We Would Be Haunted

This morning I finished a memoir by an American woman who met and fell in love with her husband in Sarajevo during the war, prematurely gave birth to her longed-for baby in a beautiful European location, and struggled unsuccessfully to sustain a marriage to a tortured soul with an addiction problem. No, not my memoir, The Things We Cannot Change (still agent-shopping) – Janine di Giovanni‘s just published, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption. 

Reading her compelling story was sometimes eerie – as if some Balkan spell had been cast over us who, by choice, lived through those dark days in Bosnia. So much struggle and sadness in our lives, so many unhappy endings where there once seemed such promise – bright love out of the bleakness of war. And yet, of course we would be haunted: what were we thinking?

Janine di Giovanni’s time in Bosnia and mine overlapped although my experience was very different. She is much braver than me and as a journalist, hers was a very clear and admirable mission. As an international civil servant with an administrative job, I lived a comparatively cocooned and frustrated existence. Traveling from New York to be part of a very cloudy ‘Mission’ – I harbored the short-lived illusion, I might be serving the cause of peace.  My war experiences do not compare to her powerful accounts. But as women in love – with love, adventure, romance, our respective babies, our men – it was like reading my own story. And for the battle against addiction, there is no armor.

She writes beautifully – her heart pulsing in each word as she relives her life with Bruno. I vaguely remember him from the Holiday Inn and remember seeing Janine – such a majestic, striking woman. And I remember her friend Ariane, a French journalist who never seemed to leave Sarajevo yet always appeared to be cheerful. I wonder if they would recall the crazy, dashing Englishman, smartly dressed with an ascot tucked into his Barbour, who drove the ICRC around and certainly flirted and flattered them? He never missed an opportunity to leap from the balconies inside the Holiday Inn connected by the climbing lines one of the journalists set up. I think it was Paul who did this – Paul Marchand, the elegant, warm French photographer with a perpetual cigar was one of Neil’s favorite people in Sarajevo. Just this morning, from Janine’s memoir I learned that in 2009, five years after my husband ended his life, Paul also hung himself. So many memories stirred up – and so much sadness. But regret? No. Like Janine, I marvel at my child and cherish the love from those ashes.


A friend from the neighborhood dropped by yesterday evening. She was out for a walk and just stopped in on a whim – it’s that kind of neighborhood. We shared a glass of wine and caught up on life. She and I have been friends for many years. When it was time for her to go, I walked her out through the breezeway to the driveway.

The evening was balmy, the full moon rising bright just above the horizon. We stood admiring it a moment and then she turned to me, motioning to the garage and said, “Whenever I walk by here, I think of him, don’t you?”

The garage is where my husband died. Where I found him.

“No. Not really. I mean, when I go in, yes… but… I can imagine others do. I once ran into one of the policeman who came that morning and he told me he thinks about it every time he drives around here. But no, I don’t.”

From the beginning, I was determined that the awful morning would not define me nor my daughter. I thought briefly about moving away but there would have been no moving away from what happened, only the place. And how could I live here if I remained haunted? There were hundreds of mornings when I relived the day but now, the worst images of more than 7 years ago, are tucked away in the recesses of my mind.

It took time – maybe it was years – but mostly, I no longer remember him in that terrible way. In fact, especially of late, my memories and … psychic sense of him, if you will, are benevolent. There have been moments when I have had a profound sense of him watching over our daughter with me. And that he is at peace.  I have not forgotten, but I have healed and I like to think, he has too. Today, when memory triggers will be rife, I wish the same for the lives hideously shattered on a brilliantly clear morning that began like any other day.

Trusting the Universe

Post hurricane, the yard is covered with branches and leaves and in the distance, chain saws grind away at fallen tree trunks. We got off easy at our house – not even losing electricity. I wasn’t worried about what the storm might bring. I used up all my anxiety worrying about Molly’s safe arrival from England. She landed less than 12 hours before New York airports were closed down and until then, I was a neurotic mess. The hurricane certainly made things worse but regardless, I am anxious when my daughter flies.  The powerlessness I feel as she passes through the departure gate is intense. It eases when I know she is with her English family but engulfs me again when I know she is making her way back to me.

Molly was only a few months old when I had my first episode of terrifying vulnerability – a sense of being completely unable to protect my child from the world’s dangers. The sidewalks near my flat in Zagreb were narrow, the roofs of the shops slanted, and the tram line only inches away from the curb. Usually, this was a lovely, benign route to push baby Molly along in her carriage on the way to the market or just to get some air. On one sunny winter morning, snow was beginning to melt, and icy drifts began falling from the rooftops at least 3 stories high, walloping unfortunate pedestrians passing below. What if a mass of snow and ice were to fall on my sleeping baby? I gripped the carriage and walked quickly, then slowly – as if I might guess where the next avalanche might fall.  But how could I? I realized then that this is my lot as a mother. There is only so much power I have. While I will nurture and protect and love my child with all my heart, I also better trust in the universe. I needed to venture out into the world without infecting her with fear.  Slowly, my panic eased as I turned onto my tree lined street, carried the pram up the stairs to our flat, pushed open the door, lifted now smiling Molly and held her to my beating heart.

Making Nice

My natural talent for being a wise-cracking asshole was tempered by my years working for the United Nations. After serious training, I learned how to avoid offending people from around the world – it was a job requirement.  On any given day, I spoke to 100 + people who came for a tour of the UN.  Leading my flock through halls and meeting rooms, I spouted the latest Security Council resolutions condemning either Israel or South Africa (this was the 80s) and hedging my way through questions posed by irate visitors about why the UN would not intervene in Tibet or Northern Ireland. Uncomfortably, I lectured Japanese tourists in my abysmal Japanese, about the importance of nuclear disarmament while surrounded by melted artifacts from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I learned to deliver the information – passionately, but without personal opinion.  This meant no smirks, frowns, glee or embarrassment – unless officially sanctioned by the international community.

It wasn’t easy. I’m pretty opinionated and used to delight in verbal sparring. Sometimes, still do. But to this day, I value the skills I picked up in those international rooms. One key to maintaining a mask of control and fending off potential conflict is to have a script — a few non-commital words expressing whatever the neutral party line is. This still comes in handy. Just the other day, someone cornered me at work wanting to know what I thought about the competition shutting down in the next town. “It’s always sad when a bookstore closes.” I said. And while this is true in theory, in reality, I think: better them than us — I sure hope that we get a bump in business comparable to the hit we took when they opened.

Often, being diplomatic can just mean keeping your mouth shut, and that really doesn’t come easily to me. I have only gotten fired once in my life – from a waitressing job when I was in college. Too many years have passed for me to recall the exact exchange, but a customer was rude to me and I dished it right back. In retrospect, I admire that gal but today, I need my day job.

Keeping my mouth shut was a skill I really got to practice in the war zones of former Yugoslavia. You don’t want to piss anyone off when Kalashnikovs are around.  A neutral smile, courtesy and a United Nations blue passport were all useful in getting through checkpoints manned by sometimes drunken Serbs, Croats or Bosnians. This discipline of not inflaming dicey situations still helps me today: I avoid road-rage incidents on Route 1 and can defuse the instinct to punch the lights out of unpleasant customers in the bookstore. I think a certain amount of public neutrality is common sense – who wants their window smashed by a right-winger offended by a ‘Planned Parenthood’ or ‘Support Our Soldiers: Bring them Home’ sticker?  The only bumper-sticker I have on my car says “READ”.  I think that’s safe.


Another Winter Day

I hesitate to write about the grueling winter, but it may be the only way forward for me, out of the paralysis I feel waking to leaden skies and polar temperatures. Every day of relentless cold, ice, snow – is depressing to the point of being debilitating, and I am curling farther into myself, physically, mentally and spiritually.  I feel pinched – as if I am collapsing into my chest.  I force myself to breathe deeply, shoulders back, stretch. Nothing to be done but carry on, feed the birds, cook, read and mark the days inching towards spring. February, at least, is a short month and the seed catalogues arrive almost daily.

The plows have piled more than 5 feet of snow on top of my strawberry plants – it’s hard to imagine they will survive – but they will and so will the purple sage and all the spring bulbs that bravely push through the last of the frosts. I try and always have a hyacinth or bunch of daffodils on the table as a fragrant reminder for what’s just around the corner. Really. And just for fun, I will inevitably over-order seeds to sow directly in only a few more months and maybe pre-order some heirloom tomato plant collections. The best seed deals and choices I’ve found are Pinetree Seeds of Vermont and Select Seeds from Connecticut.  While sometimes I am enticed by catalogues from Wisconsin or Oregon, it just seems to make sense to get seeds for my Connecticut garden from New England.

I cook.  A recent favorite is a recipe on one of my favorite food blogs, The Wednesday Chef: Zuni Cafe’s Chard and Onion Panade. It’s comfort food extraordinaire. I erred on the side of lots of stock but would use less next time in the hopes that the consistency wouldn’t be quite so soupy. And maybe add a little wine?  Definitely more greens rather than less.  Yum.

Also whipping through books.  David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, while exquisite reading was at first a little slow for me but is now a page turner and I’ll certainly finish this weekend. After reading last Sunday’s sobering review of memoirs in the New York Times Book Review, (“The Center of Attention: Taking stock of four new memoirs – and of the motives for adding to an already crowded genre.”) I read the title reviewer Neil Genzlinger did not pan: An Exclusive Love by Johanna Adorjan and agree with him. It’s beautiful. The author’s poignant exploration of her grandparents joint suicide is like watching a riveting Bergman film — vividly drawn scenes and characters. No surprise the author has written for theater. I was drawn to this, of course, because of the suicide – but while the suicide is certainly a theme driving the story and the damage-done apparent in the author being haunted enough to pursue her questions (it is the questions we survivors are left with), ultimately it is a beautiful love story. And we know the author/survivor, has found her peace.

Genzlinger writes at the end of his memoir reviews: “…what makes a good memoir – it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery. Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.”  I’ve re-read this a few times over the past week – a challenge to myself.  I did not hit delete. It’s just a long, cold, winter – but spring is on the way.

Veteran’s Day

It should be no secret that soldiers are as vulnerable to mental damage as they are physical. This is obvious from the mental illness and drug addiction so rife in returning soldiers. My late-husband was a veteran.  Always a voluble guy, he told compelling tales of his past, of growing up in England, his travels, the movie and music business of which he was also a veteran, yet he rarely spoke about his time as a 17-20 year old British soldier in the 70s.  Like most over the past decades, the battles his government sent him into were dubious ones – even secret – and he lived with the resulting nightmares of terrible violence and shame with uncharacteristic silence.  And ultimately, he paid the price as we, his family did.

This excerpt is from the memoir I am working on:

I used to wonder why veterans are reticent to talk about their war experience. They flinch at the thoughtless question, “Did you ever kill anyone?” yet put them in a room with other soldiers, even former enemies, and in hushed tones their stories flow. Soldiers believe their experiences are too terrible to repeat to civilians. Ian did.

Can anyone who inflicted and suffered terrible violence ever really experience peace again? Maybe only those who see at least a glimmer of possibility through the demons of their past, manage to survive.  Perhaps the veterans of war keep their terrible memories locked away in the hope they will eventually disappear. And maybe I need to tell mine so they won’t.

This nod of a named-day or a float in a parade, a bumper sticker — none of these are enough. Soldiers, are claimed as points of righteous patriotism and used as political batting rams.  They return home from ostensibly protecting their country, their people — and are left with little support of the kind that can make a difference. Instead, after being feted with parties or a parade, they are expected to return to their roles of parents, children, brother, sister and friend. To carry on. Instead, an increasing number are so damaged and without support, they kill themselves and sometimes, awfully, their own families.  Something is wrong.  Silence is a killer and must be broken to save these lives tasked by governments with the notion of protecting ours.

Living with Books

When I ride the train, the subway, walk on a beach – and see someone reading, I always want to know – what?  When people are photographed or interviewed on television in front of a bookcase, I try to make out what titles are on their shelves. Because I work in a bookstore? Maybe, but also because I am nosy – it is as if I’m sneaking a peek at who this person really is by checking out their books.

My own bookshelves are packed to capacity – including too many books I have yet to read. Will I ever? There are titles that I feel like I should read — a great example being a huge tome: Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia by Karl E. Meyer and Shari Blair Brysac.  Autographed by these local authors and scholars – I do want to read it for a better understanding of this volatile region we have been so mired in – and so it stays and I think: one day. The same ‘should’ keeps From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman on my shelf for years.  I cannot let go of these books nor my good intention to read them but other books always jump the reading queue.

Then there are the books I may want for reference – that get yanked from the shelf about once a year or so – Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide by Goldberg and The Art Book – a book published by Phaidon door-stop sized book I picked up once at a tag sale. It’s a fast-food kind of look at the history of art.  I have more cherished art and photography books I also found on sale and could not resist – the most recent find being Andy Goldsworthy’s Passage – this remarkable sculptor’s poetic works are created out of nature – powerful works of time and space – some of stone but many others of ice, leaves, the tides and now, only a photograph remains.  It sits on a table in my living room and I have looked at it maybe once but I am so glad it is there.

I have the powerful photography books by my friend Ron Haviv – his important documentation of wars including Blood and Honey: A Balkan War Journal – the war I knew. My Balkan titles can take up their own shelf and I have read them all, hungering to understand the madness that was my life for four years.  My collection began back in 1992 with Rebecca West’s classic Black Lamb, Grey Falcon and Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia. Later on, I added David Rieff’s Slaughterhouse, Peter Maass’s Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. And perhaps the one most poignant for me, My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony Lloyd – a powerful memoir of addiction to war and to drugs.  

The addiction self-help books have mostly been purged – in the hopes that the problem is also gone out of my life, I have passed them on to others who might find them useful.  But I have kept the memoirs – Beautiful Boy by David Sheff, Mary Karr’s Lit.

Over the years I have amassed a collection of signed titles that are impossible to part with – I see them as a legacy for my daughter. J. K. Rowling – the second Harry Potter title signed at an event at the store early on in her success.  Still, it was like hosting a rock star but she was lovely, signing well over a thousand books and looking every child in the eye and sharing a chat while signing with her arm in a brace.  My inscribed copies of Angela’s Ashes and Teacher Man will always have a revered place on my shelf with warm memories of my encounters with Frank McCourt.

There are books I can and should cull: novels I have read and never will again. Outdated travel guides – to Bali, Martha’s Vineyard (I have not been since high school), the Florida Keys (I have never been) parenting guides, cookbooks I never open – but as my eye scans the dusty spines, I think of a reason why I want each one to stay – a memory, the possibility I might one day need to check on the correct Serbo-Croatian word or refer to that book The Brain. I won’t though — the internet is too easy.  At least, I will dust them.

A Book to Read

I finished reading Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell two days ago and like a good book will, thoughts of it linger in my consciousness. Yesterday, as I walked by a stack of them in the bookstore, a woman about my age browsed nearby.

This is wonderful.” I held the book up.

“Hmm. I thought it sounded depressing,” she answered.

I paused, surprised. Depressing. Yes, of course a book about the loss of your best-friend might sound like a downer.  Why was I surprised at her reaction?

“Oh, no,” I said. “Poignant, yes – but very beautiful – not depressing.” I wonder if she picked it up after I left.

Earlier in the day, a woman looking for a new parenting book called Little Girls Can Be Mean and I agreed how puzzling it is that girls are indeed, so often mean to each other -much more so than little boys.  Yet later in life, women’s friendships are so rich and loving – more than what most men get to experience. Boyfriends may come and go but our girlfriends remain anchors and our loyalty, fierce. Years have sometimes passed without contact with some friends but when we reconnected, it was as if no time or space ever separated us. My friends are now tightly woven into my life. During bitter times, they held me together, letting me cry, reminding me to laugh.

One dear one is as far away as Tasmania and another is  across the street.  Most precious of all is the friendship with my sister, Anne. We have the bonus connection of genetic understanding as additional cement. We get each other immediately and on every level. This is what Caldwell and Knapp had.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a loving glimpse into Gail Caldwell’s enviable relationship with fellow writer and dog-lover, Caroline Knapp (Drinking: A Love Story and Pack of Two)  who died while still in her forties, of cancer.  This gem of a book was borne out of Caldwell’s loss. Affecting, (I made the mistake of reading the last chapter during a lunch break at work) but not depressing.

I am fascinated by grief – or maybe not really grief itself, but rather, how us humans process profound sadness, the inevitable and dread part of the emotional spectrum of life. Gail Caldwell opens a door to this dark room and amidst the shadows of sadness you feel grateful for the experience – all of it: the pain, the love, life.

Remembering Life in a War

Washing potatoes for tonight’s meal, I left the tap open, luxuriating in the flow of water until flashing-back to my life during the war in Bosnia and Croatia. Faucets were always dry and water was eked out for cooking, drinking and personal hygiene.  As a UN staff member, my hardship was only temporary since I was able to cross checkpoints and borders for a hot bath and cappuccino. Unlike the thousands trapped by the insane war, I could leave.

On this late-summer evening, I imagine a woman somewhere in Sarajevo, also standing by her sink and wonder how often she thinks of those days of dry taps, dark nights and fear? For me, these moments are only occasional, after all, it wasn’t my embattled land. Yet for a few years, it was a war I lived in and was almost addicted to. I wonder what it’s like there, more than a decade later? I want to sit in my imagined woman’s kitchen, and hear her tale of recovery.  Will it be like my own? I know something of processing pain and losses on a personal level – perhaps that is the only way one does.  But war on one’s own street, neighborhood, country certainly widens the net of tragedy.

One day, I would like to return to Knin, Vukovar, to Sarajevo, and share a coffee, a glass of wine with my sisters, to listen to their stories.  Meanwhile, I will try better to remember the preciousness of washing and cooking my food, taking a shower, cleaning clothes and having a light to read by.

May 1st

Six years later. A Saturday again. How different my life is now.  Today, I am grateful to just feel sadness.

An excerpt from my still-in-progress memoir:

“On the morning of May 1st, I woke early.  It was as crystalline a day as last year  – the air fresh and full of spring smells, the light extraordinary.  Molly was still asleep beside me – we’d watched a movie in bed the night before and I let her stay.  As usual, the dog and cat acted as my alarm clock, looking for food and attention.  I slipped out of bed to attend to them.  I fed the cat, filled the kettle and put the leash on the dog.  There was now a curtain over the door to the garage, but as I passed it, I saw in my mind’s eye, the scene of the previous year.  I continued out, following the dog as he made his way along the weedy area next to the black-topped street.  I breathed deeply, inhaling the earthy smells of the spring morning.  The new leaves of trees were vibrant green and light pouring through to the street created patterns of movement.  How I loved spring!  Maybe today I would go buy flowers for the garden.  That’s something I could do.  I would plant them in a different place than last year.  Too many ugly memories near the other part of the garden.

Back in the house, Molly still slept.  I found some incense I’d bought in Kyoto last summer, dug through the kitchen junk drawer to find a lighter, and went out to the garage.  I spent the year scurrying past the door, quickly getting in and out to retrieve a shovel or rake.  This morning, with the light pouring through the windows, I stood beneath the beam and lit the incense.  I waited there until the thin purple stick turned to white ash, thinking of Ian, forgiving him.  I felt calm and peaceful as I watched the stick turn white and crumble onto the cement floor.

“I hope you’re at peace, Ian.  We’re okay and …we forgive you for what you did.”  It was the closest I had come to praying in a long time.

I wanted to think of him as being at peace.  For a long time I thought of his suicide as vindictive but gradually I was realizing how much pain he must have been in – a pain existing long before I even came into his life.  I used to berate him,

“Look!  You have everything: a beautiful daughter, a supportive wife – we both love you.  You have a house, your own business.  Why isn’t it enough for you?  Why do you keep risking it all for this drug?”

Of course he couldn’t answer. But I imagine now, that none of it was enough because none of it made his pain go away. He was trying to escape what must have been a terrible, deep anguish and Molly and I were collateral damage – it was never really about us – was it?  This pain prevented him from thinking of anything but getting free of it – through drugs and finally, death.  I wanted to understand what the cause was – something in his childhood?  I searched my memory for what he told me about his past but could remember nothing to explain his troubled soul.  On the other hand, I knew he’d been traumatized by his days in the British Army in Northern Ireland and stints in the Angolan other places secret wars were fought.  He refused to tell me more saying it was too horrible to talk about although he made it clear he had killed people – did this haunt him?  In the early days together before he was using drugs again, or at least before I knew about them, he would sometimes wake in a cold sweat worrying he hurt me in his sleep.  I urged him to go to talk to someone to get counseling.

“What is some guy who has sat in an office all of his life going to make of what I have been through?  The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve had to do?  No.  I don’t want to talk to anyone about this stuff.  Especially you.  I don’t want you to know, it’s too terrible.”

And I never pushed him.  I didn’t want to know either.”


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