As we were traversing the nightmare that was my 50-51st year, we had many opportunities for introspection and thought. There were times when we were angry. Times when we were fearful. Times of doubt. And even, times of joy.
I would be less than truthful if I said that we were not forced to re-examine ourselves, our lives, our values,and our faith. That is not, however, where it stopped. I had always been comfortable with my faith, what was more interesting was that I not as certain how I fit in my family and world.
I have a history of absence from my family. My work, has for the last 15 years, involved a significant amount of travel. I assumed that this made me different from most husbands and fathers. I even thought that my absences might, in some perverse manner, have contributed to my family’s problems; the vengeful God fear. Ultimately, I arrived at a different rationalization. This rationalization is a product of considerable introspection; an introspection grounded in an effort to better understand my predecessors and may relationship to them.
Simply stated, I believe we are all absent. It is inevitable that we are either physically or mentally (or occasionally both) absent from our families, ourselves, and our spouses. What we can not be absent from is who we are, our potentialities, and the legacy of our very existence.
This notion became evident to me one day as I looked at a picture, actually a postcard, of my mother’s father. I know this sounds peculiar; it actually seems peculiar to me as I write this. It is nonetheless true. Let me try to relate the situation, images, and thoughts more completely.
The postcard, I mentioned, is of five men; one of them is my grandfather. He was about 37 years old when the photo was taken. In the photo, he is surrounded by four of his compatriots. The postcard is very worn and tattered. The image, although difficult to see, seems to have been taken on a spring day, bright with sun. There are broken trees in the background. Each of the men are in uniform; the uniforms of WWI German artillerymen. This photo was taken in April or May of 1916 near Verdun France . My grandfather spent 4 years in the killing fields of World War 1. He was one of the lucky ones, he survived Verdun, however, that did not come easy.Once, he was the sole survivor of his company; a second time he survived along with one of his company man. I never saw the emotional scars he must have carried away from his years of war, but I was always aware of his hunched back, a result of having his back broken by an artillery caisson. He survived that incident by crawling on his elbows back to his side of the battle lines, after having been left for dead by the enemy that over ran his position. (Select this link for a German Video on Verdun 1916) For all the horrors and pain he saw, he was awarded an Iron Cross Second Class and the Hindenburg Cross of Honor.
What does this all of this have to do with my problems, you might ask.
Well, my grandfather is the single most important role model in my life. He was a good, strong man. He lived a long life; he died in his 96th year. He left this world a lasting, albeit temporary, legacy, me.
Looking at this photo I was forced to ask myself, was this photo so different from me? From the circumstances I was facing? That’s when the thought occurred to me. We may not be able to control the circumstances around us, we may not be in control of fate, but we can control or choose how we react to our circumstances and challenges.
As I look at this postcard, I see a man who earned my undying respect and love. Here he was fighting a war, which was to later be lost; a war from which he would forever be scarred, physically. Those in the photo with him were, in all likelihood, killed in the many battles that followed. He was forced by his circumstances, and his service, to fire artillery shells at “the enemy” with the sole purpose of destroying their towns, villages, and country. How can this be?
As with many aspects of life, things become clearer in the fullness of time. The man I knew, was a product of the time and circumstances seen in the photo, but he was not the man in the photo itself. He had transcended that time and place, perhaps even grown because of it. The man I knew was kind, gentle, loving, quiet, and strong. He had chosen not to be victimized by his earlier circumstances. He had wrestled his demons and won.
I could too.