My first name is Peter. I did not choose the name, it was given to me at birth by my parents and it grew on me. I like the name; it seems to suit me somehow. I never questioned the meaning of it until one day when at University - back in Budapest - one of my Professors addressed me thus: "Peter, you Rock". - and he looked at me in a meaningful way and then he looked at the girl standing next to me with the same expression on his face, without elaborating further. The girl's name - standing by my side - was Erika. I didn't quite know what he meant by addressing me that way and in front of that girl, so I looked it up. I found out that Peter means Rock.
Erika is the European equivalent of Erica, which is the Latin name of the plant Heather. Heather is found in abundance on the Highland moors of Europe, often in close proximity to rocks.
I met Erika at the newly formed Dental Faculty of the Medical University of Budapest in September 1952, when we were first year students there.
I will come back to the story of our meeting later.
Three years after our first meeting - in July 1955 - Erika became my wife and a string of "coincidences" started to manifest. The first "coincidence" I noticed, almost casually, that the last two letters of my first name, Peter, is also the first two letters in the name Erika. It was a casual observation and I gave it no further thought at that time. Now - looking back - it should have been obvious already that the two names somehow "dovetailed". You can write the two names in one thus: "PetErika". Later, when we were already living in England, I used to sign letters to relatives and friends in that manner.
Last year - in August 2007 - Erika passed away, having lost her brave and determined five-year battle against cancer. Her death left me devastated, burned out, with a feeling of utter emptiness. Life seemed meaningless without her. I shut myself away from the world and drifted aimlessly. To some degree I am still drifting, but the realisation came to me, just a little-while back, that if I have survived and am to continue surviving, there must be something more to life then just "drifting" aimlessly.
In my disturbed youth, at around the age of 13-14 I stumbled upon a book on Yoga, at a time when I most needed something to still my mind. Coincidence? It is written in Yoga philosophy that the "Guru" appears, when the pupil needs one. It also states, that the "Guru" is not necessarily a live teacher. In the rigours of the Stalinist tyranny even an innocent book like Yoga was regarded as anathema, the work of the "Imperialist" enemies of the Socialist Peoples Republic. The book was proscribed, black-listed. Books on this subject were not available in bookstores or libraries. It instantly appealed to me and I began learning and practising the various asanas (postures), breathing techniques, and simple meditative exercises. They served me well, through the Stalin years.
After the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, when we became refugees and started a new life in England, in the absence of adequate time, space and facilities, I reluctantly shelved the Yoga exercises. Soon the stresses and pressure of life started to have an adverse effect on me and in the early sixties, after a particularly stressful episode in our lives, I realised that I must find some time and facility to resume the practice again. I continued practicing with the exercises and regular meditation, until in the 1990s various family health problems, effecting my daughter, my mother and my wife at various times, caused such a pressure and demands on my time that it became progressively more and more difficult and in latter years impossible to find time for the practice. Reluctantly I gave up. The beneficial effects of the long years of practice, gave me the necessary level of energy to cope with the demands and stresses of the later years, without faltering, but when Erika passed away, all the reserve energy drained away…
I realised, once more that I must start yet again. A couple of months back I finally started again with some basic Yoga exercises. It is an uphill struggle, it is almost like starting from the beginning and whilst the breathing exercises and postures are like foundation stones to meditation, they do not per se alone clear the mind from clutter. They helped establishing some form of routine, but they did not stop that sense of "drifting" and the lack of concentration. Therefore a few weeks back I decided I must really restart proper meditation.
When I finally restarted the regular routine of meditation, I decided to start with concentrating on some objects first. (This is standard practice when you start to learn meditation.)
What better objects to concentrate on than some traditional Chinese crafted "Graniphyric Jade Exercise Balls" that were given to me as a present by a Chinese friend of mine, some thirty years earlier and which was kept in a display cabinet for the last ten years at least.
These beautifully crafted jade balls are intended for exercises, by manipulating the two balls in a circular motion in one hand. They've not been used for some time, they were in their box, with lid closed, in our display cabinet and I never really scrutinised the intrinsic patterns in the stones before. They were irrelevant to the manual manipulation of the balls. They were irrelevant too for the practice of concentration on an object. I wasn't searching for a "meaning" in the intrinsic pattern.
Imagine my surprise when I first opened the box recently and looked at the balls.
Now, before you read any further, please take a good look at the digital photo above and look at the light vein patterns in the dark stone... Can you perceive a "letter of the alphabet" in each of them?... and if so what do the letters suggest to you?
Can you see the letter "P" and "E" ? If you cannot, look again; look with half closed eyes and observe the patterns the way you would search the clouds to see some recognisable figures, or faces in them, like the "man in the moon" image… Can you see the letters now?…
What do you think? Isn't it amazing that when I most needed concentration to clear my mind to prepare for meditation I am faced with our initials in two stone balls? And isn't it amazing that they were on top, instantly visible? If you turn the balls even slightly the patterns are just a meaningless patterns. Coincidence, or what?…
Over the years I learned to question "coincidences".
When I first set my eyes on Erika - in the ten minute interval of a lecture - my first reaction was: "She is not my cup of tea!" And I said it out aloud to my two colleagues who pointed her out to me. She was a new member in our group, admitted to the faculty ten days later than the rest of us. She - like myself - was a "reject", a "class alien" in the eyes of our Stalinist masters who decided who was fit or unfit to be a medical student. Both of us were manipulated, pushed into the newly formed Dental Faculty, having been rejected to enter the Medical Faculty.
Later that day I was introduced to her formally by our group leader (a political appointee) and we were told that the two of us will have to study together from that day onward. The faculty "advised" all students to study either in pairs or in small groups at home. You had to be very brave or very foolish to ignore or contradict faculty "advice". She was chosen as my partner on purely the logistics of geographic location. She lived only two blocks away in the same street, from where I lived. Coincidence?
Neither of us was thrilled initially by the prospect of having to study together. She was a straight "A" student at school, whilst I was just a lazy "average". At age 18, she was a serious, mature young lady (although the word equivalent of lady in Hungarian could never be mentioned in "Communist Hungary") and I was "just an immature, uncouth, hobbledehoy"… "a dumb wit" as she called me just a few days after we first met, whilst casually blowing cigarette smoke into my face.
I thought she was too prim and proper to be my study partner and felt that she looked more serious than a case of acute appendicitis… When she called me a dumb wit I did not fail to mention how I felt about her either… she did not laugh… she remained as serious as acute appendicitis… or even more so… Case proved I thought… The fact that she was seriously dating a more mature medical student, reassured me that I had "nothing to fear". Our study partnership would never turn into a romance. I felt safe, even though I was not happy about our partnership at that stage.
However, things slowly began to change. As she was virtually my neighbour, living no more than a hundred metres from where I lived, we started to walk together to University and back to home. We sat side by side at lectures at the University, studied together the whole afternoon and into the late evenings every day, either at her parents place or at mine. For the first time in my life I worked hard and with enthusiasm. Grudgingly she had to admit eventually that I wasn't quite as dumb witted as she first assessed me to be, and I had to admit that she wasn't anywhere near as "formidable" as I first feared. Behind that serious exterior, she was just a nice, pleasant and very vulnerable young lady… and when I say lady, that's exactly what I mean…
She was straight, refined, intelligent, well educated, with impeccable manners and without the slightest hint of vulgarity… and to top it all, she was also beautiful… those big, dark, sad eyes were absolute killers…
Eventually I fell for her in a big way… head over heals as they say… and never dared to say so, after all she was dating a more mature person than I was…
I will not go into details here about what developed and how, this is not intended as a story of "romance" after all, suffice to say that by the end of the first year we were virtually inseparable and in July 1955, less than three years after we first met, we got married… and no, she was not pregnant as everyone whispered when we got married… she was a refined young lady after all and I tried my very best to act the role of a gentlemen… that was not the reason we married before completing our studies… and that too is a different story from what I am intending to relate here…
What I intend to show here, without trying to prove anything, that there were pointers, signs, "traces in the air", "meaningful coincidences", "serendipity" perhaps, behind the two of us finding each other. Here are just a few:
We were both born in the same year only thirty days apart, she being the younger one.
Her mother's maiden name was Klára Pollák. My mother's maiden name was also Klára Pollák.
Her mother's family and my mother's family had roots in the same little suburban town north of Budapest. There could have been some family connection considering the same family names.
We were both "the only child" to our parents, lonely kids, needing affection…
We were both born into secular Jewish families, at a time when being Jewish was the "greatest sin" imaginable.
In order to try to protect us both families converted to the Lutheran faith, just before the war. Why Lutheran, when the predominant religion in Hungary was Catholic and in an "epidemic" of conversion at that time amongst the Jews of Hungary, the majority who converted took to Catholicism.
I grew up in an industrial suburb North of Budapest, until my father's death when I was only six years old. By age seven I was living just about a hundred yards from where Erika lived. We both played frequently in the same park at the end of our street, by the Danube. We both knew most of the kids in our neighbourhood, who also played at the same park. Yet, we never met.
We both survived the Holocaust.
After the war I was sent to study at the Lutheran Boy's School (Evangėlikus Fiú Gymnázium), she was sent to study at the Lutheran Girl's School (Evangėlikus Leány Gimnázium) roughly the equivalent of the English Grammar School. The two schools were at different locations.
I knew many of her best friends, back from primary school days, some of who became her classmates at the Lutheran School. I visited the Lutheran Girls School on a number of occasions; entering the classroom where she studied, spoke to her best friends there… yet we never met, until that day at University.
From age six onward my only aim in life was to become a Medic. Erika's only aim was, from about age six, to become a Medic too. We both applied independently to the Budapest University. We were both rejected from entering Medical School after having taken the entry examination in a provincial town out of Budapest. I took the exam in the Northern town of Debrecen, Erika in the Southern town of Szeged. We were both referred back for admission in Budapest to enter the Dental Faculty… where we finally met…
As I mentioned earlier, our first names seemingly "dovetailed" too.
When we applied for the marriage licence, we were refused at first, on account of our respective mother's identical maiden names. They insisted to investigate that we were not siblings.
Counting the University years we've been together, almost all the time, for fifty-five years; for over fifty-two years as married partners. All through our lives together, we experienced a number of "coincidences", too many to mention… Our marriage and partnership was not an average one.
We continued to study and work together as partners in our own practice, for over 42 years, taking many postgraduate courses, attending conferences, sitting for and passing postgraduate examinations together and also owning and running jointly in partnership a printing business for seventeen years, whilst running our dental practice. As a "sideline" we also brought up two kids together and eventually became active grandparents to four grandsons.
Somehow we also managed, independently, to find time to pursue different and separate extracurricular activities and hobbies, whilst managing to stay close together. We also travelled the world together.
How?… I don't know… Friends and family told us we were like chalk and cheese… Yes, we argued a lot and often bitterly, we went through some bad patches too, none the less we married again on the 25th anniversary of our wedding (without ever divorcing or separating) and celebrated every anniversary together as well as every other official holidays, family birthdays and occasions… We also stood together in every crisis situation… and there were quite a few… She was a solid tower of strength by my side as well as the "motor" and the "rudder" making social arrangements, arranging holidays and entertainment and keeping the family together…
She passed away on the 15th of August 2007, exactly on the date of the fifth anniversary of my mother's death, almost to the hour, to the minute. Another coincidence?
Without the "motor" and the "rudder" no wonder I drifted aimlessly… my life turned upside down… I miss her terribly… I also thought that with her passing away, the "coincidences" would stop too.
For Christmas last year I had an invitation as a present from my son for a "wellbeing weekend" in a luxury spa hotel in the country. When I received the card I thought it was just for me. In fact, he arranged a family get together there. I noticed that the first day of the weekend was on my wife's birthday. When I asked him if he arranged it deliberately for that day, he confessed that that was the only weekend available and he never realised, at the time of arranging it, that it was his mother's birthday. Coincidence? Just another coincidence? It is beginning to be just one too many to be purely a coincident.
Regardless of your religion, belief system, your spirituality or the lack of it, your appreciation of modern science, or the lack of it, you have to admit at least that the Universe is indeed a very strange place... much stranger than it seems at first look… or even at a second one… It is full of hidden messages... if only one could decipher their meaning...
I personally no longer regard coincidences as just statistically explicable random events… the number and nature of "coincidences" in my lifetime are at complete odds with the "statistical probabilities"…
They are also not a matter of "faith", "beliefs", religion or even science… They may be just "traces in the air", inexplicable, odd, but there is something, with just a hint of promise, suggestion, or hope perhaps, just enough to suggest that they are "meaningful"… to me, at this stage in my life, they are nothing short of a miracle…
You don't have to believe one way or another... just think... ponder if you will… Those who have "Eyes" can "See"...
© P. J. Oszmann (April 2008)
© Illustration: Digital photo of the Chinese Jade Balls, un-retouched, reduced in Photoshop. (April 2008)