Friday, 28 October 2011

I Remember - Je Me Souviens

In honour of Remembrance Day in a few weeks I want to share a story about my Grandpapa, a proud veteran of the second World War.

My Grandpapa was an incredible man. He was the life of any party and an incorrigible flirt. He was also well educated, fluently bilingual and well traveled. For us grandkids he had his own way of winning our hearts. We lived in the same city so he had time to etch out quiet traditions that were so small then but leave me with a deep sense of his unspoken love. Like most men of his generation he wasn't one for big emotional moments. My memories with him involve a very sweet nursery song that involved tickling, ringing the bell from one of his ships, Sunday trips to Swiss Chalet, and Cherry Blossom chocolates. For the record I hate the taste of cherries, but will never say no to a Cherry Blossom because that taste is a memory I refuse to shake. To me personally he gave a little silver anchor on a necklace that I still proudly wear it now.

I forget some times that my grandfather had a whole life before I came around. Sadly just as I was old enough to ask him about it dementia swept in and stole him from me. Excluding a few days of clarity over the drawn out years of his illness he didn't know me. In the early days of his dementia he mistook me for my mother, but near the end he often would confuse me for my Nonna who passed when I was 4 years old. I have no memory of what he sounded like when he spoke my name, though I vividly recall being called Gerine or Francine more than once. Even though he didn't know me I still joined my father visiting at the Veterans Hospital every few days. As the only living family member who lived nearby my Father visited him every day from the day he was admitted until the day he died. My Father was the most dutiful and caring son any parent could ask for, even or especially the days he was a stranger to his own Father.

As Grandpapa's memory regressed further back he finally reached a point that he was left terrorized by events of his days in the Navy from World War II. My Father informed me a few years ago that he used to field my Grandpapa's anguished calls in the middle of the night as he was clearly re-living a memory more persistent than his dementia. He would call my Father begging him to call the coast guard, firmly believing he was in a sinking ship and that his fellow sailors were drowning. He would say between uncharacteristic tears that he could hear the voices of dying men calling for help. Why would no one save them?

The details of this terrifying moment were all found in one particular story. In his early days as a sailor one of the ships he served on was torpedoed (this was actually one of two times his ship was sunk). Somehow, by chance or miracle, he landed on some floating debris. His body was utterly broken and he could not move let alone swim. As he lay there awaiting death, capture, or rescue, many if the men around him drowned. In particular an older man, the ship's cook, who had taken a liking to him and always gave my Grandpapa an extra apple on board, cried out for him by name, begging to be saved. Gradually his voice got quieter until it fell completely silent. My Grandpapa was fortunate enough to be rescued and even returned to service.

This tragic event haunted my Grandpapa. When all else was lost he remembered and relived it, drowning in his guilt and helplessness. My charming, confidant, flirtatious, cherry blossom loving Grandpapa carried that memory to his grave. It seems so unfair that he should lose so much of his memory but remain the prisoner to this moment of intense guilt. He sometimes would weep when he saw an apple, the unexpected reminder of the man he couldn't save.  He was one of many who returned home from the war physically whole but emotionally broken. A little piece of him died out on the water that night as he heard his friend's life fade along with his desperate cries for help. The rest of us gained peace, but those who returned home were left at war with their memories. Their joy to see their families was paired with unfathomable darkness from all the death they had witnessed and somehow managed to survive.

So this coming Rememberance Day I will proudly wear my poppy and participate in the ceremonies however I can. Our veterans will never forget what was lost, and neither should we.

For You, Grandpapa, I Remember. Pour Toi, Grandpapa, Je Me Souviens.

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