“I died that day.”
He says it softly.I believe him instantly.
It is now twenty years later, but the scars that glint in his eye like shards of tears are very much of the present, as he recounts the single moment that shattered his world and scattered all illusions of safety and trust.
For me, this world is relatively fresh.
For him, it has been more than 20 years of navigating the undulating seas.
For him it was a single event of momentous violence, betrayal and fear. For me it was a string of strikes that wore through my barriers like drops on a hard rock, until a hole was carved so deep you would never believe it came of something as seemingly innocent as water.
He is 73. I am 33.
Our lives stand decades apart, yet here we find ourselves on common ground.
In the midst of a conversation of normal things, we have unexpectedly stepped into a place we both know far too personally. The surprise and appreciation as we recognize our stories in each other brings an instant camaraderie.
We are strangers in every sense except this one common thread, and as we confirm that our feet have indeed walked the same landscape, we quietly relax. And then we begin to identify layers that others might unknowingly brush past.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Depression. Anxiety. Pain. And always the undercurrents of Shame and Fear. And Hope.
These are the words we pass back and forth across the table, nursing warm cups of tea and years of turmoil.
Strangely enough, we learn that our PTSD stories originated in the same third world country where we both lived and worked for a time, albeit in our respective decades. Each of us had arrived in that place eager to work hard, learn to know the people, and give something good back to the wild and beautiful land.
Neither of us saw it coming.
Neither of us had dreamed that the injustice that is human nature and the narcissism of fellow expatriates and the never-ending grind of poverty and violence, would one day crash upon us like a great and terrible wave.
We had known that working and living in this context would be hard. We had known we would pay the cost of living away from the familiar luxuries and social circles of home. We didn’t know that when the final blow came for us, it would rise from within our own ranks and result in the casualty of our very souls.
We both lost everything.
The jobs we enjoyed, the people we loved, the lives we suddenly couldn’t reconcile with the fog of fear and pain that was our new reality.
“I don’t know how to describe it.”
“Sometimes this world seems…”
“Hollow? Like everyone…”
“Everyone else is a real and solid person.”
“Yes. They’re real. But I’m – “
“I’m a ghost.”
“A ghost upon the earth.”
“Yes. A ghost.”
Grief was the silent listener to our conversation.
Sharing our stories was sobering. There was no light bulb moment or sudden inspirational miracle to share. Only the long, slow struggle of doggedly getting up each day to crawl towards the light.
But as we slowly, haltingly spilled our stories to a stranger who suddenly seemed much more like a long-lost friend, we began to see each other – and consequently ourselves – in a different light.
We weren’t just looking at a fellow sufferer.
We were looking at a fellow survivor.
Because we knew, perhaps better than anyone else, just how much the other person had overcome.
We didn’t need to apologize for a confusing past tucked into our suitcase. We didn’t need to explain our irrational fears or our random “startle reactions” to sudden and loud sounds. We didn’t need to pretend that our lost interior matched our “fine thanks” exterior.
We held up our matching fears for each other to see. We wore our matching colours of PTSD.
And we began to see our victories reflected in the other.
I recognized my determination to rise, in the way he had unapologetically gathered around himself the tools he needed to live life without succumbing to the fear.
He recognized his resilience in the way I refused to let my demons dictate my next steps;getting out of bed despite the despondency, greeting the day despite the uncertainty.
We sat for a time in silence, reflecting on the coincidence of our meeting.
On the surface, we had nothing in common.
Our ages, professions, life stages, living circumstances and more, meant that, on an ordinary day, we would have passed each other by with nothing more than a smiling nod.
But that morning, when a quiet gentleman offered me a cup of tea, he unknowingly offered us both a chance to find our stories held gently in the palm of another who recognised the background music.
And in that moment, sharing tea and words and life, I found myself suspended in the glow of shared resilience, gratefulness and courage.
Hope rested gently on the table amongst the tea cups.
It echoed in the silence following our conversation. And when we parted, it split itself equally and departed with us both, still whispering in our ears.
I don’t know exactly what it said to him. I never saw him again.
But that morning, it told me I was going to be okay.He told me the same thing.
And I believe them both.
Emma is an Italian-South African with a New Zealand passport and an international heart. She spent years training student choirs and co-running a puppeteering business, before working for a humanitarian organisation in New Zealand (7 years) and Papua New Guinea (3 years). Currently a nomad living between various countries and towns, Emma's deep joy is in writing, music, cooking up an Italian storm, and taking time to listen to people’s stories.
Read Emma's creative expressions at http://www.girlkaleidoscope.wordpress.com or https://pngponderings.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/finding-the-beauty/
Emma’s previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/emma-mcgeorge.html