We left the house late, of course. We have a baby. Walking through weak sun to the bus stop, it felt like a gift — sun in November in Vancouver.
The crowd was enormous, spilling up the streets and sidewalks. We could just hear the choir sing, high and sweet and pure, anonymous of words. The mutter from the sky grew louder, more insistent, and a moment later, a bomber flew low overhead. So low I thought I could reach up and touch it, feel the rivets under my fingertips. Then the tears started.
I don’t often think about my grandfather. I don’t need to, I suppose. He was a good man, large and larger than life — growing peas (oh such sweet peas) in his tiny backyard in a brick suburb in middle-class England. He played the pipes in a band. He marched onscreen for a nanosecond of a movie with his pipe band, and his friends made him an Oscar. He was an airplane mechanic in the RAF in World War II, stationed in India. It took some forty years before he could set foot in a plane again, before he could come to Canada to visit his only child, my father. I know his name.
That is pretty much all I know — I met him a half-dozen times, on trips to England, his visits here when I was a teenager, unaware of the importance of family connections. His life did not affect mine, nor mine his, I imagine. His death after a slow mental decline four years ago did not seem to affect me much either, and I understood that was the normal feelings of no real personal relationship. It was fine.
Until I heard the planes. Three years ago, I attended Remembrance Day services in Gibsons. It was another fine fall day, another gift of no rain and rustling leaves scuffed underfoot. There, the planes came from the south, low over Keats Island and the harbour, and the noise of them preceded the formation by a minute or more. When I heard them in the distance, and caught sight of them over the glinting water, I was choked by loss. The loss of a grandfather I never knew, the loss of a grandfather I would have known, had he not been so damaged by that goddamn war that his fear was more intense than his desire to be a part of our lives. Of my life. The loss of lives, of a generation, of quiet despair and ‘keep strong and carry on’.
When I heard the planes — those four lone bombers, flying in a tight formation — I imagined what it would have been like to huddle in the darkness of London, hearing hundreds of bombers streaming through the skies with their impossibly inhumane payload.
Every year, I hear that rumble, and I remember my grandfather, and what wasn’t to be, and I cry.
This year, I nursed my infant son on the curb of a street next to the cenotaph, and my tears landed on the blanket that kept him warm and safe. I cannot imagine a world which would send their precious little boys to war, to be killed, or damaged, or suffer wounds that their granddaughters bleed generations later.
What do we tell Jack about war? That it is cruel and horrible, but there are times when you have to take a stand against great evil? That he should never be a soldier? That he should be a soldier if he thinks the cause is right? Certainly, we will tell him that he should always use words instead of fists, or guns.
And I will tell him about his great-grandfather, who would have loved him. I know it.