Saturday, April 11, 2009

Prompt 60.5: Careful/Couples Therapy

I Thought I Knew Fear

I thought I knew every kind of fear. I'd lived through a war. For weeks I had dodged the gunfire of snipers as I went for water, queued for food, or simply covered the distance from our apartment to the hospital where I was undergoing my residency. Too suddenly though I learned there was a much greater fear, a fear that tears through you, one that leaves you powerless in it's wake. The day that the mortar struck our apartment, I was forced to face that fear. When I found my wife, and my children buried in the rumble of what had once been our home, only to learn that my son was already gone, I couldn't even stop to grieve for him. How do I begin to describe the fear that consumed me as I struggled to keep my little girl alive while praying for someone to find us in time? They didn't though. Find us in time. I lost them all that day, and a part of myself with them. In the days and weeks after, I prayed for a sniper's bullet to find me. I prayed for the next mortar to hit in the place where I just happened to be, but, they never did. Even as Vukavar fell, and the Serbs were nearing the hospital doors I was one of the few who were chosen to survive, all the while wondering, why me?

Survive. That's all I did over the next thirteen years. Though I'd managed to escape from Vukovar I was shot in the process, and after several days of travel with no treatment of the wound, and little food I'd had enough. Infection was setting in, hunger was tearing at my insides, all I wanted to do was close my eyes, go to sleep, and hope I'd never wake again.

I did wake though, and instead of being once more with my family as I'd hoped, I found myself in a Displaced Person's Camp. I begged them to let me die, and when that failed, I tried to will myself to death. I refused the food they brought, I ignored the attempts they made to talk to me, and still they wouldn't leave me alone. I couldn't understand why these people who knew nothing about me were so determined to keep me alive when it was the last thing I wanted. In the end they won, for despite my best efforts I found myself growing stronger and while I might not have wanted to hear it, I learned that what I was feeling was all too common among survivors. The feelings were ones shared by many, and they alone were not enough to call death to me.

I spent several months in the camp, and when I left it was to find myself filled with a new fear, the fear of returning to a life that was no more. It was a fear I would never conquer and it would in fact eventually drive me from not just my family and friends, but the land I was born in. It took only days for me to realize how hard it would be for me to be back in my father's house. To wake everyday and find him trying so hard to make me feel that there was still a life possible for me. Worse yet, seeing the look on my father's face when I caught him watching me when he didn't know I was. How can I explain what that was like? While I was grieving my family, he was grieving not just them, but, also the loss of the man I had been with them, for there was no longer any doubt to him that he had died on that day as well.

As difficult as things were with my father, they were far worse between my brother and I. Whatever love had once existed between us seemed to be lost amidst daily arguments and ugly words hurled at each other in unbridled anger. It soon became clear that if I was to have any hope at all of surviving my losses it would have to be done somewhere else. Somewhere far from the constant reminders of those I had loved so much, far from the reminders of those who were stolen from me forever. On the day I made that decision to leave Croatia, Niko and I had our final fight, a fight that would rip away the bond that had existed between us since childhood. He wouldn't understand why I felt as I did, or maybe he couldn't, he accused me of being selfish, of running away, of not caring about anyone but myself. If only he had understood what I'd already accepted, I knew that if I had any hope of healing I had to first find out who I was again, and I couldn't do that amongst all the memories of the past that was no more. I had to go away, I had to start over again.

I didn't find my way to Chicago immediately, and once I was there it wasn't easy to undo the safe-guards I'd set in place to protect myself from people getting too close. In time I did though. In time, I gave myself permission to trust again, to love again, and along the way I even made mistakes, terrible mistakes. I admit, when that happened, I came close to running away, to self-destructing. I turned to all of those things I knew I shouldn't do, and when I found no peace in them I did the worst thing I could imagine, I put myself in harm's way all the while hiding behind the mantle of doing good. Funny thing how life has a way of paying you back for your actions, and my lesson came not just with the facing of a new kind of fear, but at the cost of another's life as he tried to save mine.

At the time I went to the Congo I know I was thinking that my actions might somehow be seen as my way as making amends for the mistakes I had made. Mistakes that had led to Erin's being injured, and worse, to Rick Kendricks death. They never would of course, but, I couldn't see that then, and I certainly couldn't see the dangers I was walking into. If anything I taunted them, placing myself in harm's way more then once out of both arrogance and stupidity. Remembering John's final words to me on that day he left Patrique and I in Matenda, I can't help feeling now that he must have known, or at least suspected, that he might very well be saying good-bye to me for the very last time. How could I blame him?

What happened in those next days and weeks comes to me now in pieces, lost mostly to nightmares brought back from the haze of the untreated malaria that I had existed in for so long. In a way that again makes me the lucky one, for unlike Chance and her mother I'm not forced to relive those horrors day after day. Unlike them, I'm given the luxury of forgetting, a respite that they will never know. There are somethings though I will never forget, most importantly the sacrifice made by Patrique as he gave his life to spare mine. The very same risk that Sakima made when she too pled for my life, ignoring the risk to herself and her young daughter. How can I begin to understand what they saw in me even as I had already given up? But I lived, we lived, and somehow, in the midst of all of that carnage and death, John found us, and he brought us home.

When John found the three of us in that tiny hut, I was near death, and where once I might have given myself up to it, I knew this time I no longer had that option. No more did my life belong to me alone, I owed all that I was, and all that I would be to others now. From Patrique, to Sakima, and even to little Chance, from this point forward, my actions reflected not just on me, but on how I felt toward what they had done for me. Their sacrifices had ensured I remained alive, and the gift they had given me was one I could no longer waste.

So many years have passed since that day I was placed on the plane back to Chicago. I remember asking John where I was going and him telling me I was going home. On that tarmac, he saw what I couldn't, and after years of uncertainty, I can honestly say, I do now. It's not come without one final test though, and with it another glimpse of fear, a fear far beyond anything I could ever have imagined. You see, I'm a husband again, and a father, and if I fear anything more than the loss of my family, it's the affect my own death might have on my wife and small son.

As a doctor you always try to do the best you can do for every patient you treat, but, we're only human, and despite those best efforts we can miss things. Curtis Ames was one of my patients where I missed something, and instead of accepting that what happened, he became obsessed with getting revenge. It wasn't enough that he sued me and lost, he began stalking me, and worse he began stalking my family. I tried to warn him off, and it only angered him more. I should have realized then what would come next, but, I didn't, why would I? When I stepped into our apartment and found him there with that gun on Abby and Joe, I knew what I had to do. As hard as it was not to run to them ,to wrap my arms around them and comfort them, I had to be careful, I had to keep my distance. I couldn't let him know how much they meant to me. If anyone was to be hurt, it had to be me, not them, they had to live, as hard as that would be for them. It was all I could do to look at Abby's face, to see the pain written so clearly there and know she was begging me to stay. How could I expect her to understand that in leaving with Curtis Ames I was doing what I had to do to protect her and Joe, to save them?

I wouldn't know until later the agony that Abby went through in those hours I was gone. How the not knowing was far worse then anything I could have imagined. I couldn't know the fear she felt when she heard the sound of gunfire from his house, how those minutes between when the police stormed the residence until I came through the door seemed like hours instead of the minutes they actually were. I couldn't know how all of these things would change us, but they did, and in many ways they still are. We're working through it, and in time, maybe we can put all this behind us as I have managed to put the worst of my past behind me. I'm not saying it'll be easy, or that reminders won't surface, but we have each other, and if anything can save us that'll be it, or at least, I hope so.

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