We Won’t Forget You!

Photo by Chris Sansbury on Unsplash

Remembrance day has come and gone. For a moment, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we stop what we’re doing for a moment of silence. We honour the men and women who’ve sacrificed so much for the freedoms, rights, privileges that we take for granted. We thank them for their service and thank their families for theirs, as well.

It’s a minute of silence, and it is, quite literally, the least we can do for these brave, honourable, and selfless souls. 

I’m in awe of you! You put on that uniform, leave your loved ones, and head off to fight wars in distant lands. It’s something I can’t imagine doing, but you did it, you are still doing it! Without you, the world would be a lot darker and scarier. You give your all for people you’ve never met. You sacrifice everything for us and do it without asking for anything in return.

How do we thank you for that?

On my small patch on the globe, the Remembrance Day service was streamed live into our homes. Thanks to the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, we were able to safely observe a moment of silence, hear the lone trumpet, and watch the fly-by courtesy of the Fraser Fliers. We paid our respects and expressed our gratitude as they placed the wreaths on the memorial. It’s always a moving ceremony, but what chokes me up is the reading of names.

It’s so easy to just see the uniforms, get caught up in the politics of war, and forget the person behind the flag. They become faceless soldiers in the history of conflict and one small part of a much larger story. When that story is told, the names we hear are the presidents, prime ministers, generals and warlords. We learn about battlefields and battle strategies. We learn the names of the weapons, but we rarely hear the names of the soldiers whose lives were lost or changed forever.

On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, we hear those names read out loud. We’re reminded of the human price paid for the choices made by leaders and their marionettes. The soldiers whose boots walked those battles fields armed with those weapons. We say their names so that we don’t forget their blood was spilled, and their families were left behind.

Hearing those names leaves me breathless because, in part, there are so many people who never came home. So many families left in tears. So much heartbreak.

A few years ago, I was in Edinburgh, and the first time you visit this city, the castle is an obligatory stop. It might even be an entry requirement under a visitor’s visa, but don’t quote me on that. Inside the castle is the Scottish National War Memorial. It’s a long, transversed hall with barrel-vaulted ceilings. The decorations are simple but classic. It’s elegant but poignant because under the soft light streaming through large windows lay the names of fallen heroes.

The walls are lined with books, and their pages are filled with the names of people who’ve given their lives for their country. From 1914 up until now, these names are written in line after line. These are the names of soldiers from a single country, but still, there are so many. It’s jarring and shocking. The volumes of the dead never seem to end. People, names, dates. Hopes, dreams, families who loved them and needed them home. 

So many names. So many people. All had stories similar to yours and mine.

A mother cried as her baby was laid on her chest. A father taught them how to ride a bike. They grew older, went to school, and worried about the test they had on Monday. They met someone who made their stomach flutter and their palms sweaty. They had their first kiss and their first love. They wondered what they would be when they grew up. They wondered what it would be like to grow old like their grandparents. They answered the call when their country needed protection. Their names were written down in a book that was laid to rest inside a memorial.

One country. One hall filled with the names of the dead. One memorial and there more like it all over the world. Yet, we give them one day out of the year to remember and say thank you?

When I was 10, 11 years old, we visited my paternal grandparents in South Africa for, what would be, the last time. My brother and I were sitting at the dining room table, doing our homework. I was drawing a picture of Table Mountain, nibbling on Romney Cream cookies, and sipping on a Fanta grape. Classic homework snacks.

My grandfather sat down next to us and started to tell us a story. He was nervous, and he kept fiddling with my pencil crayons. His voice shook, which it never did, but he pushed on by sheer force of will. He struggled to find words, and when they came, they sounded forced, strained.

I remember the way he looked, fidgeted, and how his voice trembled. I remember adding green to my picture. I remember the cookie and the fizzy drink. 

I don’t remember the story he was trying to tell us. It was his story of service during the Second World War. He was giving us a gift! Sharing an experience that was still traumatic and painful, decades later. But I don’t remember the words he shared, and I’ve asked my family to fill in the gaps.

He’d served in Egypt and France. A radio officer, I believe, and I can tell you he must have been incredibly brave. That assumption isn’t a granddaughter idolizing a hero. He had a drawer full of medals that outlined his service and his courage. He’d seen things that I will never have to see. He experienced horrors that will never come close to my doorstep. He fought battles that, thanks to him and others, I’ll never have to fight.

He tried to tell me his story, but I was too young to listen.

If I have one regret in my life, it’s that day, sitting at the dining room table. I wish I’d put down the crayons, offered him a cookie, and listened to his story. I wish I’d said thank you for telling me your story. Thank you for everything you did for us. The pain you endured and the fear you experienced. The loss you witnessed. The sacrifices you made. Most of all, thank you for coming home to my grandmother and having my father and aunt. 

Thank you for everything you did so that I could sit at a table, draw a silly picture, and eat homework snacks.

I never got that chance to thank him for his service. By the time I understood what he’d done, it was too late. We were living in another country, and he’d passed away. It was too late, and that brings me to another moment that I won’t forget. It’s the moment I realized what he was trying to tell me. 

It was a few years later, and I’d just learnt about WW2 in school. I ran home, and the second I saw my dad, I asked him if that’s what Papa was talking about. It was a moment of realization that hit me in the stomach, and I lost my breath. My grandfather had walked on those battlefields, and he’d fought the Axis of Evil. He’d been there, the moment history was written, and he helped write that history.

And I didn’t say thank you.

That’s the day I became a history buff and drank in every bit of information on the second world war. I wanted to know what he’d gone through. If I knew, then maybe the knowledge, the memory of what happened, would honour his sacrifice in some way. If I couldn’t thank him and others like him, then I could learn and remember. 

Lest we forget!

I know for some, for many, that’s something we say on Remembrance day. It’s right up there with Merry Christmas or Happy New Year. It rolls off our tongues like every other platitude. But for those of us with loved ones who served, it’s a promise that we won’t forget what you’ve done for us. We won’t forget that you were a person with dreams, hopes, and loves. We won’t stop saying your names. 

We won’t forget you!

To all who have served and are serving: Thank you.

To everyone who has sacrificed life, limb, and mental health for our safety, security, and freedoms: Thank you.

To every name written down on a monument and every family who has said goodbye: Thank you for your sacrifice.

To my grandfather, Oswald Raymond Griffiths: I’m sorry my young ears didn’t listen but, I am eternally grateful for everything you’ve done. You saved the world from a tyrant, and you freed innocent people from death camps. You went home and had a family. I exist because of you. My family is alive, safe, and happy because of you.

These words will never be enough to encompass the full extent of my gratitude to every person who has, who continue to sacrifice their lives for ours. Thank you for your service, and God bless you all.

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