Every year before my birthday I quietly take stock of the year that's about to end. I celebrate the good and joyous memories. I take time to relish them with such incandescent detail as though they are my favorite, scrumptious dessert worthy of being savored slowly and mindfully. I remember the kindness and love, both given and received. I look at the difficult and the disappointing parts as well. It's easy for me to be critical, so as a final kindness to my younger-self, I endeavor not to judge myself too harshly.
Perhaps many of us share this inner ritual. Taking a mirror to our actions and reflecting on how we can love better, be kinder and do more. Birthdays have always been a tremendous source of joy and excitement in my life. I love celebrating birthdays of my family and friends making sure I let them know just how much they mean to me. In turn, I love and appreciate receiving kind words and wishes on my special day. But amidst the joy and personal reflection, there is another all-encompassing emotion: an immense sense of gratitude for having another birthday. And perhaps it's no surprise that this intense sentiment relates directly and indisputably to my war experiences.
Recently, a Sarajevo news site published an article commemorating a bleak anniversary of July 22, 1993. On this day, 3777 mortar shells exploded in the city. I was 13 at the time and although my family and I survived that wretched day, reading that article I had to say three thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven out loud to myself before its horrific impact finally made sense. I can only imagine how surreal and perhaps impossible such a statistic might seem to someone removed from any war experience. It may confuse you that in a post about the joys of birthdays I am discussing the most tragic outcomes of the worst experience of my existence. But you see, in my life (as I imagine in everyone's life) joy and sadness, tragedy and loss are inextricably intertwined.
The article goes on to say that on any given day an average of 329 explosions rattled Sarajevo. Do me a favor.. Try to imagine hearing a door slamming loudly 329 times in a single day...Now, try to consider the soul-tearing blasts of 329 deadly explosions ravaging your hometown every single day. Every single day for almost four years.... I would say it is inconceivable but for the fact that I lived it.
The final paragraph of the article mournfully states the horrific human tally of Sarajevo's siege: Over 12,000 killed (among them 1,500 children) and 50,000 wounded. It is both eerie and poignant for me to consider that I am actually a part of the aforementioned statistic. I am a single number in those 50,000 Sarajevans wounded by an explosion or a bullet. Despite the emotional and physical wounds (some of which I described in the earlier post Cheese, Toothpaste & Fireworks) most of the time and especially on my birthday, I focus on the irrefutable fact that I am so incredibly fortunate to be alive, fortunate that the mortar shell that wounded me didn't blow off my legs and fortunate to have had more than two decades of love, happiness, sadness, loss and all other life experiences since then.
I took my original diary off the shelf today and leafed through the entries I wrote on my birthdays. I described waking up on July 29th, 1995 and while still sleepy-eyed and groggy made a wish that my 16th birthday be the last one I celebrate in the war. I am so glad that wish came true! In reading further, I noticed an obituary that I had cut out and taped to the page. Before I even look at it, I know it well. The face on the obituary is so familiar to me, dear even, and yet I've never even met the person in the picture. I remember leafing through the newspaper on my 16th birthday and noticing an obituary for Nedzib Gojak, a young man who shared my birthday, but who lost his life in the war. His friends wrote an obituary on what would have been his 21st birthday vowing to always love and remember him. I found it so heartbreaking, the idea of me in a pretty dress receiving well-wishes and hugs from loved ones while Nedzib would never know another birthday. So I saved his obituary to honor him, to love him, and to always remember to be grateful for another birthday.
So, on July 29th, as I turn a year older, I carry an immense sense of gratitude for yet another day. I understand all too well that sadness and loss always lock hands with laughter and joy and that Gratitude plays the most beautiful music to which they dance.