For Pawpaw, on Veteran’s Day

Today is Veteran’s Day. I grew up going to “Veteran’s Day” events with my grandparents (Meemaw and Pawpaw), who were always invited to anything honoring veterans (and usually written about the in the local paper following that event). That’s because they have a powerful story. A really powerful story.

Pawpaw’s airplane in World War II was shot down over Nazi territory. He was hit by bullets and was still able to escape his flaming plane via parachute. When he hit the ground he was captured, held in prison for an excruciating amount of time (enough time that he was bone thin and my grandmother didn’t know if he was alive or dead). He burnt my grandmother’s letters one night just to warm himself a little. (My brother once posted the story in much better detail here.) It was an ordeal that I imagine in movie pictures. I’ve filled in the gaps over time with Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale playing their parts. I watch my grandmother pace on the front porch. I watch my grandfather lie on the hard ground mentally composing letters he can’t write for lack of paper. But for the two of them, it’s reality. It’s something that shaped them and their marriage when they were barely past their teens.

Meemaw is a woman who gets things done. She knows how to work hard and she knows how to take charge. She’s a natural leader. I joked with her when they recently moved to the retirement home (and she insisted that all she’s going to do is sew and quilt) that she won’t be able to help herself. She’ll be running the place within the year. Pawpaw is her opposite. He can piddle with the best of them. He has never been in a hurry in his life, even more so in his old age. He whistles and he shuffles. He also has a killer sense of humor. He’s hysterical. And I don’t mean in a senile way. He has always been an incredible story-teller and a master of one-liners, long before he came into old age. His accent helps his cause too. A small town boy from western Oklahoma always sounds funnier, no matter what the occasion.

They’re both nearing 90. Last year Meemaw purchased one of those big word signs for her kitchen that reads, “Patience.” She told me she reckons she got it to remind her of what she needs for Pawpaw. He heard her and chuckled across the room. Said, “Well [long pause], I guess.”

He retired from his blue-collar job with an oil company back in the early eighties. So while Meemaw was still out moving her way up the ladder at the local bank, my grandpa was my after-school babysitter throughout kindergarten and first grade. He picked me up from school and I sat on in his woodshop, my skinny legs dangling from his hand-made work counters. He crafted the most delicate figurines. He remade violins. He built furniture. I liked to watch him work, at least until I got bored. And then I’d make him read to me. My favorite book was one I only wanted him to read. It was about a little girl whose grandfather dies. I’d found it at my school library.

I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that he wouldn’t want to read that book to me. It was totally logical to me that a story about a girl losing her grandpa ought to be read aloud by a grandpa. He was only in his early sixties then and was obviously not super excited about the idea of his own death. I, however, found a lot of comfort in his actual presence beside me while I heard the story of a girl who did not have that presence.

As he’s gotten older, especially in the past decade, I’ve been present to hear Pawpaw speak about his ordeal in the war. He gets choked up more often now as he nears the end of his life, and he’s had a long time to reflect on why the God he believes in allowed him to survive when so many of the men (boys really) around him—in his unit, on his plane, imprisoned with him in the Nazi camp—did not. It’s taken him a lifetime to be able to say that he survived because of us, his grandchildren. God wanted us to be born, he says.

Pawpaw’s heart is failing this week. He has pneumonia. He’s been in a hospital bed since Sunday, in and out of danger. Yesterday he was looking better. He was responding to medicine.

My dad said the nurses at the VA hospital can’t get enough of him. He’s funny even now, especially when they get his fever down enough for him to make conversation. That’s just his way. He’s always made friends easy. He’s always been good with words. Mom and Dad were talking to him the other night about my baby and how we don’t have a name picked out yet. They wondered if he had an idea. This man, who still can’t remember if I live in New York (where I was six years ago) or Pennsylvania (where I haven’t been for a year), and who sees all of the east coast as essentially the same thing anyway, thought and said, “Well, I guess she could call him New Jersey.”

Maybe you have to know Pawpaw to get why that’s funny. Maybe you don’t. I’ve been thinking about aging lately, what must be such a difficult, painful process of coming to the end of your life. It seems that often, the weakest aspects of a person’s character flow out in the end, when they face their own broken bodies, the emotion and physical and mental pain of that loss. It can make people mean, snappy, angry.

But my grandfather has become more blissful. He takes his sweet time. He stares at one thing and whistles for minutes at a time. And every once in while, you see his mind turning to come up with whatever might make someone near him laugh. Blissful and kind and sweet.

All that from a man who suffered unspeakable violence in a time I can only imagine in black and white pictures. I’m thankful that as he struggles this week, as we wait to see what God intends for this dear man’s life, that what we get to see in the midst of his pain is the beauty that has worked its way out of him…

It’s Veteran’s Day. And so I honor him.

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