He’s told me this story before. It’s the only story of his time serving overseas he has ever shared with me. Working in heavy machinery, he doesn’t have thrilling tales of firefights or diving into foxholes, no daring accounts of storming stoney beaches with surf thundering around his waist and bullets whistling overhead. And I am glad. I want a lifetime of safety for my grandfather.
The last time he told me this story I was a child. He laughed. We all laughed. He told the tale as a joke, a humourous memory of one late night in France. But now I am older, he is older. No longer a child, I am now a mother with children of my own. And my grandfather? He is now older than nearly everyone I have ever known, older than his neighbours, older than most of the people at his church and mine. He has lived longer than most people are able, a fact which fills me with pride. My gloriously old grandfather. My strong grandfather. Full of days.
But he tells me this story again, but without the laughter. This is no joke, no happy memory. His wrinkled face grey with remembered fear, his eyes looking back over an ocean, over years, over lifetimes of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as he recounts for me again that night. How he and two buddies had left where they were stationed to go to the local bar. How he and one of the buddies had to carry the other back to his bunk, he was so drunk. How there was a small bridge over a shallow creek between them and their destination.
How the air raid sirens blared as they were crossing the bridge. How they heard the roar of the engines of the Luftwaffe overhead.
How they both dropped the drunk buddy in the middle of the bridge and each dove off a side.
How he thought he was leaving his buddy to die, because he could not save him, and himself.
It was a nuisance raid. He wasn’t fired upon. They pulled themselves out of the creek bed, damp and muddy but uninjured, picked up their friend and continued back to their bunks. Just another night out in France during the war. And he laughed about it for years.
Until he couldn’t. Until the weight of knowing how close he came, of knowing how easily the story could have ended so very, very differently proved too great. And he does not laugh as he tells me the story now.
As a child, at school on Remembrance Day we sang songs written by flowerchildren – Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and One Tin Soldier, and How Many Roads – and we watched videos from WarAmps declaring “Never Again” and we stood solemnly. I tried to remember. I tried to muster up feelings of sadness for this annual national funeral. I tried to think somber thoughts and really remember, whatever that means to a child of 9 who has never seen a war, never lost family to conflict, never experienced violence. I fought to find tears of grief for a grief inconceivable to me. After all, my grandfather came back. I am here because he survived.
Now, I have watched footage of Canadians in Iraq and Kuwait, in Bosnia, in Somalia. I have watched us participate in the invasion of Afghanistan. And I have watched Remembrance Day change. It no longer feels like the national funeral it once did, a national day of mourning not only the dead but the sheer senselessness of war, the utter absurdity of rallying scores of people to die violent deaths and return that violence with violence. In our attempt to stand in solidarity with our servicemen and women we have lost the songs of flowerchildren, the knowledge as clear as the keening of birds that war is always terrible, always a sign of our human failing to live as humans should. We have come to the mistaken belief that it dishonours our current servicemen and women to decry the horrors of violence and war, that in order to stand in solidarity with them we must clasp and raise and shake our hands, crying out at the might of our nation. But we dishonour them when we dismiss what they have done and seen, things that can not be unseen, which cannot be forgotten. We dishonour them when we cry out that we must make more war. We dishonour them when we forget the lessons past generations spent so long teaching us.
I no longer fight to find the tears. They come easily and unbidden and I fight to hide them. As my grandfather fights to hide his tears as he tells me his story, his lasting memory, raw and unforgettable, while his great-grandchildren laugh and play on the other side of the room. Seventy years later, he has not forgotten. We must not either.