A tank? A white SFOR army tank WITH a driver in full combat gear and helmet? Oh goodness, I have the fright of my life (again). Even though I have become accustomed to seeing (and hearing—they were so loud) what I thought to be Black Hawk helicopters fly over hourly while along the Croatian coast months earlier, and even though I thought war had broken out (again) when the army arrived by ferry while on a Croatian island (for a military exercise my host reassured me), being face to face with my worst nightmare, a tank, I feel a chill in my bones.
Yes. The SFOR was the NATO-led multinational peacekeeping force, The Stabilisation Force, deployed after the war in Bosnia. Yes. The war was over. But, hell, I don’t move, I can’t move, until it passes in front of me and out of sight down the road.
Right. Where was I? Oh, following the breadcrumbs, and I am here, the place I feel I need to be, where, twenty years earlier, six local children claimed they had seen, and still see, visions of the Virgin Mary. I am not expecting a miracle, though, if Mary wants a chat, I am more than willing to listen.
Assured (again) war has not broken out, I begin to explore Medjugorje (meaning ‘between mountains’) which basically consists of a church, a dozen souvenir shops (I counted), a few pizzerias, rooms for rent scattered all over, with Cross Mountain and Apparition Hill overlooking the village. If not a small white hatchback, or a tour bus, every car on the road is a white, if not, gold coloured Mercedes-Benz. I wonder if I have stumbled into the heartland of the Bosnian Mafia. The perceived wealth and tidiness is a stark contrast to every other place I have seen in the region, like Mostar and Sarajevo, Dubrovnik and all the small villages which are characterised by gun and shell pock-marked walls and burnt out buildings. There is no visible sign of the recent war here.
Like Mary before Christmas, I struggle to find a place to rest before the New Year. Knocking on door after door, at Pansion after Pansion, finally I come to a welcoming host with a vacancy and promptly collapse on a bed for the first time in two days.
It seems Mary doesn’t want a chat, but I know I need to be here, at this holy place. For the first time in months, I begin to think about myself. I begin to think about why my life seems so worthless. Why I was hearing impaired, vision impaired and going blind. Why I was very depressed, very lost and very alone. Why the traumatic experience that had destroyed me, destroyed my trust and any hope, faith and positivity I might have once had, happened to me. Why? Why me?
No longer can I hold it in. And today, the last day of the first year in the new millenium, at this place, seems to be the right time to let it go. The anger suppressed all year, deep in my mind, heart and soul, bursts outward and explodes. I am on fire.
Why? Why did God want me without hearing? Why did God want me without sight? And why wasn’t that enough … why the hell did he put me through that traumatic experience and where the hell was he when I begged, screamed, for help? I am on fire.
It is New Year’s Eve, and I decide, if Mary doesn’t want to chat, I will go and find God.
In a queue for over an hour, outside one of the fifteen doors leading to little confessional rooms, with no shelter from bitterly cold wind, I wait. I don’t know what I will do, but it seems that I ready to take on God. I am on fire.
“Oh, God and I …” I announce to the young priest when it is finally my turn, “… we’re not talking.” I shake my head and pause for dramatic effect.
I expect him (and God) to be shocked and angry, and for him (for God) to reprimand me. That would be my cue to then launch into my woe is me story as to why I was so angry with God that I had stopped talking to him. But … he does not follow the script. He is not shocked and angry, and he does not reprimand me. The moment I say the words, I have an intense moment of clarity. I may not be talking to God, but he is certainly still watching over me.
With my backpack, a few packed clothes, a tent, sleeping bag, couple of guidebooks, I had no idea, I remember, what I was doing, where I was going. Just that I was running away from me. Running from my past, running from my future. Following the trail of breadcrumbs.
I remember always feeling safe, feeling guided. I remember the people I had met who had an impact on me. I remember the places I had been that had an impact on me. Things I had witnessed. Stories I had heard. I remember acts of kindness, acts of compassion. Being in the right place at the right time. Meeting the right people at the right time. Months and months on my own, but I remember never feeling alone.
Hell. I remember the way I felt traveling over twenty-seven hours, my epic journey from Hungary to Germany, through Italy, and Croatia to bring me here, Bosnia. The connections, not one or two, but seven transit connections I made with just moments to spare. And the stairs! The stairs I felt I drifted over when I should have crashed to the ground. I remember the way I felt someone was traveling with me, guiding me.
God, I realise, was certainly still watching over me.
The priest speaks, interrupting my thoughts, and again, out of the blue, I am stunned by another realisation. His gentle words banish the anger in my mind, heart and soul, and I am overcome with relief. The trail of breadcrumbs has led me here, to this moment.
And I am ready to return home.
Sunsets for Kate
Sunsets for Kate, the idea, the concept, the ‘why’, all came to me as if out of the blue. And now it is soaring, like a bird, flying across the globe, allowing me to witness beauty and colour of places I have never known, the kindness and compassion of people I have never met.
To express what it means to and for me, what it has done to and for me, and what it means and has done to and for others, I need to share what the priest told me that New Year’s Day, almost two decades ago.
I didn’t quite comprehend what it meant for me at that time, but with each sunset it has dawned on me, Sunsets for Kate, the idea, the concept, the ‘why’, has always been with me.
I have never forgotten his words, his response to my “oh God and I … we’re not talking.”
Relaying what Pope John Paul II had said at World Youth Day just a year earlier, he told me, “We are the saints of tomorrow.” Laughing, he jokingly added, “yes … we can all try and be like Mother Theresa.”
I was stunned. And I was overcome with relief.
I am no saint. Oh. No … I am no saint!
And I had no intention of being a saint. No. That is not the message I received. I thought to myself, at that moment, this isn’t only about me. This, being hearing impaired, being vision impaired, and going blind is not only about me. I don’t know why, and I don’t necessarily like it, but God was not punishing me or abandoning me. God had some other grand plans for me. He wasn’t putting me through hell for the hell of it! I don’t know why, and I don’t necessarily like it, but maybe he was making an example of me?
I realised then running from my past, running from my future, I didn’t have to do alone. I didn’t need to hide. I didn’t need to hide who I was, who I would become. I didn’t need to hide everything that has happened to me. I thought, “I am supposed to share it all.” (Well, not it all, remember, I am not a saint!)
Someone, somewhere, needs me to do this. Hopefully, to inspire, to calm, to heal.
But that was then, and this is now.
And in between, there was more heartaches, more traumatic experiences, and more running away. Running from my past. Running from my future. I thought I could never sink so low again. But I did. More than once. And again, more than once, I pulled myself back up. All on my own.
Yay me, I thought. I’ve got this. But it felt wrong. It felt wrong to keep everything to myself. It felt wrong not to share. So last year I got over myself and swallowed my pride, and came out to the world with my two disabilities.
One thing led to another, and then out of the blue, I had the idea for Sunsets for Kate.
My ‘why’ for the project was to rob Usher syndrome of the opportunity to rob me of my 14,610 sunsets. (Take that Usher syndrome!) And to show others with Usher syndrome, if you tell your story, if you share your dream, if you reach out for help, you might just be surprised who will reach back out to help and tell their story, and share their dream, to you.
And although there is nothing I can do about Usher syndrome taking from me my sight, I can take the fight Usher syndrome has instilled in me to raise awareness and shine a light on it. I can use my impeding blindness to open the eyes of others, one sunset at a time.
But what I hadn’t counted on was the way Sunsets for Kate would be received by others, those not with Usher syndrome. Many have shared with me what Sunsets for Kate means to them, but their stories are not mine to share.
All I can say is this. I had no doubt Sunsets for Kate was going to take flight, but did not realise that it would sweep me off my feet too. It is soaring, and my mind, heart and soul are soaring too. I am still following the trail of breadcrumbs, still not quite sure where it will lead next, but now I remember all I have to do is trust. Just trust myself, trust in myself, and trust in God, the Guardian Angels, the Universe, what ever it is you may call it … intuition, signs or messages. All I have to do is trust. And share.
And I will never feel alone again.