Stranger Than You Dreamt ItI have not had a face for almost five years.
Where there is now a hole used to be a nose and cheek, bones cracked and un-repaired across my forehead. I used to look like a normal man; I was not born this way. I was serving in Russia when this happened. Only a year had gone by since I volunteered when an unpredicted bombardment happened. I was just trying to do my work as a doctor when suddenly the sky was alive with rockets. They had been using the Katyusha's again, though I don't know why. Most of our tanks had moved out only a few hours before. I do believe that was what they were really aiming for and not for any of us. I do not think that they knew that our tent was a hospital and not a command center and if they did: God forgive them that they should not be punished harshly for it. Maybe they were indifferent to whoever was at the chosen position.
The fire rained down and I was told to run, and I did. I knew I should have had courage. I know now, looking back, that my calling would have been better served if I had stayed. Those men who were there needed me more then I could have imagined. I could run; many of them could not even stand. Yet, I ran. Somehow, in my running I got caught in a tree burst and bomb blast. I do not remember much, but I do remember suddenly feeling like my legs were no longer attached to me as I was tossed through the air from the explosion; the pressure had burst my ear drum on my left side. I did not feel pain; in fact the only thing that my mind could wonder about was why I could not breathe without hearing the sound of breaking twigs within my skull.
I had no more face when I woke up.
They did manage to pull me back from the lines quick enough to save what they could. I did not bleed to death that day even though I should have taking that sizable a piece of timber and metal to my countenance. They could not save me out on the front and so they brought me home to be treated. I spent months in that hospital. They attempted to rebuild me and in that, they never let me in front of a mirror during the first half of my stay. The faces that looked at me told me all that I needed to know in my half-drugged state. The way they would curve up in a millisecond of sheer terror as is every humans nature when looking upon something repulsive before sliding back down into their monotonous every day look told me enough. They did not let me see a mirror because they thought that I would be scared of myself.
I am already scared of myself. I always have been. I have been afraid of failure. I have always been afraid of not being good enough, afraid of not knowing what to say to someone when they really needed me to speak. I was afraid of those times when someone would come to me for spiritual guidance and I would not be able to give them what they were looking for, what they needed to hear. I was already afraid of myself. I knew now that no one would have to look at mismatched eyes or much of black hair that could not choose whether it wanted to be curly or waved. I did not have to be afraid any more of how I looked, I would soon learn to live in mortal terror of it.
They never gave me my face back.
They just sent me home in stitches and bandages and set me free on the streets with suddenly no more purpose in a country where the weak were swept under the rug. I was not weak I would like to think. I could still walk, I could still work, I could still do my ministry, albeit with one less leg and one less arm and a face half torn from its hold. I was not crippled like some of the other wounded. I was not blind, I still could hear, I still had a sense of smell. I wanted to work, I wanted to force myself past the superficial looks in hopes that someone would see me. Not see my outside first and foremost; I wanted them to see me. I contacted the bishops upon returning home, asking them for direction where I could work. My first meeting with the man was a complete disaster.
The man took one look at me and told me it might not have been the best of ideas. He suggested early retirement. The tone of his voice even suggested that, because I was not yet thirty, that I should perhaps find something else to do with myself other than the priesthood. I had tried to prepare myself for being looked down upon even from a fellow man of the church, but I had not prepared for the stake. The man was not God, I knew where my calling was, and I knew that it was my purpose to serve my faith to the betterment of man.
I did not blame them for staying at me the way they did. No more jaw, a hole for my nose, one eye, one leg, one arm, burned over most of my head and shoulder. That was what lay underneath the paper-like skin that had been cultured over metal and fragments. Even with what they had done to try and fix it in the hospitals, it was still a hideous ad scarred face. There was little more to be done to me that would not add to the calloused and hardened tissue across my body. The priests told me then I could try. I later learned this to be nothing more then a metaphor for "no".
Without my faith, I am nothing. I have tried to swallow the stares, the talking, the memories, the disgust some people say. I have tried to for why else would God do this to someone if not then to test him because he finds him a good enough man to shoulder such a challenge? God did not pick Moses or Elijah or Elisha because they were ordinary, he picked them because of their and their would-be extraordinary faith.
I could not help myself. I tried to continue my ministry; I pushed on as best I could despite the suggestions of the bishop. As the years crept by I could not escape my short comings. I could not escape the looks; I could not escape how people would prefer to avoid me. How someone would help me if I dropped something, but then move away quickly afterwards. The first year I lived in the rectory with another priest who would wear the most vicious of fake smiles when dealing with me. "God wills it" must have been his favorite saying and I would agree with it, but I did not need it pushed into my face when he would not help me even tie my own shows or attach my own suspenders. The simplest tasks took much longer then they should have. I could not bathe under an hour, nor could I eat without the fake jaw structure causing me to dribble somehow. The man was relocated to another parish.
I am sure the priest that I lived with thought me disgusting. I tried to hold out as long as I could, but I felt myself slowly and surely slipping away from those around me. I did not like it. I did not want to and every so often I would try and break out of the downward turn, but for every inch I clawed back out, someone would set me back two. What the bishop said, what the priest I lived with did, how those I ministered would try to be respectful but I saw how they looked away. Even their children would look up at me with wide eyes, wondering why there was a man with a strange face. I do like children, but some of the most terrible things ever said to me came from their mouths simply because they were gifted with brutal honesty.
Slowly weathering and withering away is what I was doing. I was dying slowly as piece by piece I was breaking down. I wanted help, I needed help. By, my own insecurities kept me drilled to the position that I found myself in. Further and further I had kept retreating, but always with a hand outstretched in the hopes that someone would not be afraid to take one that happened to be made of synthetic fibers and metal.
I had been in a dark place when I smuggled the stolen gun into my room for safekeeping.
The place did not get any lighter and the straw that broke me came from children. They were playing out in front of the rectory. I could hear them talking of monsters. I tried to mask the reason for me asking them to leave by saying I did not want them to smash my flowers. I did not want to hear them talk of monsters, let alone the one that lived in the rectory. That led to some fairly drunk American soldiers who had been passing lending some fairly pointed comments. I did not want to fight with them. I honestly did not; I was in no mood to answer back. Yet they kept picking and I kept crumbling. One thing lead to another. I responded, they responded, I huffed out a response again. It soon became more then just my face. It became a fight over me. They slurred out about my ministry, about me, about the priesthood, my church, my faith, my country, me... everything was wrong.
They had done it.
I could not stop the emotional response that came up from the very pit of me. I ran back into the safety of my home. My brain said the gun would make it stop. Perhaps it would have made it stop here on earth, but I could not stop what I would be told to do in heaven. Instead of the gun in my hand I found the telephone when I found myself grasping enough fragments of mind to function if only a little. I called him. I had called him. Even though our conversations had been short over the years because of the price, the letters had been numerous. I called him because he would know what to do: how to make this stop.
"Bill, its Aksel..." was all I managed to choke out before I burst into tears over the phone.
He waited and he talked to me slowly as I sputtered out through choked gasps what had happened. He would understand. Bill was my closest friend. He had been since seminary and we had tried to keep contact with each other even though certain circumstances during the war had forced him to leave Germany for his own safety. He was, though I never would admit it to him, one of those people I considered a hero. Bill had helped saved people who were no longer safe under the Nazi Regime with me. Yet he was always more willing to put his life out on a limb for them then I was. For that, I respected him greatly. He knew so much about me, things that no other human did. He had a confidence that I only wish I could have and he had confidence in me which was why I needed to hear him. He would know what to do. He would know why to say. Maybe, he could stop me from putting that gun in my mouth and blowing out the rest of my face.
I knew it was wrong. 1 Corinthians 6:19. It said so, yes I could not shake the feeling that death would be better then this. It still was there, circling around the edges of my thoughts even though I knew it was wrong and it was no way to treat the gift of life. Bill had always had a way with words. He always knew how to make me smile. Perhaps, even at the great distance between Germany and South Africa, he could make me smile again. I depended on him as he tried to get me to stop crying. I needed him here with me. I needed him. I had to tell him once more, as if saying it every so often in my letters was not enough.
"I love you, Bill." I managed to blurt out over the phone.
Bill did not answer. He never answered that whenever I told him that. He never had. However I always knew he loved me too. He did not have to say it, but I always knew that in the few seconds of silence that always would follow me telling him that, that his heart beat a little faster. I could see in my mind the touch of color as it would run to his cheeks, but he still would never reciprocate. I did not need him to, after everything that we had been through together, all the years that we had been close made it clear. We had seen each other at our best and at our worse. I did not need him to because I knew very well that he did love me back.
Finally he spoke, "I'll be coming home soon, I hope."
My heart jumped to my throat a new wave of tears came forth, "... Do you mean it this time?" the hole in my head wheezed as I tried to get control of myself again, but it was still a futile gesture. I could not stop crying even though it hurt forcing salty water from the damaged ducts.
"I do mean it this time, Aksel."
He said my name, but that did not make the hurt in my heart go away. "Please come home..." I managed to sputter out, "I miss you."
Bill sighed, "I miss you too."
There was another, yet longer, silence that followed. I wanted him to say more. Please, if anything, say more to me, keep talking. The silences that were growing during the phone call were making my stomach flip over in my body. I can not take much more of the silences that trailed after me in everything I did and everywhere I went now-a-days. Everyone who saw would always end up in silence if they even ventured to spoke to me outside of mass. Down the street they would turn and look the other way and hurry on, or stare in quiet respite and remembrance for the war and those who died and those who still clung to life. Clung to life like me. But I was tired, Bill, I am tired of clinging on to something that is turning a cold shoulder to me. Why could you not just keep talking like you always used to? Bill, you could help me.
Finally he spoke again, "Aksel? How about when I get back home we go get dinner together or something?"
"You mean it?"
"Ja, I mean it."
My heart clinched "I would like that, just tell me the day when you come home and I'll be at the airport to come get you." I spoke no louder than a whisper. I had managed to drown my wheezing breath within me for just long enough to speak before a new wave of tears hit me. Bill cooed to me over the phone, the softness of his voice echoed in my ear.
"You know what, Aksel?" He said
I could only grunt out a response of inquiry.
"I miss you a lot too."
I started weeping, this time not restraining myself. It seemed like hours passed of nothing more then hearing the echo of myself in the empty rectory. Bill stayed on the phone with me the hole time, even though he must have known that this would cost both of us a fortune. He stayed, and even though he never said more than three words at a time, he staying meant more then he would ever know. The empty feeling in my chest from earlier never faltered, however for some reason unknown to me, with Bill listening, it did not seem like it was to be the end. Its jaws were still open, and the gun was still sitting in the desk in my room. Hours upon hours it seemed. I finally was able to catch my breath as Bill kept repeating how it was going to be okay.
He told me I was going to be safe. He told me I was going to be happy.
And I believed him. The gun would have to wait; it would have to stay cold for just a little while longer. I adjusted the phone in my grasp. My eyes were burning and my throat felt barren dry.
"Bill," I choked out. "Thank you."
There was a small rustled sound and I knew that he was smiling on the other end, "You're welcome. You know something else?"
"I love you too."
And my heart was content, even though it struck me then that this was not Eros. This was more then romantic love what I wanted. He was giving me something more. It struck me there that he would never love me romantically, he would never return the affection in the way I wanted him to, but with that my heart was suddenly content. His was unconditional. His was Agape, not was Eros.
"Thank you, Bill."