“Try to remember …” It’s the first line of Tom Jones’ poignant reflection on passing years. “Try to remember…” More than an invitation it’s virtually a command to anybody wanting to live a fully realized life. Trying to remember is what victims of Alzheimer’s disease find increasingly hard to do until memories are gone and with them the person’s essence. Just a physical shell remains masquerading as the one we once knew. With memories gone the anchor of our sense of identity has no firm grip and we drift into an endless booming, buzzing present bereft of a self able to anticipate a future.
But memories can trap us in the past if our anchor becomes entangled in convoluted dark passages of our minds. “Yesterday will always be if I cannot cut it free,” another line from another song, (“Love is Waiting” by Vancouver musician Ross Barrett) warns of memory’s downside. When I was a tender and callow fellow would my first infatuation have become a true love it I’d been confident enough to speak my heart? Could my father and I have found a way to communicate more freely to express our mutual love? Will embarrassing childhood memories always rise up to assault me when I place a foot wrong as an adult? They will if I cannot find a way to accept my past, the good memories and the regrets, learn the lessons that life offers and move on.
What’s true of individuals is true of nations and on Remembrance Day, November 11, Canadians are given time to try to remember. Try to remember not just the tragedy and triumph of service men and women who risked their lives and who still risk their lives to defend national values of freedom and equality. Remember the obscenity of war itself. Any war is an indictment of humanity for sinking again to the savage brutality of raw violence. We can do better, we must do better but we never will rise up if we ignore both the noble and the painful truths of our past and fail to dedicate ourselves to a higher way of being.
I was born during World War II. I don’t remember those years of conflict but they put their stamp on my soul through the stresses and successes of my parents as they grappled with the challenges of their times. My father, the son of a furniture maker, dropped out of secondary school in the midst of the great depression to earn money to help support his family. When Canada declared war on Germany in September of 1939 he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force with an idea that he might “wash airplanes” and was surprised to find that he had a knack for flying. Graduating at the top of his flight school class he became a flight instructor training men who came to Canada from around the world to become pilots in the Battle of Britain and other theatres of war. After marrying my mother in early 1943 he applied for active service and was stationed in eastern Canada flying convoy patrol to protect allied shipping from Nazi submarine attack. It was dangerous flying: navigation over trackless ocean by dead reckoning; patrols in weather that would ground a civilian flight. Planes got lost, ran out of fuel and went down. He and his crew attacked one submarine and accepted the surrender of a Nazi U-boat in May, 1945, an operation for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Years later he wrote to me about the incident saying, “It was nice to receive a medal. However, over the years, whenever I think about the event I am very grateful that I did not have to strike. We were carrying a new and very sophisticated weapon that would have killed the sub and its crew without question. I am much happier with the memories I have.” After the war he used bursary money for veterans to complete secondary school and enroll in Medicine at the University of Western Ontario from which he graduated with his M.D in 1952. The high school drop-out who became a doctor finally found his niche in medicine when be became an anesthetist in 1961.
My parents have died. I miss them every day but speak with them in my memories. I have told their stories to my children and will do the same to my grandchildren. If they do not know where they come from they will not know who they are.
“A man is not dead as long as somebody remembers his name.” West African proverb.