Cheese, Toothpaste & Fireworks

Years ago, I went for an evening walk forgetting it was a holiday weekend. Several minutes later, the neighborhood kids began lighting firecrackers at a nearby park--an ominous prelude to an evening of fireworks.  Suddenly, my mind and body were at complete odds with each another. I knew I wasn't in any danger, but my body overrode any logic and began to fall prey to the memories of my past. Loud bursts of color against the charcoal sky quickly became crackles of snipers and  explosions raining death and destruction. I started heading home, my summer stroll spiraling into an evening of tears and flinching at every cracking sound. The fireworks got so loud and intense that I couldn't walk any further and instead found myself crouching in someone's driveway with my back pressed against the garage. The cool, dusty metal of some stranger's garage door felt comforting against my clammy back. Moreover, it felt as though it was a shield offering a certain protection against the invisible perils only I could sense outside.  I had to call for a ride home that night.

I was reminded of that night this month when fireworks  in honor of Canada Day and Independence Day lit up the North American sky.  As a result, this stirred certain remnants of war I carry inside. To a survivor like me, fireworks don't evoke memories of summer BBQs and lazy evenings slumped in lawn chairs. Instead, they stir feelings of  dread and fear. To this day, my nerves twitch and pulsate at any loud, unexpected sound. They've been drilled, pulled and tattered by an unrelenting sergeant called fear.  It may sound paltry to someone unaffected by war trauma, but I've made progress since that night.  A couple of weeks ago on Canada Day, I still knew better than to take an evening stroll, but I was at least able to sit next to a tightly shut window and watch the fireworks in the distance. I've come to appreciate the party-colored choreography in the sky, but if it were up to me, I'd want the visual experience without any loud sounds or better yet, with Debussy's Claire de Lune playing in the background.

It is interesting for me to examine the various quirks and speckles of my personality which are a direct result of my experiences in Bosnia. I don't think about them often because to me they are simply the way things are. One funny 'quirk' that I've since phased out, was that upon my immediate arrival to America I had a ravenous  craving for cheese and all dairy products. The smooth, indulgent quality of various cheeses, flavored yogurt and ice-cream was a delicious antithesis to the deprivation and food monotony I had experienced in wartime. My host family swears that one particular evening I went to bed with a sizable chunk of cheese melting in my palm. I don't recall this, but I trust it is true. I figure I was  simply too delirious from creamy aged-cheddar to remember.  

During the first couple of months of my arrival to America, I had trouble stepping on grass or any unpaved surface. During the war, it was drilled into everyone not to step on grass. Many parks and nature areas became overgrown, almost jungle-like from the lack of tending which made them all the more likely hiding place for an unexploded mortar shell. In a tranquil Ohio suburbia, I was suddenly surrounded by expansive gardens and lush parks. My once imprisoned body ached to run atop soft, manicured lawns, but it took some time before my mind convinced my feet to once again trust grass. 

There are many other war remnants I could write about. My personal war menagerie still has a few pieces which are too personal, but  I hope to share them in due time. One I can share about right now is my slight obsession with having an extra tube of toothpaste stashed in the bathroom cupboard. At first glance, this may not sound like anything peculiar, but this need for a toothpaste-backup comes from the painful times when my family would squeeze out the last sticky gob of toothpaste knowing we didn't have another. Most of the stores in our once-thriving-neighborhood were destroyed or had only dusty, bare shelves on offer. A tube of toothpaste (alongside other everyday, once-taken-for-granted items) was extremely expensive on the black market. In order to be most frugal, we'd cut open the toothpaste scissoring along the seam on the bottom and the side until the tube opened up like some weird oyster revealing minty gunk inside. For days, we'd scrape our toothbrushes on the dried-up innards until all that remained was a faint smell of mint and the silver lining which began to flake and stick  to my toothbrush. To this day, I won't throw away a tube of toothpaste until it's been thoroughly used up. 

In closing, I'll confess that it feels good to be upfront and honest about the scars fate has chiseled on my life. At times I've felt embarrassed by them although I know full well they are a product of my wartime trauma. Perhaps all of us, regardless of our experiences, tend to keep our scars hidden away. Still, I believe there is something redemptive and healing in the act of revealing one's scars. Plus, and this goes back to my last post In Defiance of Cynicism, it is simply in my nature to trust that my fellow human beings will find compassion and understanding upon reading my musings and reflections.

Above all, the main reason for my posts is starting to crystallize: It is my hope that with every post I write I will help humanize today's war child. It is my hope that those readers who are fortunate enough to be safe, fed and free of war trauma, will gain a deeper understanding of the struggles that millions of children grapple with right now and the unique war legacies they'll have to learn to live with for decades to come.