eyes drop as he simply closed his eyes again without saying anything more.
"Dr. Luka...I'm sorry, if I could be sure that Chance would be safe, that they wouldn't hurt her..." She paused in mid-sentence as he opened his eyes again.
"Chance?" It was hard to tell if he understood what she was saying, or even if he knew where he was, especially as he seemed to be looking through her rather then at her.
"That's right, Dr. Luka, Chance." She moved slightly so that he could see her daughter sitting on the other side of the small dark room. Dropping the scrap of fabric, she reached for the cup and held it to his lips again.
"Just a little more...for Chance." If she could get him to take just a few more swallows.
"That's it." She nodded her encouragement as he drank, then withdrew the cup as he turned his head and closed his eyes again. After setting it aside she drew the thin blanket up over his shoulder, then retreated back to the other side of the room where her daughter sat.
"Are you hungry daughter?" She reached for the cup of maze with the question., they would survive, she would see to it.
Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives. --William Dement
"Tata...make them stop!" Jasna's scream tore him from sleep's arms and thrust him abruptly into consciousness, forcing him upright as he searched first for his young daughter and then the source of her cries, before he went to her.
"What is it baby?" He'd no sooner left the warmth of the blankets and gathered her into his arms then an explosion outside provided the answer for him.
"Make them stop!" Her plea was muffled as she grabbed hold of his shirt and buried her face in his chest.
"Shhh, Jasna, shhh." Laying a kiss on the top of her hair he tried to soothe her, first with quiet whispers, then by rubbing her back as he held her on his lap and rocked her.
"Luka..." Another voice came louder...muffling even the sound of the explosions as she called his name.
"Danijela?" Her name came instantly to his lips even as the remnants of the dream slipped away and he too late realized his mistake.
"It was just a dream, Luka." Her fingers brushed through his hair as she spoke and even as he rolled over to face her he found himself dreading the look he might find on her face.
"I'm sorry." The apology came automatically before he raised a hand to touch her face.
"You don't have to apologize." Sure that he was now fully awake, Abby lay back down beside him. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"I don't think so." He rubbed his eyes, then moved closer to her so he could rest his head on her breast.
"Luka...I don't mind, if you need to talk about it." Even as she asked Abby wasn't sure she wanted to know what haunted her husband's sleep. While they were making progress on talking about his past she had no doubt there was much more that he hadn't shared with her. Maybe she should trust him and let it be, when he was ready to tell her about the dreams he would, or at least she hoped he would, but not today. Before he could say anything she lay a finger to his lips and shook her head.
"Go back to sleep, Luka." She released him from further conversation as she combed her fingers through his hair. "Shh, go back to sleep..."
For years I hated playgrounds, it wasn't just the sound of the laughter that bothered me, though that was a large part of it. No, it was listening to so many children enjoying something so simple and knowing how often my own children had begged to be allowed that same small pleasure, and all I could do was refuse them.
I went out of my way to avoid going anywhere near them for so long after leaving Vukovar. The memories stirred by the sights and sounds of them were just too strong.
Time changes things though and with Joe's birth I'm finally able to begin laying those parts of my past to rest. As much as I might want to protect Joe from harm, I realize that I can't prevent him from living his life because of what happened to Jasna and Marko. Changing like this isn't easy, and I expect I'll make more then a few mistakes trying to find the balance between my past and his future as he grows older, I can only hope he'll understand.
Saturday, June 2, 2007
I never thought I would say it, but more often then not, I already have what I consider perfect days. Maybe it's because Abby and I are so happy, maybe it's knowing that I've finally realized what I need to be doing in regard to my work, most certainly though it's anything that involves spending time with my son Joe.
I look back at all of the wasted years, when I was lost to depression caused by the loss of my first family. I look back on those years when I tempted fate by engaging in behaviors that went against everything I believed in, and worse when I taunted death itself and I can only thank God for watching over me. For allowing me to survive and once more know the happiness that I had with Danijela and our children.
It doesn't take much for a day to be considered perfect these days, from the moment Joe wakes, and I see his smile it's begun for me. Some mornings I'll start the coffee, on others Abby will, the other will see to getting Joe up and through his first diaper change. I tend to feed him breakfast, it's our time together, and while I love watching him grow, with each day of new growth also comes more independence, and I know too quickly he'll be feeding himself, and this special time will soon be lost to us.
On a perfect day, neither Abby or I would be scheduled to work and the two of us could take Joe to the park, or to the zoo, or simply spend time together with him as a family. The family I thought I would never again know.
I admit that there are times when I worry about something happening, especially knowing how close Curtis Ames got to Abby and Joe in his efforts to reach me, and I know that fear will likely grow as Joe's age inches closer and closer to Marko's. I don't think my fear is unreasonable, and I am determined not to let it steal anymore time from my life then I've already lost to my own self-guilt and destruction.
I want Joe and Abby to know a life full of memories of perfect days, not ones of fear or sadness, and whatever it takes to make that happen I'm willing to do. I think we're off to a good start and I see no reason to think it can only get better for us.