In light of recent events, and as Remembrance Day approaches, I thought to write a new post, but find that this post from 4 years ago still resonates for me. I hope that it can find a place in your thoughts as well:
“In remembrance of those who serve, this post is more personal than some, a reflection on two brave men who served in our country’s armed forces: my grandfather who was in the trenches of World War I, and my father who was a fighter pilot in World War II. Both volunteered for reasons of their own, which, like many reasons for actions we take in our lives, were undoubtedly complex. I choose though to focus on the one reason I do understand: they believed. Believed in a better world, in doing the right thing whatever that may have seemed at the time, in participating in something bigger than themselves, in honour and responsibility, and in their own capacity to survive (as young men often do) the risks of war. Both came back injured, carried scars and pain which never fully receded.
In honour of them, I want to remember the lessons they taught me. That’s hard in the case of my grandfather, as I barely knew him. A quiet man who died when I was eight, eclipsed by the far more vocal presence of my grandmother, he did show me how to quietly love, usually without a lot of words, but always with his presence, a scratchy whiskery chin to rub against my cheek. What I didn’t know then was that he persevered in constant pain from shrapnel embedded in his leg, working every day until turning the farm over to my uncle. So my lesson from him is to be present in the lives of your family and community, participate in your role to the best of your ability, and accept that your private pain, whatever it may be, is simply a part, not the determinant of your life.
My father was gravely wounded, burned when his fighter plane was shot down, pulled from the flames by another brave man, an Italian farmer. He didn’t speak of his experiences, but we know from letters to my grandparents which my mother shared after his death in 1992, that he was, at first, a typical young man of the time. He wrote of his excitement learning flying maneuvers, until the letters changed and he wrote only of small matters, inquiring and commenting on family, the farm and people from home. After his injuries, he wrote, through the pen of a priest, because he didn’t have the use of his hands, as though all was fine, which it was not.
A year and a half in hospital in East Grinstead, England, many surgeries, then another year in and out of hospital in Toronto, gave him a new face, and salvaged the skin of his hands and legs. More importantly, it gave him the experiences that made him the man I knew. There he became a member of a club no-one wanted to join, the Guinea Pig Club, where not only bodies and faces were recreated by experimental, daring and desperate advances in reconstructive surgery, but lives were reclaimed. The surgeons, Sir Archibald MacIndoe and Dr. Ross Tilley (read and see documentaries about them and the club for a fascinating piece of living history) believed that these scarred, misshapen and hurting men, needed not only their bodies restored, but their rightful place in the community.
Their surgeons sent them out into the village, some wheeled, some under their own steam, frightening of appearance, with partial grafts and odd appendages (pedicle grafts growing skin from one part of the body to another), to face the world. An experiment to be sure, as the villagers of East Grinstead could have rejected and run screaming from the strange sights. But it worked …….they were welcomed, poured beer (quite a bit I think) and fed, became beloved sons of the village, welcomed back year after year, to reunions, which continued until very recently, as the club has wound down, most members having died in the intervening years.
As a child, I didn’t know my father was scarred…….he was just my Dad, but I remember visits from his fellow Guinea Pig Club members, some of them with more graphic facial scars, odd versions of hands which were functional but twisted. As an adult, I met many more of them, priveleged to attend a reunion in East Grinstead with my parents,before my father’s death. It was there, I believe, that I truly understood the lesson of this story.
Recovery of the spirit is as important as recovery of the wounds. Understanding of the contributions a community makes to rebuilding a life is as meaningful as understanding of the contributions the wounded and persevering make to the community. The small acceptances and kindnesses mean as much as the big gestures. Looking beyond appearance allows you to see so much that is brave, proud and redeeming. Everyone has a story worth telling and worth hearing.
As you read this and in the days to come, I hope that you will look for those stories, some older, as my father’s and my grandfather’s. Some newer, the stories of the men and women who serve today. Many are the stories of those who were and are served………all of us in this great country. They serve and did serve. We don’t have to understand all of the reasons, but we can all believe that we can be a part of building a better world.