When we were in Minnesota last week visiting my husband’s family, we paid a couple of visits to Brennan’s stepfather, Ed, at his nursing home. Ed is the man who taught my husband about responsibility, who provided him with structure and support through his teenage years, who was there for Brennan in the difficult time after his own father passed away. Ed is also a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded just days before the war ended.
With my own parents still in their ‘50’s, it was more than a little difficult for me to get used to having a (step)father-in-law who is a member of the “greatest generation.” And I have to admit that, having seen him only once or twice a year for the past six years, I don’t know Ed very well. But I know that my husband loves and respects him. And I know that he has lived a long and interesting life, with his fair share of pain.
Some of it, of course, can be traced to his service in that awful war. Shortly before it ended, Ed found himself in Passau, Germany. In trying to rescue his sergeant, who had been shot, Ed was himself shot in the lung and the arm. He earned the bronze star for his actions. And he has lived with the repercussions of his injuries ever since.
Standing in Ed’s nursing home room during this year’s visit, I was reminded powerfully of an exchange I had with another World War II veteran, 13 years ago. Then, I was sitting on a train platform outside Munich – exhausted, overwhelmed, and anxious – having just arrived hours before – by myself – for a summer studying German at a language institute in Bavaria.
The elderly, frail gentleman was sitting on a bench by himself. I’m sure he could tell I felt lost, looking around for a perch for myself and my unwieldy luggage. He indicated that I should sit next to him. Once it became obvious that I was an American (and quite possibly this was obvious before I even opened my mouth), he started speaking to me in English. We made small talk; I told him about my plans to study German that summer.
After a few minutes chatting cordially, he paused and looked at me intently. He said “An American did this to me.” Turning slightly, he revealed to me the shoulder that I could not, until then, see. It looked like a large chunk of flesh had been carved away from it. His scrawny arm hung lamely at his side. “I saw the man who did it,” he said. “I saw his eyes.”
Lightening his tone somewhat, he continued: “I don’t blame him. We were at war. We were doing what we were told. If he hadn’t shot me, I would have shot him.” (Pause – deathly still pause.) “War is an awful, horrible thing. It is always horrible. Don’t you ever forget that.”
Then, stripping away the tension entirely, the old soldier smiled and told me, “I love America. My wife and I visit New York with friends every year.” Before we parted, he raised his eyebrows at me and said, “Now, as soon as you arrive at your institute, you call your mother. You call your mother. She’ll be worried about you.”
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience.
Whenever I see an elderly person, particularly one who looks weak or ill, I wonder what kind of a life they’ve lived. I wonder at the events and the change they must have seen in their lifetime. Whenever I see an old man wearing one of those hats that veterans wear – the kind that denotes the ship they served on – I envision the young, strong man he must have been. I don’t know what to say or do, except to show a little kindness and maybe a little love. I want to ask, but I don’t want to intrude. I want to thank, but I don’t want to sound trite. So mostly I just wonder. And I say a little prayer.
With Ed, I know something of his story. But I still don’t know what to say. So I show some kindness and some love. I give him a hug and a kiss. I encourage the boys to do the same for their “Baba Ed.” Every once in a while, I have the boys color him a picture and we stick it in the mail. And I pray.
I still think of that old German soldier – a veteran of the same war as Ed. The war that forever damaged his shoulder and Ed’s lung. They fought on different sides. Maybe they had different aims, but I think they were probably both just doing what was expected of them. Years later, I get a glimpse of their service in that faraway time, and I wonder. Quite a thing to think about, isn’t it?