Soul Survivor


They won't know who we are
So we both can pretend
It's written on the mountains
A line that never ends

Birmingham, England, the office of Lisa Edelmann, LCPC…

Agnes O’Toole sat on the Forest Green two-seater, her face a mask of sorrow and pain. Lisa sat in a swivel office chair catty-corner to her. She rolled the chair to about four feet from where Agnes sat and spoke.

“It’s very hard, Agnes, but you’re doing great,” Lisa said softly. The last few minutes felt as intense as all the previous sessions put together. She pointed to the legal pad on the couch beside her.

“May I?” Her notes were only there to remind her of a name or place they had discussed. As much as she could, she reviewed previous conversations. Agnes nodded.

“You were in the lorry on the outskirts of Kajaki when you were ambushed? The road was blocked? So you and your mates ended up….”

“We jumped out and took cover as best we could….We….ran…” A look came over Agnes. She grimaced and hit her left thigh hard with her fist.

“We ran, Lisa…. I ran…” Agnes gasped.

“You told me last time you were outnumbered, but you all fought hard.” Lisa paused. They had gotten this far the previous session, but the pain of the next few moments of the horror had grabbed Agnes and had still not let her go. Lisa continued.

“You heard something fly past you.”

“The round went right below my underarm…” Agnes choked back another gasp, feeling guilty even in that moment. One or two inches above and the round would have hit her shoulder or worse, but it passed through her sleeve, grazing her arm. She looked down at her left, almost seeing through her blouse to the stone wall where the round impacted years ago.

“It was so…. I couldn’t see anything with all the dust that had kicked up with the wind swirling through the alley.” She winced as bullets fired years ago seemed to whiz past her head, and she felt a round hit her chest, bouncing off armor that no longer existed. She gasped again as she turned to her right.

“Tommy pushed me down, and I blacked out. I think I took a round to my helmet…” She rubbed her left temple, as if the impact had just happened.

“I…. woke up…. There was blood all over my face, but…” Lisa nodded. Agnes was as far as her story had taken her each previous session, but Lisa noticed Agnes’ eyes widen a bit. Something new. Agnes bit her lip.

“Why, Lisa? Why?”

“Why? Why what, Agnes? You’re almost there. Why what?” Lisa’s words would have seemed provocative to some, but the gentleness in which they were spoken tugged softly at the rest of the memory. Agnes sobbed.

“It wasn’t my blood. Tommy…. He was on top of me…. He covered me, Lisa.” She glanced down at her arm again. The round she took had done little damage. The round Tommy took went under his right arm just above his armor.

“I was so scared and….”

“You were so scared and… remember what you just said? You couldn’t see anything. That had to be….Do you remember what you said the last time?” Lisa pointed to her notepad but left it alone.

“It was like….it was terrifying….”

“But you’re here, today, Agnes. It was terrifying but you’re here today because you’re brave. The why you need answers for…. Why…” Lisa paused. Either Agnes would shut down again or it was time. Nothing would be wrong if she went no further today. Another day perhaps, since the mind will do what the mind will do, no matter how determined we can be. But Agnes spoke, even as she began to tremble. Fear mixed with guilt and needless shame will do that.

“He…. He pushed me down….” She repeated even as tears flowed freely. Lisa nodded.

“You said that no one could have been a better friend than Tommy, yes?” Agnes nodded again, this time slower and with her head bowed slightly as her tears seemed to pause.

“So losing him….it had to be so painful. It still is painful, Agnes. The most painful thing ever.” Agnes glanced to her side and sighed heavily.

“It’s as if he’s right beside you. You just looked to your right…just now.“

Agnes muttered something before lifting her head. She shot Lisa an angry glare, as if reminding her about what they had just discussed was off limits.

“What’s going on, Agnes? Right now? What is going on inside?” Lisa patted her chest.

“What do you care? This is just a job to you. It’s my life.” Agnes rarely raised her voice, even when describing the horror. But she glared again at Lisa. As painful as the previous twenty or so minutes had been, the next few promised to be even more so. Lisa took a deep breath and plunged into the swirling eddy of the pain Agnes struggled to express.

“How did Tommy go, Agnes?” She leaned toward Agnes slightly. Pulling back or sitting still might be taken as indifference, no matter what Lisa risked with the question.

“What? He died in my arms. Bloody hell, Lisa. How could you forget that?” As angry as Agnes appeared, the underlying problem was harder to find amidst all the deflection her pain broadcast.

“I’m sorry, Agnes,” Lisa said as she leaned even further in. She hadn’t forgotten, the question was intentionally provocative, almost like a doctor’s hammer hitting a nerve looking for reaction.

“Tommy said something to you. Something you hear in your heart space even as I’m speaking to you. I’ll be quiet as you listen to his words. His voice is the most important right now, because he still speaks to you.” Lisa leaned back only slightly and raised her index finger to her lips. Her gesture and nod seemed to urge Agnes gently, and she smiled.

“I think….” Agnes began, but faltered. Tears began to well up as a voice from the not too distant past indeed was speaking. She bit her lip as she remembered their final moments together…

As the sad-eyed woman spoke we missed our chance,
The final dying joke caught in our hands
And the rugged wheel is turning another round

Dorian, carry on,
Will you come along to the end
Will you ever let us carry on

“You’re gonna be okay,” Tommy rasped. He smiled up at his best friend. Tommy had tears in his eyes, but they weren’t for himself.

“No… don’t, Tommy. Please.”

“Shhhh…. I’ll be okay where I’m going….” His few words fought to escape, the cadence irregular, but the meaning unmistakable. He grinned slightly and raised his hand to touch the chain around his neck beside his ID Disks. The small cross was smeared with blood, as ironic as one might imagine, but still a powerful picture of his faith…..

Agnes fingered the small cross around her neck as the memory enfolded her.

“I can’t, Tommy. It’s too hard. You can’t go….”

“I don’t want to, mate.” Tommy smiled weakly, hoping for no less than the time it would take to say what he felt.

“But you have to go on. YOU! No matter what happens, you need to be yourself.” He was fighting hard and maybe his determination enlivened him just enough. Ian was weeping freely. As lads growing up even into adolescence, they had pretty much done everything together. Best friends since before birth in a way since their mothers went to the same midwife. Lifelong, such as any brief moment in eternity can be, only to have one life now sadly ebbing away. On a dare, Tommy and Ian had enlisted the same week. They were separated after training, but providence reunited them only months later.

She deserves…. A chance.” Ian winced at Tommy’s words.

“Yeah…. I should have told you…. Your Mum wrote me a letter. She wanted me to watch out for you.”

“No, Tommy….no.”

“You have to let her live….” His voice trailed off and then he was gone, leaving Ian alone and scared.

Agnes looked at Lisa and shook her head. The anger had departed, perhaps for good. But the guilt and shame still clung to her.

“You told me very early on, Agnes. You may have forgotten but I never did. Tommy wanted you to live, right?”

“No…. no,” Agnes covered her face with both hands and sobbed.


“He wanted you to live. You survived. You’re a survivor.”

“But Tommy died… Why did I live? Why did he die, Lisa?”

“He did exactly what he promised your mother he’d do. He saved her…. Daughter. Tommy saved Agnes.” Lisa leaned closer and tapped Agnes on both knees, a rhythmic exercise that helped her center and urge the moment forward.

“No….I don’t deserve this…”

“We never deserve grace, Agnes. None of us. That’s why it’s so special. But we also never deserve the guilt that sometimes gets in the way of the gift. Tommy loved Ian as much as any friend ever could, but he loved Agnes even more. Maybe like the brother Ian and Agnes never had. Maybe that’s why this is so painful? Because it was over almost before it began?”

“Why, Lisa? Why me? What do I do with this? It hurts ….so much.” Agnes spoke haltingly between sobs. Lisa stood up and walked over to the desk. She glanced at the open laptop that still displayed the biofeedback program Agnes had finished in the previous hour. She grabbed a mirror off the desk and walked back. Sitting down, she turned the mirror to face Agnes and spoke.

“Look, Agnes. Look at the gift your friend gave you. This is the reason. The reason you are here today. Not just in my office, but here and alive and getting better. You were meant to survive. You, Agnes”

Agnes felt Lisa touch her arm. She pulled her hands away from her face and gazed at her reflection.

“Ian is in there, but it’s Agnes you see. It’s Agnes your mother saw. It’s Agnes Tommy saw. Who I see right now. The whole person, Agnes. You…the soul that is Agnes lives and breathes because of the gift Tommy knew you needed. Accept the gift, Agnes.” Lisa touched Agnes’ knees and began tapping again as the sobs seemed to change in a way.

“Í am so proud of the work you’re doing. The hard work you did today. I’m so glad to be privileged to walk with you Agnes.” Lisa nodded even as Agnes sobbed. Tears that once condemned seem to wash away the years of guilt. Weeping that had lasted a nighttime, as the saying goes, but the sunlight of freedom was slowly dawning for her.

Guilt would always try to gain a foothold on the battlefield of her soul, but Agnes would never again take a breath without being confident of her own worth.

Of course, from then going forward, every time she looked in the mirror her reflection would reveal dark brown eyes and a nose perhaps a bit more crooked than she’d like. She’d see a face that was plain, but still prettier than she could ever have imagined, made even more beautiful by a smile urged along every day by the memory of the gift she had been given. A best friend’s parting gift to Agnes O’Toole…. her life.

While PTSD is not limited to combat survivors, it is a signigicant contributor to the many difficulties veteran experience after returning home. Here are two of the several effective treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I made mention of in the story

words and music by the performer
Agnes Caroline Thaarup Obel

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