COMMON GROUND

by Towser

 

In the ever shifting sands of Luka Kovac’s life, the only constant was the existence of God. 

When the world he knew and loved was shattered by war, Luka railed against him, demanding an explanation for the myriad tragedies that had befallen both him and his country.  Yet, even as he questioned God’s methods, Luka never questioned the existence of God, himself.

Over time, Luka’s anger waned into a calmer incomprehension.  An old adage said that God worked in mysterious ways; for Luka, nothing was more mysterious than allowing the destruction of whole communities in ways too hideous to contemplate.  Nonetheless, he did his best to accept that the events which had robbed him of his family had been God’s will.  It was not a comfortable notion, but Luka found he had to believe that God knew what he was doing and that those events had been part of a larger plan.  Only in that way could Luka find a measure of sense in the nonsensical.

Incomprehension eventually segued into an odd sort of resignation so that, now, nine years later, Luka only rarely questioned God’s will, not because he’d ever found the answers he sought, but rather because he had given up searching for them.

Luka knew that in faith lay hope, and, through everything that had happened, he had clung to that hope with a remarkable tenacity.  He believed in God, Jesus Christ and the resurrection.  He believed in heaven, and he believed that his family was with God.  That certain knowledge brought him a measure of comfort when nothing else could.  His wife and children were not lost to the universe; they were merely lost to him, and, one day, if he were lucky, he would see them again.  The earthly parting was painful, but perhaps – just perhaps – it could be rendered bearable if he held on to the idea that it was temporary.

Luka tried to be glad that they were in Paradise, although it was hard when he felt so alone.  Moreover, there were some days when the pain of his loss was more difficult to bear than others. 

There were too many days like today, when he felt compelled to go in search of solace.

He would rather have visited one of the city’s older Catholic churches where dim lighting and the flickering of candles offered an ambience of solemnity.  However, as he was forced to work a double shift, Luka considered himself lucky to grab a few minutes in the hospital chapel. 

He didn’t like the chapel very much.  Ecumenical, it tried to be too many things to too many people, and the end result was a general lack of atmosphere.  The light was too bright, the crucifix over the altar too plain, the vinyl-covered padding on the pews too institutional.  Only the modern stained-glass windows had a character that Luka could truly appreciate.

Luka reminded himself that the physical trappings of religion were unimportant; it was the spiritual that mattered.  So, as he genuflected then eased into one of the pews to pray, he pushed away his awareness of his surroundings, concentrating instead on conjuring up memories and images of distant places and other times.

*****

It was in his moments of greatest despair that Peter Benton remembered God.  Raised a Baptist, he’d learned his verses almost from the cradle. As a child he’d been taken to church every week and he’d been an enthusiastic student at Sunday School.  As he’d grown older, though, time, ambition and his career had competed with his faith for attention, leaving him not so much agnostic as lapsed.  And yet, somewhere within him, his belief in the Almighty remained, a part of his being just waiting to resurface. 

Benton entered the hospital chapel, drawn or driven there – he wasn’t sure which – by his grief, anger and need for answers.  Maybe all he would do in the chapel was rail at the God who allowed terrible things to happen, but at least that was something.  It was the only thing left for him to do for his nephew, who had now passed beyond all earthly help.

So absorbed was he in his own thoughts and grief, that he didn’t notice the chapel’s other occupant until he was two thirds of the way down the aisle.  Only then did the bowed head of another worshipper register.

Benton felt a flash of irritation; he didn’t want to share this moment with anyone else.  He wanted God to himself and he wanted privacy.  However, he knew that was selfish, unreasonable, and, given that the other person had got here before him, clearly not going to happen.  He suppressed a sigh and slid into one of the pews, bowing his head in prayer.

He tried to blot out the softly murmured words of his companion, but the harder he tried to ignore them, the more they intruded into his consciousness.  The words made no sense to him, yet it took him several minutes to realise that was because they weren’t English.

Benton had been so wrapped up in not noticing the chapel’s other visitor that his identity hadn’t even registered.  Belatedly, however, he allowed himself to recognise the other man.

Kovac.

Not Benton’s favourite person at the best of times, Luka Kovac was the last person that he wanted to encounter right now.

Benton wrapped his fingers around each other in a tangled parody of the praying hand position he’d learned as a child, bowed his head, and screwed his eyes closed, blotting out his surroundings and unwanted companion, desiring only to hear God’s explanation for what had happened.

*****

Luka raised his head, crossed himself lightly, and slowly eased himself out of the pew.  His sorrow remained, but the visit had afforded him a measure of calm for which he was grateful.  Better yet, the memories had been good ones today: vivid.  There was an exquisite agony to the quality of the images he’d called forth; the faces of his family – Marko, in particular – had been clearly defined, bringing them closer to him.

He paused for a moment, staring up at the cross, silently offering a thank you to God, as he shifted from one foot to another, easing the kinks out of his knees.  Then he turned, readying himself to exit the chapel.

He had not been aware of anyone else entering, so Benton’s presence two pews back took him by surprise.

Luka noticed the way Benton’s fingers clenched and unclenched as he clasped his hands together.  The tautness of his skin across his cheekbones and the way his eyes were screwed tightly in distress spoke eloquently to Luka who guessed that, nine years before, he would have looked much the same as he demanded “Why?!” of God.

Luka felt a flush of sympathy for his colleague.  It didn’t matter that on a professional level they failed to see eye to eye or that on a personal level they assiduously avoided one another.  All that mattered was that current pain and the memory of pain suddenly provided a bridge between the two men.

Maybe Benton felt the connection, too, because his eyes suddenly opened.  His head turned towards Luka, and their eyes locked.

*****

Kovac was staring at him, and Benton felt a surge of anger at the intrusion on his grief.  He didn’t want to be seen by anyone, least of all Kovac.  He wished Kovac would simply go away.

The wish was not granted.  Instead, Kovac said, “I heard about your nephew.  I am sorry.”  His words were soft and sincere.

Benton didn’t reply.  Instead he just looked stonily at Kovac, defying him to continue in the face of obvious animosity.

Kovac persevered.  “I know how it feels.”

“Pardon me for saying so, but I doubt that you do.”

Benton’s tone should have repelled the Croatian and yet, to his surprise, Kovac seemed to take it as an invitation to sit down next to him.  “I, too, have lost people to violence,” he said, his voice flat.

Benton twisted slightly in his seat in order to look at him more comfortably.  He’d never paid very much attention to the Croatian.  Since May, though, Benton had done more that fail to pay attention to him; he had gone out of his way to avoid him altogether.  He snorted.  “Yeah, but I bet no-one has ever hated you – shot you – because of the colour of your skin.”

Kovac’s eyes narrowed and Benton saw that he had touched a nerve.  “Perhaps not, but ethnic cleansing cost me my home.  It destroyed my life.  I understand the damage that hatred can bring.  I have been shot at, not because of the colour of my skin, but because I’m a Croat.”

Benton stared, feeling chastened as it dawned on him how little he knew about his colleague.    “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I didn’t realise.”  But, he supposed, he should have done.  After all, the Balkan wars had been plastered across the evening news for weeks, months, even years on end.  However, for Benton, they had been something distant – abstract – and he’d never bothered to make the connection between them and Kovac.

Kovac turned his face away from Benton and towards the plain wooden crucifix mounted on the wall.  The tension left his voice; sadness remained.  “No.  I am sorry.  There is no reason why you should have known.  I should not be angry at you.”  He paused fractionally, then he ventured, “You are grieving.”

“Yes.”

“You and your nephew were close?”

Benton looked down at his hands, suddenly finding his nails very interesting.  Then, with a degree of honesty that surprised him, given who he was talking with, he said, “I don’t know.  I’ve never been very good at showing my feelings.  I love my family, but I’m not sure that they know that.  And I’m not sure what they think of me.”

Kovac nodded thoughtfully.  “That doesn’t make your sorrow any less.  Just now, it is how you are feeling that matters.”

Benton felt his eyes pricking.  Not wanting to give into his tears, he squeezed them closed.  A muscle in his cheek started jumping instead, giving mute testament to his distress.  Kovac’s sympathy was getting to him and, reminding himself that he didn’t even like the man, he struggled to rebuild his emotional defences, lest Kovac should see past them.  Benton shifted the subject.  “So, what brings you here?”

Kovac’s eyes were still focused on the cross.  “Today is... would have been... the birthday of someone I loved very much.”

“Oh?”

 

“Marko.  He would have been eleven.”

“Family?” asked Benton, curious despite himself.

Kovac nodded.  “Yes.”

Benton looked at him.  Eleven, he thought.  That made Marko too young to be a brother, and Kovac did seem to empathise with his situation.  A nephew, then.  Or perhaps a cousin.

*****

Luka felt himself holding back.  The tentative touch of empathy that joined them was not yet strong enough to give him the confidence he needed to confide fully in Benton.  Their past history could not be overcome in just a few moments. 

With the benefit of long practice, Luka deflected the conversation away from himself.  “You have a son, don’t you,” said he.  It was a statement rather than a question, and it pulled Benton out of his reverie.

“Yes.  Reese.”  For the first time since they’d started talking, Benton almost smiled.  Luka felt a strengthening of the kinship between them; Benton loved his son, just as Luka had loved his own children.

The momentary lightening of Benton’s mood vanished as he said, “I worry about him, you know?”

Luka glanced at Benton, waiting for him to elaborate.

“What was I thinking when I brought a child into this world?” he asked.  He tilted his head back, eyes towards the ceiling.  “I love Reese, you know?  And I certainly wouldn’t part with him for anything, now that he’s in my life.  But I can’t help worrying.”

“That is part of being a parent, I think,” said Luka.  “Worrying, you know?  Wondering, will I be a good parent?  What will my child be like when he grows up?  How do I keep him safe?  But at the same time, you wouldn’t change anything.”  That was true, Luka thought.  He had regrets aplenty: he regretted moving to Vukovar.  He regretted the deaths of the three people he loved most in the world, and he would have given anything for things to have worked out differently, and yet...  Even knowing what he now knew, he did not regret his few years of fatherhood.  He would, he could, never regret that, and he wouldn’t change it for the world.

***** 

Benton was surprised, not just because the normally reticent Kovac had put so many words together at once, but because he had evidently given the matter careful consideration.  “You’ve thought about kids?” he asked.

Kovac nodded fractionally, jerkily.  “I...  Marko...  He was my son.”

Whatever Benton had been expecting, it wasn’t that.  Kovac didn’t look old enough to have an eleven year old child; he looked to be in his mid- to late-twenties.  But then, Benton supposed, to be an Attending, he had to be older than that.  He revised his estimate of Kovac’s age upwards: mid-thirties, maybe.

Now it was Benton’s turn to say, “I’m sorry.”  Then, after a fractional pause, he ventured to ask, “You’re married?”

“I was married,” said Kovac, his tone slightly wary. 

Benton jumped to the obvious – at least by American standards – conclusion.  Kovac was divorced.  “She back in Croatia?” he asked.

The flash of pain on Kovac’s face alerted Benton to the fact that he’d just asked the wrong question.

“No,” Kovac said tightly.  “My wife and children...  They are all with God.”

“Children...?”  Benton hadn’t meant to say the word out loud, but evidently he had done so because Kovac answered the question.

“I had two.  A son and a daughter.  Jasna.  I told you that I had lost people to violence.”

“They died in the war?”

“Yes.”

Kovac volunteered nothing more, and Benton decided that it wasn’t his place to press for details.  Besides, he supposed the precise circumstances barely mattered.  He didn’t know what to say.  Sorry didn’t seem adequate somehow.

After an uncomfortable pause, Benton said, “So, I guess you do understand better than most...  About my nephew, I mean.”  His words carried with them an oblique apology for his earlier comments.

Kovac nodded.

Benton couldn’t help himself.  He had to know.  “Does it get any easier?  The pain, I mean?  Does it go away?” he asked slightly desperately.

Kovac didn’t reply immediately, and when he did, he avoided the platitudes that Benton knew he’d be hearing a lot in the next few weeks.  Instead of saying, “Time is a great healer,” Kovac said, “It never goes away, you know?  The shape of your pain will change.  The agony maybe blunts, but the memories...”  He shook his head thoughtfully.  “Sometimes the memories are so sharp, I can see their faces. Hear their voices.  Sometimes I can’t see them at all.  That, for me, is the hardest thing, to think that I might forget.  That would be to lose them a second time.  I couldn’t bear that.  The memories are then a comfort, even if they are painful, you know?  In answer to your question, I think... maybe... it gets easier.  Or maybe you just learn to cope with the loss a little better.”

Even as Benton was appreciating Kovac’s honesty, something about Kovac’s comments tugged at his consciousness.  “Surely you have photographs to help you remember?”

Luka looked down at his feet as he shook his head.  “Everything was destroyed when the shell hit our apartment building.  All I have is one photograph of my wife and daughter.  I have nothing of my son except the memories I carry here and here.”  To illustrate his words, Luka tapped his temple with his fingers then placed his fist over his heart.

Benton felt a shiver of horror at Kovac’s answer.   “I wish,” he heard himself saying, “I had taken more time to make memories in the first place.”

Kovac nodded.  “You think you have all the time in the world, and then...  Poof!  It’s gone.”

*****

They sat quietly for a few moments, each lost in their own thoughts.  Benton finally broke the silence when he tentatively asked, “When it happened, were you angry with God?”

Luka flinched inwardly at the use of the word ‘it’; as if everything that had befallen him could be summed up so easily in one syllable!  He pushed a fleeting irritation aside and answered Benton’s question.  “Yes.”  He paused, wondering whether he should expand upon that.  Then, deciding that it could do no harm, he continued.  “One time, I was in Zagreb.  I stood in a church there, and I screamed at God, ordering him to tell me what I had done to deserve everything that had happened to me.”

“Did you get an answer?”

“No,” Luka replied.  He had, however, earned himself a severe reprimand from a diminutive woman who had materialised out of nowhere.  She’d looked to be at least a hundred years old; her back had been bent with age, her face had been wizened, and she had been able to walk only with the help of a stick.  Her frail appearance notwithstanding, she’d pointed out to him in the most forceful manner possible that his behaviour was not fitting in a house of God.  Of course, she’d been right, although, at the time, he’d only felt anger at her interference.

*****

“And were you ever tempted to turn your back on him?”

Kovac seemed to give the question a moment’s thought.  “Perhaps,” he admitted, “for a very short time I was tempted to do so.  It was like, you know, when you are angry with somebody.  You don’t want to talk to them, but not talking doesn’t mean that they aren’t still there.”

Benton glanced at Kovac, his eyes narrowing.  Was that a dig? he wondered.  However, he could see no trace of malice in Kovac’s face; he guessed that it was his own conscience prodding him.  Certainly, turning his back on Kovac since May hadn’t made the man go away.

Kovac was still talking.  “For a while, I was too angry to pray.  But, even when I was most angry, I knew that God was still there.  I never stopped believing.  I couldn’t because, no matter how angry I was with God, he was also my greatest source of hope and comfort.  To abandon my faith would be to abandon hope, too.  And when hope is all you have...”

“Hope,” said Benton, grasping hold of the word.

“Yes,” said Kovac with a certainty that took Benton aback.  How could Kovac have held on to hope after he’d lost everything else?

“You have hope, too, yes?  Hope that your nephew is in a better place?  Hope that one day you will see him again?”  Kovac’s beeper went off then, before Benton had time to formulate an answer.  He pulled it off his belt, glanced down at it, and said, “I must go.  I’m needed back in the ER.”

Benton nodded in understanding.  Neither said good-bye to the other as Kovac stood.  Somehow the words were unnecessary.

As Benton watched Kovac’s retreating back, he reflected both on the fact that he’d come to the chapel to remonstrate with God and on Kovac’s last words.  He was still angry; he suspected that it would be a long time before he could let go of the anger entirely.  However, he realised that his conversation with Kovac had served to temper his rage, because Kovac had managed to remind him of the positive aspects of faith.

“Hope...” he whispered again.  He felt the first stirring of comfort coming forth, born of his own long-buried faith, but aroused by the clearer evidence of Kovac’s more active one.  Benton realised that he was grateful to Kovac for that. 

They hadn’t cemented a friendship here.  Maybe they never would manage to do that; Benton still harboured an antipathy for Kovac, although their conversation and his current sense of gratitude had gone a long way to mitigate it.  However, the two men had reached a degree of understanding.  They’d found some common ground.

 

END

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