Column by Charity Griffin
For every memory, there is loss, and for every memory, there is hope.
This appears to be a very simple statement but it has taken me nearly 40 years to truly understand it. For me, this statement means so many different things, but mostly, it reminds me of all my friends that are war veterans.
I have worked with many of our World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans. I have had the pleasure of knowing the best of the best. The honor, love and loyalty these men and women possess have taught me more than anything else. They have shared their stories with me and let me in to a place within each of them that has not been seen by many others. Through their choked back tears, I found a strength that would not have been possible if it wasn’t for their experiences. They have taught me that through heartache come strong lessons, lessons that will make us stronger than we ever thought possible. Larry used to tell me, “Half the lesson is learned at the moment you decide to pull up a chair and sit down!”
Larry was barley able to stand on his own, his body broken and hunched over because of the shrapnel still lodged in his back from serving our great country in World War II. I saw his physical pain every day and how his body wouldn’t allow him to do the things he wanted. I also saw the strength he had in his heart and the self-dignity that hung on his shoulders. I am still to this day amazed that his physical pain never did overcome his will to teach others of self pride and self forgiveness.
Claude. Mr. Blue Eyes, as I call him. An easy-going, quiet man that walked with a shuffle and stuttered when he spoke. Claude did not talk much others, he spoke through his eyes and his body language. He, like Larry, had served his country in World War II. Claude suffered all of his adult years with a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s through his family that I found out Claude had reached this point after carrying six of his deceased friends out of a jungle one by one as shots missed his flesh by inches. After I was told this, I started to see Claude more clearly. I learned with Claude that touch was his way of showing me his heart. Every day I would shake Claude’s hand as he came out of his room for breakfast. I kept doing this every morning until one day he finally looked up at me and smiled, and I was able to see his big beautiful blue eyes!
“Good Morning Claude, SIR!” I said with a mischievous look on my face. Claude, looking down, smiled and shook his head. Claude sits down next to Larry at the breakfast table and looked at his dry corn flakes, a piece of toast with butter and a tall glass of orange juice. “Why are you just sitting there?” Larry asks. “What are you waiting for? It will never be steak and eggs so forget about it.” Claude slowly looks up at Larry and replied, “I’m just waiting here for heaven, just like the rest of you.” Larry’s eyebrows raised, his mouth dropped open and he turned to look at me. We both stared at each other in amazement for what felt like a lifetime. We both looked at Claude and we all burst out in a laughter that could be heard on the other side of the world! Claude had finally found his place at the table! ‘Ole Mr. Blue Eyes had made his point and was ready for his breakfast.
Claude and Larry became very good friends. They sat next to each other at every meal. Every morning as they sat down for breakfast, one would say to the other, “Waiting for heaven again huh?” It sticks out in my mind as if it were yesterday, the two of them silently giving to each other what they needed most, a friend.
Claude and Larry both passed away several years later. Larry first, then Claude. It was heart wrenching for me to watch Claude give every ounce of what was left in him to try to hold on to himself. I prayed each day that Claude would pass soon and peacefully and that he would not hurt any longer. Two years after the day Larry died, Claude finally received his ticket to heaven. I remember it was 4:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning and a coworker had called me to tell me that he wasn’t going to make it long and that I should come right over if I wanted to say goodbye.
I was able to be with Claude during the last few minutes of his life, very precious minutes that I will forever hold in my heart. His eyes were closed and his breathing was slowing and I bent down next to his ear and said, “It’s time for you to go now, when you get there, tell Larry how much I miss him and you both save me a seat at the table. I am still waiting for my turn in heaven.” I gave him a small kiss on the forehead and I watched as his spirit slipped away.
I tried holding back my tears so that I could do my job but the feeling I had in that room with Claude was so overwhelming I could not. I felt a peace that I cannot compare anything to except for the birth of my children. My heart was breaking but my soul was rejoicing. I washed Claude’s face and combed his hair, and fixed his bed to look appropriate for his family. Even though he was gone, I wanted him to look peaceful and blissful — and he did.
I realized many things that day. I realized that Claude gave me and only me the last few minutes of his precious life. He gave me a chance to be with him when it most mattered. He gave me a new perspective on death and a way to be at peace with it inside myself.
Claude and Larry were the first of many of my war veteran friends to pass away. Each one of them has shown me the inner strength that we all have in us. I learned from them that they did not just fight a war for our government; they were fighting for something bigger. They believe in using their strength for the greater good of all people. The wanted to fight for something good, they wanted to stand for something that would help our world become a better place and teach others how to use their inner strengths. These men and women paid the ultimate price in one way or another and were able to hold their heads high in pride knowing they had done something great for mankind. They didn’t ask for riches, fame, pity or even a spot in the local news paper. They gave the best of themselves to all of us for generations to come, because they believed in something higher and bigger than us all. This generation is slipping away from us and it pains me beyond words to watch. I will do my part to pass on their stories and memories with my children in hopes that they too will want to make this world a better place for all people. I hope you will do the same.
It is nearly impossible for me to write down all the stories my veteran friends have shared with me over the years. Some of their stories will remain in my heart only because I am not yet ready to share them with the world. I keep them locked up in a special place inside me so that they are safe and they are just mine.
Thank you to all of our current Military and all the war veterans that are still with us. Thank you to all the families that have also paid the ultimate price along the way and for the support you give every day. Thank you to my friends that have since passed away, I salute you and hold you dear to my heart. To all of you that make “waiting for heaven” a little easier, thank you…..