Friday, November 11, 2011

In their sacrifice, I am free.

My father seldom spoke about 'the war' except to share some arcane fact or information. Like, how to create a glass out of an empty bottle, or how to use sand to brush your teeth.

And while I was fascinated to learn that a string dipped in gasoline, tied around the neck of a bottle will cause the neck to break off cleanly when the string is lit, I always wanted more.  I wanted to see the path where the fire burned. I wanted to see his wounds. To feel his heart beat. To know his soul.

It was a lifelong struggle between my father and me. I wanted to see his wounds. He wanted to hide them. Not the physical wounds of battle.  He didn't carry any physical signs of his years in 'the war'. But inside, inside there was some deep, dark place where I believed, in my arrogant youth, that if he just let me touch it, I could heal his heart, stem the flow of anger that would sometimes erupt with the velocity of Vesuvius venting steam and in my healing hands, peace would be created in the world.

My father was an airman during the war. Lied about his age so he could sign up. Ran away from Canada to Britain, the land of his birth, to join the RAF. He served in North Africa. Became a cook. Was a sergeant when the war ended. And from there, the trail grows cold.

My father was a man of far ranging interests. A voracious reader, he wrote beautiful poetic verse and love poems to my mother. I found them once, those poems he'd written to my mother. I found them and I read them and I remember feeling confused. Who was this man of such sweet words who in real life scared me with his anger?

The image I had of my father in my mind was far different than the one I found upon the page. In real life my father was an enigma. On the page, he was vibrant and loving and so romantic. I imagined him lying under the dome of a khaki tent, sand filtering through the cracks, the desert wind blowing through his thick black hair. He lay on his cot, the stars a glittering blanket above him as he wrote words of love to my mother. In other images I pictured him lying on his bunk in a hut heated by an oil stove that clanged throughout the night. In that story he was somewhere just south of the North Pole, a place where he spent a great deal of time when I was a little girl. I used to wonder if he ever saw Santa, but my father would never tell. My father kept secrets.

I wasn't as good at secret keeping. When I found the cloth covered heart shaped box that had once held chocolates filled with love letters and poems, I couldn't believe the treasure I had uncovered. I couldn't keep the secret of my find and told my sister, I even recall taking those letters to school to share as part of a writing exercise in class. I also remember getting in trouble for spying, for prying, for sharing. 

I hadn't meant to pry or spy. I just wanted to know my father. I wanted to believe he wasn't scary or angry or silent. And those letters proved it. And I wanted the world to know how amazing my father really was. And so, I shared what little I had found of him to prove he wasn't the dark, brooding man he portrayed to the world.

Along with his words, my father was also a photographer. During the war he took photos constantly, but they were lost, he told me once, when the boat they were on was torpedoed and sunk. He was supposed to have been on that ship, he said, but fate stepped in and postponed his deployment because he was needed still in North Africa. His best friend was there though. They'd said good-bye somewhere in the desert and his friend had ridden off on a truck, never to be seen again.

And that was the end of the story.

That was the thing about my father. He would share little bits and pieces and then fall into silence. I didn't like the silent bits of the story. I wanted the words and so I poked and prodded and asked for more and then my father would erupt and I would scurry to my room, frightened of the beast I had awoken with my constant need to know the ending of the story.

There is no end to war, my father would say, and I would sigh sadly wishing I could show him somehow that there was. But I could never break through the silence that enshrouded his heart, no matter how hard I tried and how many questions I asked.

It was in my father's silence that I learned the most. His silence taught me not to be afraid to ask, to seek, to want to know, to search for answers. In his silence, I discovered the place where truth lives. In his silence I learned there are no answers 'out there' that will ever feed my constant yearning for more within. To soothe my yearning to know my father, I must slip between the words, open up the silence between the gaps and listen. Deeply. There are many gifts in the silence. Truth. Beauty. Honesty. And always, the story that never ends. The story of Love.

I am grateful to my father. This man of mercurial moods and deep intellect and a sometimes whimsical nature. A man who when he saw a beautiful sunrise would wake us up to see it too. A man who loved music and books and food and walking. A man who cooked to express his love, who took me on walks along the Rhine and through the hills and dales of the Black Forest just because he wanted to share his joy in the beauty all around. A man who always believed there was more for me in the world than I could ever imagine.

He was right. There is more in this world for me to experience and live and know and cherish than I can ever imagine.

My father fought his entire life for me to know that and I am grateful. .

My father has passed away and in his passing I am grateful for his undying belief in my right to live my life in freedom. I am grateful for the sacrifices of those who fought and never returned. For those who fought and came home wounded, their bodies shattered. And, I am grateful for those who returned with wounds no one could see and who still fought every day to be free. Like my father, their wounds were carried with them to their graves. And still, in the silence of this Remembrance Day, I see the truth in the sacrifices they made as they fought their way through life.

We come into this world through an act of love. We leave it with the only thing we can carry.  And in our passing from this world we leave behind the one thing that never dies, the one thing that can never be perverted. Love.

It is Remembrance Day. I am grateful for the men and women whose sacrifices make it possible for all of us to live freely in Love.


Maureen said...

I think of the many thousands of men of our father's generation that lived somewhere in the silence, breaking it only on occasion to let us in. For my eldest brother's generation, which fought in Vietnam, as my brother did, silence met them when they came home. Is it any wonder that you and I are writers?

Lovely remembrance, Louise.

Anonymous said...

This tribute to Dad and all of the veterans was beautifully written Louise. I had to wipe away my tears before I could start typing. Not only was Dad in North Africa, he also had a "Burma Star" medal, yet never once did he mention that he was there. He must have seen and lived through such horror. Just yesterday, I admonished myself for never asking Dad where he was on D-Day and VE Day. Why didn't I ask more questions? I suspect that my questions might not have been answered though as WW 2 was never spoken of other than small anecdotes to satisfy our inquisitive minds. We were blessed that he came home when so many others didn't. Whenever Jim & I are in France,visiting the family, we always make a point of visiting Canadian War Cemeteries. I am forever gratful to our government for taking such good care of our Fallen Military. Thank-you sister dear for your eloquent tribute. Love, Jackie

Louise Gallagher said...

Thank you. I had never thought of the men returning from Viet Nam to silence -- how telling, how heart-breakingly true.

and yes, it is no wonder!

Thank you for your light.

Louise Gallagher said...

hello lovely sister. I actually believe Dad was in Burma when he met mom in India -- not Africa as he said. It just never made sense that he'd travel all the way from Africa on leave. how did he get there? Didn't make sense they'd let him take up a vital space on a ship to travel from Africa to India...

And so, the mystery lives on -- but still the truth remains.

We are born to love.

Love you (your response made me cry too)

Nancy MacMillan said...

Louise - Such a beautiful tribute to your father on this day to remember. As Maureen replied, this is why we are writers. The Vietnam war is the only reason I became a writer. Having found the love of my life, we were married and lived with the demons of PTSD for 15 years before he finally took his own life. I've written our love story and hope to help others heal the pain they too are living with in silence. After querying for a year,I am now self-publishing and shooting for a July 4th book release date. If I don't make it, it will be released Veterans Day 2012.

Louise, thank you for making others aware of this Silent Pain that millions live with . . . it never goes away.

Nancy MacMillan @

Louise Gallagher said...

Nancy, thank you for commenting and thank you for writing your story and for continuing to push it out into the world.

I suffered from PTSD after I was released from the hell of that abusive relationship.

I realized, after thinking about what maureen and my sister and you wrote -- that perhaps their greater sacrifice was through their silence. They could not burden those they love with what they had experienced and so, kept it out of the world.

It was a sacrifice for those they love -- and that is the tragedy of what happened.

Hugs to you Nancy. I'll be over to visit.

S. Etole said...

This reminds me of my uncle who never spoke of his time in WWII. What a burden they must have carried.

Thank you for the beauty of this tribute.

Elizabeth Young said...

I grew up in the North of England in the sixties, and even though our small Parish lost hundreds of local lads, the war was never mentioned. On Remembrance Sunday I remember all the names being read out in Church and people wearing poppies, but other than that there was nothing. We didn't even learn about the history of World War 1 or 2. It was so refreshing when I came to Canada and things were more open; Remembrance Day involved school children as well as veterans and the service in Ottawa on Nov. 11th is televised. I don't believe a 'stiff upper lip' helps anybody, but such was the custom still in the sixties in England. I hope things are more open now.

Ruth said...

This is the best tribute, Louise. It is beautifully written, as always. And I love that you honor your dad in his individuality, surrounded by the questioning of your lifetime. You look past his anger, and how that wounded you, and you see inside him, even his silences. To find beauty in the very source of your pain is a true act of love, and I admire it, and you, more than I can say.

Jennifer Richardson said...

what a beautiful benediction
to the whole messy business
of loving our parents
and drawing life from the love
they were able to invest.
You are a sterling legacy
....your father is smiling
I'm sure.
And those wounds,
the scars inside his soul,
I imagine the relief still staggers
him now
that he is free of them.

Thats how I like to think about it.
I send you love
and share your gratitude
for your father's sacrafice
and life.
You have that in you, you know're a warrior making a difference.
I honor you as well:)