Every year Canadians go through the motions of Remembrance Day — wear the poppy, stand for two minutes of silence, and for some, attend ceremonies, reciting a rendition of In Flanders Fields in their heads.
More important than the ceremonies are the people they are about and the sacrifices they made for our freedom. I think we know this. But this past day of remembering got me wondering whether we spend enough time reflecting on the veterans who have touched our lives.
My grandfather is that person to me. But I’ve never felt generic Remembrance Day poems read in gymnasiums or death toll statistics printed in history books have ever done his sacrifice justice.
My grandfather, Harry Sherburn Hall, was a flying officer for the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was responsible for bombing bridges and railroads to isolate and eventually weaken Hitler’s army.
During the war he received five medals, but would not go into great detail about what they were for. For him, it was too painful to talk about. Rare as they were, the stories he told painted images of bodies being pulled out of the rubble and long hours spent in the cockpit, never knowing what flight could be his last.
My experience with my grandfather lives far away from the decorated war pilot he was. He always had a container of ice cream in hand when he came to visit and would spend hours running up and down the stairs playing “horsie” with me or my brother on his shoulders.
The fun came to an end in 2003, when he was diagnosed with frontal lobe dementia, a rare form of the brain degenerative disease. My grandfather’s brain cells were dying and there was no way to stop it. At this point he was already living with us, telling unusual stories and coming up with crazy theories about anything at all. I was 11 years old and found my grandpa’s new behaviour humorous and frightening at the same time.
His unusual behaviour included stacking pots and pans in the bathroom, folding the corners of the tablecloth and carrying a small stuffed animal with him around the house.
Dinner time was particularly challenging because he was always trying to get up and walk away before he finished eating.
Once, I found him lying on his back in the living room, after falling, with both feet in the air. He had been fit and thin his whole life from years of tennis, so I was able to rock him forward and get him back on his feet on my own.
It was on that afternoon I realized it was time for me to carry Grandpa on my shoulders.
When I came home from school at 3:30 p.m. each day, I would relieve the Red Cross worker and be responsible for him until my brother came home at 4.
It was within that half hour every afternoon that I learned more about compassion and patience than any other time in my life.
But his condition worsened and eventually simple tasks such as sitting down or swallowing became a challenge.
While dementia takes away a person’s ability to function in the simplest of ways, the disease is different from Alzheimer’s, in that even right before he lost his ability to speak, my grandfather never forgot who we were.
And when we brought our puppy Bracken home for the first time, only months before my grandfather passed away at the age of 82, his smile and quiet laugh at that wiggly ball of fur reminded me of the jovial person he always was.
My grandfather was among the many Canadians who defended and continue to defend our freedom, and even in his time of great weakness, he taught me about great strength.
As we look back on the remembering we did last Monday, it is important to consider whether we acknowledged in our minds not only the message of the day, but also the individuals close to us to whom the day belongs.
The imprints they leave on our lives have value far beyond a day marked on the calendar.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on November 13, 2013.