Sometimes because they have to, sometimes because they want to. Always, they feel they are supposed to.
– one of my favorite quotes from Mitch Albom’s 5 people you meet in heaven
Prologue: This post is not about A & me, not about a memory we share. It is about an encounter, I feel I need to share with you, because it shaped me into the person I am today. It is about soldiers and war and how we all hope for a better, peaceful world without war.
Young men go to war, they always do, somewhere. Sometimes it’s a choice, sometimes a threat, sometimes it’s meant to be and sometimes it’s free will. It seems though as if they never think about the ones that are left behind. Fathers and mothers, children, significant others, they are the ones praying, hoping, believing that everything will be alright and sometimes, they get their wishes granted. Other times, harder times, they do not.
I don’t think you can refer to any of this as ‘being fair’. It is not, it has never been, but young men go to war anyways, always, they feel they are supposed to.
In the summer of 2006, I was 18, it was my first time away from home, not being on a school field trip, I went to Germany for a few weeks. What I came to do, was something ordinary and what I left with was something extraordinary. A memory placed in my head, in my heart, something that keeps me going from the inside, it’s one of the memories, where you always add a, “you’d understand if you would have been there”.
On my very last day of duty, I came across a small 2 story apartment. It had a small garden that no one had been taken care of in decades, everything was overgrowing and overflowing. I knocked on the door, hoping no one was home, since places like this usually give me the creeps. A few minutes later, I was relieved that no one was home and already on my way out of the garden, when an elderly woman opened the door and looked at me with suspicion. Somehow I found myself in the living room only a few short moments later. When I left the apartment two cups of coffee and a lifetime story later, I was a different person.
It was an old building, probably pre-second-world war, it was one of the homes that didn’t fit in with the other, newer apartment buildings. Inside it smelled odd, as if the windows haven’t been opened for months but the apartment was fairly clean. I walked up the narrow flight of stairs and was led into the living room, a big screen TV was on, repeating the days’ news over and over again. There were pictures from the 70ies and 80ies on the wall, some little kids, some teenagers, all in all an apartment that belonged to two elderly people who had spent their entire lifetime making this apartment their home.
As I came to learn from the woman, they have lived in this apartment since they got married, a few years before the second world war. This she casually tells me between two draws from a cigarette. She had rolled her husband over to the dining table, he had lost his legs in the second world war, ever since then he was bound to his wheel chair.
I must have been there for a decade – at least my heart felt about 10 years older when I left about 2 hours later. The things I heard, the things I still remember were heartbreaking and sad and inspiring but most of all hard to understand.
When her husband returned from the war, he wasn’t the man she married, she said. He wasn’t able to work, resenting what had become of him, he stayed at home, wallowing in self pity. When she was younger and stronger, she used to carry him up and down the narrow stairs, whenever they went grocery shopping or for a doctor’s appointment, now he rarely leaves the apartment anymore. She used to work full time at a factory, about 2 kilometers away, as women did those days, to support the family financially but they never had kids.
Every now and then the room would fill with a heavy silence. Her eyes would fill with tears, his expression got distant and through all of this, they sat next to each other, holding each other’s hands. It seemed as if I were intruding their intimacy. She explained their situation very detailed, she didn’t leave out one single thing. Her husband was quiet throughout most of her explanations, every now and then he would sigh.
When I stepped outside the apartment, making my way home, I struggled with myself, I tried to understand, tried to make sense of it, tried to justify it. Justify war. But the truth is, there is no justification for war and the aftermath. I know that there were soldiers that were even worse off, soldiers that didn’t make it at all, soldiers that survived but weren’t capable of communicating anymore and now still, there are soldiers returning from war, broken in spirit, broken in their hearts, broken in their minds, because of things they did and saw.
The husband didn’t say much at all, I imagine over the years he quieted down, trapped in his own thoughts and memories, trapped in a world he doesn’t understand. The impact this meeting had on me, was tremendous, for various reasons. There were many alike episodes I encountered in my period in Germany, sad ones and happy ones, empowering and inspiring but most of all, moments that shaped me to the person I am today.
As I said my goodbyes and wished them well, the husband reached for my hand and squeezed it hard. He said, ‘Imagine there was no war. I would have had kids and grandkids now, I would have had a full life, a happy wife, I would be a different man.’
The truth is, I don’t know if he would have been a different man, there would have been different battles to fight, even more tragic ones, I imagine. After all, he was still alive and that was a gift, wasn’t it? It seemed though that for him, it was a curse, a never ending one – that is. He wanted simple things in his life, things everyone longs for but his wishes were denied and the realization must have felt like a lightning bolt hitting you, what are the odds?
If I do take anything from this experience, and if I could give you anything from it, I would want you to see the details of the picture. The sorrow and pain that came from it, trying – believing – that the soldiers were going to war for a better world and the soldiers might have left us with one, I can’t say I know, since I only know a world with war. But I hope one day we all can set aside our guns, our twisted minds and instead of fighting, start listening, trying to understand and changing the world we live in now, for the better.
Young men go to war. Sometimes because they have to, sometimes because they want to. Always, they feel they are supposed to. Imagine if there was war but no one showed up.