What We Can Learn From The Greatest Generation: A Veterans Day Tribute

My grandfather stayed in his living room’s Lazy Boy beside my grandmother asleep in a hospice bed where her twin recliner once stood until she took her final breaths. They shared the space for 65 years and would not have had it any other way.

A few hours before my grandmother died, I talked with my grandfather for what felt like the first time.

With poor hearing and often fiery spirit, I spent most of my 40 plus years watching Pop share his World War II experience and debate about the political climate of the day from a distance.

Yes, we connected over old movies, late night cheese and crackers, Sunday afternoon football and his enthusiasm for teaching me about gadgets, opera and gymnastics but I did most of the listening. Any of my ideas were voiced through my grandmother. She didn’t require me to repeat or clarify, knew how best to communicate with her husband and preferred to be in charge.

The arrangement seemed to work best for everyone.

Sadly my grandmother was now unconscious; breathing aided by machine, pain numbed by morphine. And although I was convinced she could hear us, it was clear my buffer was gone.

There Pop sat. Face heavy: heartbroken, devastated and confused. “The world is different today. There is no goodness left,” he said.

I held his hand. “No. That’s not true. There will always be violence, war, corrupt governments and terrible decisions but most people are decent and good.” I pointed to my resting grandmother. “Like her.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

The family, who had gone outside for air, made their way back into the apartment. Late into the evening as I said my goodbyes Pop looked up from his chair. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“No, really. Thank you. Stay how you are. She would have wanted it that way.”

The moment redefined our relationship. It also revealed the essence of my grandfather.

Some time has passed since my grandmother’s death. I relied on her to shape my experience with my grandfather and assumed Pop leaned on her in the same way. Alone, I was sure his flame would extinguish.

Instead, he got up every morning and made himself coffee and eggs. He laundered his clothes, vacuumed the floor and eventually opened the bedroom curtains. Pop spoke openly about his grief and need to work through it on his own terms.

He accepted an invitation to a Veterans’ lunch at his grandson’s middle school and found himself unexpectedly and for the first time recounting his World War II experience aboard a ship that fought in the Battle of Normandy and Okinawa to a classroom of tweens. When a student asked, What were you afraid of most? Pop’s eyes filled with tears as he shared with these young people what it was like for an 18 year old boy to witness death.

He sent me an email after my older son left for sleep away camp to see how I was coping with the separation. He stressed the importance of letting our children go and commended me for giving him a chance to spread his wings. “Let your boys have their space to play but always watch,” he advised. “Just don’t let them know you’re doing it.”

He questioned the owner of my CrossFit affiliate as to why we do tribute workouts to honor fallen soldiers from recent wars.

“You honor one guy?” Pop asked.

“One at a time. It’s a way for the CrossFit community to remember the ultimate sacrifice they made,” the owner explained.

“And you don’t know them?”

“No. Not personally.”

Pop furrowed his brow and stared at the group photograph gym members took after one of the Hero workouts. It was as if he was recalling the 400,000 American soldiers who died during the war in which he fought, remembering the 2,500 soldiers who lost their lives in one day on Omaha beach where his ship was offshore, adding up the 5,000 Americans who were killed at sea during the battle of Okinawa and thinking about friends who saw combat but never came home.

“Okay. But a lot of guys died.”

He stocked his refrigerator with ice and whipped cream so he was always prepared to build sundaes with my little guy, crouched on the carpet and shot marbles with my older son and devoured the cannoli I brought him on Grandparents’ Day because according to him, they help people “live to be a hundred.”

At the end of each visit he said, “Be happy.”

Perseverance. Sacrifice. Honesty. Humility. Empathy. Patriotism. Simplicity. Optimism.

Greatness.

Pop embodies the mindset of his generation, the Greatest Generation; a group of ordinary, yet extraordinary men and women who survived the unimaginable.

These folks were staples of my child and young adulthood. When I’m with my grandfather in the quiet of his apartment today and am flooded by memories of afternoon stoop parties, Saturday night card games, Sunday dinners, holiday gatherings and family celebrations, it becomes quite clear his generation is almost gone.

Pop strolled over during my youngest son’s last birthday as I pressed the candles into the cake. “How are you all grown up?” he asked. “You were only a toddler not long ago. It went by so fast.”

My laugh lines smiled back at his and I thought, He’s right; now it’s my turn.

I only hope I do him proud. In the meantime, I plan to relish in grandfather’s greatness for as long as God wills. He has a lot more to give and I have much to gain.

 My grandfather. WWII US Navy veteran: USS Tuscaloosa
My grandfather. WWII US Navy veteran: USS Tuscaloosa

This post also appeared online in Grand Magazine.

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