Angel of Verdun

I haven’t written in a few days. Time, elusive Time. I find that there is a listlessness in my being that makes me want to switch off the lights and sit in the dark silence of this city and listen. What do I listen to? Do I listen to the pulsating calm of this city, or do I wait to hear a lover’s footsteps? Philosophizing is a triviality now, all that is said and done is transient. I have taken refuge in my apartment, in my solace and in my long walks through this city that I have begun to cherish as it were my own. I long for the sunshine of my adolescent years, the tumultuous sound of life in my own country but this encompassing silence in this city is a balm, dream-like but true.

I was walking silently through a very quiet neighbourhood, trying to gather my thoughts and relieve my unease. I walked through streets and by-lanes again, dreaming of something or someone I couldn’t make out. My  mind is a marsh, it is a cold, misty night where everything seems at rest. I sat on a bench somewhere and felt the darkness of my day-dreaming return. There is a term for it, melancholia, I think. Melancholia, my true feeling, my measurement of this world in my terms. I felt a light from a distant in the marsh and opened my eyes to see John, the Angel of Verdun.

“Ativ, you ray of rare sunshine”, he beams. 16 years old and he is happy. 16 years of walking these streets that are familiar to him and yet, there is a freshness in his step, a joyous exuberance from his being that makes me feel that I am in the right company. I smile a greeting at him and he sits next to me. I apologize for cancelling out on the dinner we were supposed to have a month ago. He is sympathetic. I look into his green eyes and see the spark of life. Marija’s spark is returning, and I am glad for a moment. I soak in his smile, his hair and his eyes, and I can’t help but feel a momentary elation. It is like being led out of a dark room into the warmth of sunlight.

“That evening in May”, I began, “You saved my life”. I am blunt, unapologetic, if not humble. “You saved your own, Ativ, come on”, he replies. I tell him the story of the Angel of Verdun, and he listened attentively. After I finished, he sat back on the bench while I lit a Marlboro. We are silent, as if we had just shared a moment of rare intimacy that makes you feel a twinge of shame. The shame of last month returned and I wished I hadn’t told him about the Angel of  Verdun. He leaned his head on my shoulder, hesitating for a moment to see if I was comfortable. I was.

I write this now because I promised the unfettered truth. There is no point in self-censorship. I face the consequence of my own actions, and I face, unapologetically, my doubts about myself. What started as a chance encounter between a drunk foreigner and a 16 year old boy is now a moment of humility for both of us. John’s father died in a drunk driving incident; he was the driver. He rammed his car into a bus, but apparently, even in his drunken state, he turned his car ever so slightly so as to not hit the children in the bus. His last act was an act of redemption. John was 10 years old then. He doesn’t have brothers. He has an older sister who hasn’t spoken to him or his mother since his father’s death. I listen. I listen and I can picture a confused, heartbroken boy in a black suit, burying his father and carrying the burden of a broken family. His voice is husky, thick with emotion as he recalls the police officer who told him that his father was taken to a ‘happier place’, and he knows the hollowness of those words, but that unenviable task, that of telling a 10 year old child that his father is dead is one that makes the entire disgust of platitudes and religion so obsolete. He has no resentments, just a wish that his sister would return to the house, even for a minute.

At that moment, I didn’t know what to do. Should I cradle his head to my bosom and stroke his hair, saying “there there now”, and try to console him? I put an arm around him and the two of us just sit there in silence. The streets are empty and there is peace. There are no cars, there is nothing. The only sound I can hear is the sound of John’s breathing. I stub out my cigarette and turn to John. I ask him if he is hungry. He knows a cafe nearby where there will be quiet. The two of us walk in silence and there is a gravitas. We are in our own bubble, a 20 year old man and a 16 year old boy trying to understand the greater meaning in our own suffering.

We enter a cafe and sit in a private booth in the corner. We sit next to each other on the sofa and he again rests his head on my shoulder. He is tired, mentally exhausted and the exuberance of an hour ago is gone. He is a man, I conclude, because he has borne the weight of an adult. Tragedy hardens us so much but I am glad he is not a cynic. I have lost friends to accidents, and I am a cynic, so I know how retaining your optimism is the more difficult thing to do. I often see patients for whom there is nothing that we can do and I feel disgusted by it. I feel the disgust and helplessness at my inability to do something for a Stage 4 cancer patient, or for a victim of trauma that is not going to make it. I witness the grief of humanity whenever I am called to the hospital as a student of medicine. I don’t know if my colleagues feel the same, grief and pity are private emotions and we, medical students and doctors in the making, keep our grief to ourselves.

But John is not a patient. He isn’t my patient, and neither is he someone who I pity. I admire his strength and the fact that he opened up about this grief to me, a stranger. Worthless are the trembling words of compassion, the sharing of grief, the emotional bubbles we choose to keep, like a broken heirloom. Eventually, our order comes around, served by a tall, thin woman who reminds me of Mrs Adams from the Adams family. John and I eat in silence. I break the ice by telling him that his taste in food is very good. The pie that I ate then was divine, made as if it was an act of love and devotion. Forgive my swing from gravitas and emotional depth to a mundane mumbling appreciation of good food. John laughs widely, he is glad that I like the pie.

































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