On my fourteenth birthday, I don’t remember any candles on a cake. In fact, there was no cake. Instead, I spent my fourteenth birthday mourning the loss of my grandfather, a WWII veteran.
In my toddler years, Grandpa would arrive at my house to take us out in his truck. I remember his wrinkled, tan hands on his steering wheel, his dark hair partially graying (Native Americans don’t seem to age like the rest of us), and a smile beaming on his face. I never remember him talking, though. My memories are far too clouded for that now.
In 1986, he had a car accident. After that, he deteriorated, and the remainder of my childhood I recalled him being in a nursing home. One stroke, two strokes, mute.
I never sought to understand him back then. We visited him nearly every week. His eyes bright and happy when we arrived, solumn and lost as we left. He was a strong man reduced to shell.
1995 he died at the age of 74. He was my favorite person, despite hardly knowing him. I knew him for fourteen years. My father knew him for 35, and he had lived 39 years before that. Who was the man who raised my father? How did he help to shape him into the man he became?
To figure it out, I looked back. Grandpa was born in 1921 in Grant OK, deep within the Great Depression, grew up during the Dust Bowl, and fought in World War II in the 119th Infantry. He received a Bronze Star for bravery and saving the life of another in his infantry. He met my grandmother after the war and married at the age of 26. Then in 1960, they adopted my father.
A lifetime had passed before that point, and a part of me knows there is meaning between each of these events. I would love to know his story better. Unfortunately, I will likely never know since almost all of that family is gone.
I’m missing history on both sides of my family. Both of my grandfathers, on my mom and dad’s side, were in the Armed Forces. That much I know, but that was so far removed from me.
My grandfather was WWII, my other grandfather was Korea, and other family members participated in Vietnam. Every generation before my own had a major war. During my lifetime, I have seen one true war – Desert Storm. One watched in the home around a TV screen with nighttime backdrops and shining lights that signified terrible things. I was 10, though, and their significance was lost on me. There’s also the whole “War on Terror” which isn’t a war but a military campaign (but is still just as horrible as the others).
For my generation, and those after mine, it’s easy to look at this and feel detached from it. That unless you are closest to it, war has no effect on you.
But I’m here to prove that it affects everyone. War. It’s evil, and no one is a winner. Let’s just look at how it affected just little ole me.
There are multiple accounts of how the stresses of war are linked to poor health and depression.
My paternal grandfather came back fit and healthy. He was never overweight, yet decades later was diagnosed with diabetes. Then he had a stroke causing Bell’s Palsy and had another stroke that rendered him mute. After years of fighting, he was carried home.
My maternal grandfather came back from serving with manic depression and possibly much more. He took medication to stop it, but one day he didn’t when he should have. He didn’t live past 44. He took my maternal grandmother with him.
My second cousin went to Vietnam. He returned with PTSD and was a tad crazy, laughing at the deaths of fallen comrades because it was the only way he knew how to deal with their loss. His health failed him, as well, though he had been overweight and did not look after himself. He died at 69.
Of these men, I knew my second cousin the best, but discussions of war were still taboo in the 80s. Buzz words like “survivor’s guilt” and “post-traumatic stress” were not used then. The culture was simply to “get over it.”
That culture is still so strong even now, and it’s truly one that needs to stop.
Those men fought for the freedoms we have. They meant something to people, and with their passing, the effect of their lives are not nullified. They are made even stronger.
I may never have known my paternal grandfather the way I would have liked, but I still loved him. He touched my life in a big way despite being there for such a short period of time, and he would have an unimaginative impact on my father, thus on his upbringing of his own children. My maternal grandfather and grandmother were never known to me, but they helped to shape the woman my mother became. The tragedy of losing both parents as a teen had a profound affect on how she raised all three of her kids. My cousin gave me perspective on a war I would never understand and encouraged me, even if he didn’t know it, to see the face of war rather than the words.
So I light a candle for each of them and all of those like them. Millions of candles for millions of souls. I may not have fought any great war, like these, but I hope my words honor them and their sacrifice.