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While I Wait: A Journey of Recovery

Memories of Life in a Besieged City

Copyright W.C.Turck 1994

The hospital was overflowing with wounded, civilians and the soldiers alike. Doctors, deprived of sleep, medicine and food did their best to treat as many people as they could, taking on the worst cases first. After a short wait, a middle aged woman, whose round, kind face betrayed exhaustion and sadness, introduced herself as a doctor and examined Mama in the hallway. Motioning at me to follow her, the doctor wheeled Mama to the examination room. I watched as they took X rays and saw two, inch sized pieces of shrapnel, lodged next to Mama’s spine, one nesting in the center of her body, as if it ran out of steam before severing her spinal cord.

“So, your birthday was yesterday, right?” the doctor asked her. 

Mama nodded hesitantly.

“Well you should celebrate your second birthday today,” the doctor said, as she dug her fingers into Mama’s spine. I watched as she pulled the shrapnel out of Mama’s back, stunned by the fact that I was witnessing a real surgery done without anesthetic, right there, without a warning! “Wow, Mama,” I said, amazed, “I can see inside of you.”

     I stood dumbly and watched, hoping that it would all end soon. And it did. Mama was sent home with the apologies that they did not have any painkillers or antibiotics to give out. I was shown how to change bandages and clean the wound in order to prevent infection. Mama managed a pained laugh realizing how I could not stomach anything that had to do with bodily functions, and that I would not be the one dressing the bandages. This is where Olja excelled and later on she took on this task masterfully and with love.

    That night Olja and I laid in bed hugging each other, our arms and legs intertwined. We whispered to each other a promise that we would never leave the house again. Instead, we would live like hermits, catching glimpses of the outside world only through our bombed-out windows. We vowed to support each other in our quest for safety and the oath was as sincere as the reality of Mama being wounded that evening. Neither of us slept, but we pretended to do so anyway. I listened to the echoes of distant detonations and artillery barrage, mixed in with the rhythm of Olja’s uneven breath, feeling strangely comforted with these familiar sounds. As if stuck on a repeat button, the events of the day replayed in my mind. I shuddered involuntarily every once in a while, reminded of the distinct possibility of Mama’s disappearance from our lives.

    She created our little universe, offering us guidance and comfort. She was the parent, a friend and an enemy at the same time, and she was there to offer a solace in moments when fear and exhaustion flooded our bodies, breaking us down and leaving us confused and disoriented. With a seriousness of a psychoanalyst she allowed us to shed the tears of self-pity, amplified by our savage, teenage self-centeredness, only to tell us that it would all work out in the end. “Everything happens for a reason, and if you are lucky you will find out the answer soon,” she told us so many times during the War. I often fought against this rationale, not being able to see a valid reason for people being tortured, raped, starved, and eradicated. However, a sense of some order amidst the utter chaos, a possibility that everything that was happening to us could be explained in the future, was a true gift of this kind of thinking. A plunge into madness seemed unlikely.

       Through the night I remained suspended at the surface of dreams, the kind of space where the sounds and smells are still present but they take on forms of animals and inanimate objects. Each time I felt myself being jerked from the edge of a deep sleep, I reached for Olja’s hand, weaving my fingers through hers, only to feel her squeeze back, her eyes remaining closed. We had each other and that would have to be enough.

          At the break of dawn the city was eerily quiet. A few black birds fought on a branch of one of the remaining trees in front of our window. For a brief instant I thought that the yesterday’s events were just a part of a strange scenario created by my overactive brain, so vivid and alive. I turned my head to look at Olja and was startled by her gaze. Her large, blue-green eyes were wide open, shadowed by the depth of thoughts unknown to me. I glanced down, towards our hands, still locked together, and smiled.

“I’ll go and check on Mama,” I said, releasing her hand, hesitant to get up, not knowing what would await me once I got to her room.

Somehow this new, wounded Mama felt like a stranger. What should I say? Would she be in terrible pain? Would I recognize her? All of these questions followed the skidding of my slippers as I slowly shuffled through the windowless living room in the obligatory three-layer outfit, thrown on to avoid frostbites. In just a few seconds I arrived to Mama’s bedroom and stood motionless in front of her door, listening for sounds of life on the other side. I knocked lightly, hoping to prolong this moment a while longer.

“Come in,” Mama’s voice echoed strong and sure as always.

I opened the door slowly, bracing myself against the aftermath of previous night’s events. The room was icy cold and dreary, bathed in the filtered light of a gloomy and foggy December morning. The biting smell of gunpowder and metal, which still permeated each room, was much stronger here. Covered only up to her waist, so not to have anything touching her wounds, Mama was laying on her stomach. Pale, freezing and clearly in pain, she mustered enough strength to greet me with a smile.

“Well Mama, you did a great job last night uniting the neighborhood for the first time. I think that we should get you a job at the UN,” I said jokingly, trying to push back the tears that were already collecting on my lashes, dangerously close to erupting into the largest and fastest river of fluid ever to come out of a human being.

 Looking at me from the corner of her eye with the all-knowing look which had irritated me for the better part of my teenage years, she extended her left hand, leaving it open for me to take.

“Don’t fight it honey. Just let it out,” she said, giving me a safe space and a permission to collapse.

        Tears rushed down my cheeks and I began to weep. I wailed, gulping for air choked by the tears now already in my nose and my mouth as they sprinted downward, pulled by the force of gravity. I tried to dry my face with the sleeve of my jacket only to give up after a few minutes. Suddenly, my loud and uncontrollable cry was met by a timid sniffling. Olja, who had come in a few moments prior, began to cry as well. There we were; Mama, her body ravaged by shrapnel and burns, unable to turn on her side or her back; me, gulping for air and Olja gripping both of our hands, all of us crying. Becoming aware of the comic nature of our situation and relieved that we had survived a dangerous and emotionally charged day, we soon began to laugh, rejoicing in the fact that we still stood there, together.

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