There is not a time in my life that Remembrance Day wasn’t significant. It was always so strange for me to see my Grandpa standing up there in line with the other veterans, with the colourful badges and purple heart. He wasn’t the goofy Grandpa I knew and loved, he was something else, something bigger and deeper than I could grasp. It wasn’t until later in life that I started to understand why this day meant so much to him. It wasn’t the pride in it and it wasn’t the glory; it was that he grieved for his friends and for an innocence lost too young.
He was 17-years-old; only two years older than my son. He had always been a bit of a black sheep and struggled with school. He was dyslexic and never excelled like his siblings. At 17-years-old enlisting seemed like the perfect solution to everything. Grandpa was always a bit of an adventurer and he couldn’t wait to spread his wings. He had to get his parents’ signature and once he did he was enlisted into the US Navy. He wasn’t even growing facial hair yet as a letter home indicates. He asked his mom if she could send him a razor as it was part of the required supplies in the navy. He hadn’t thought to bring one because he had nothing to shave yet.
Looking back on those pictures of Grandpa in the navy is always so intriguing. He looks so carefree and handsome. There are pictures of him in his navy uniform, in all kinds of exotic locations, surely half cut, and with a big grin on his face. I think it was probably fun at first. I think he loved the adventure of it. But watching him in his last few months of life was the biggest indication to me that it was anything but glorious and that, in the end, it haunted him for the rest of his life.
There are probably dozens of stories I could tell, and I might get some of the details right. But the specific stories don’t really matter now. Watching his buddy die in his arms and promising to visit the boy’s parents, being on a sinking ship twice, spending a night bleeding and huddled next to a cannon to stay warm and alive; all these stories are haunting, heartbreaking and almost impossible to imagine a teenager experiencing, but what stands out to me the most is how he held the memories over all the years, as if he might fall to pieces if he let them go.
In the end, he did fall to pieces. I remember going to see him in the hospital and although he couldn’t remember my name he kept looking at me vaguely and asking, “How are you honey?” Then in between his partial recognition he would look into the distance and say, “they sunk our own ship, they sunk our own ship.” Some of the stories changed at the end, some of them didn’t hold together logically, but what he held onto was the heart of the memory. He held onto the pieces that he couldn’t resolve in his heart; he held them for the friends he had lost and the injustice of it all.
Now these memories sit with me in a different way. Each year as Remembrance Day rolls around I find myself contemplating the weight Grandpa carried for years and wondering how I’m meant to hold those memories now that Grandpa is gone. I can’t hold them in the same way Grandpa did – I wasn’t there – but I can’t forget them either. They sit with me as fragments of a larger whole, as heartbreaking pieces of the longing that humanity as a whole is experiencing. They remind me that I am a small player in a much bigger picture than I can imagine. And then I understand that remembering is the thing that puts wind under our wings and allows us to become more than we were yesterday, last year or the last century. It reminds me that I am only here now because Grandpa was there then, and he loved me – and everyone else in his family – enough to stick around no matter how much it hurt him to bear it. This realization helps me honour what he went through and to know that I might pass the same kind of thing along to those that come after me. It is a rare moment that I feel this kind of clarity and peace around what Grandpa went through but when I do I know I am in the right place, I know that he is there beside me smiling and saying: “how are you honey?” And then I know that I am practicing the art of remembering.