When I was a child my father would pack my sister and me into the car and drive to Vancouver’s Cenotaph where we would observe Remembrance Day. When I close my eyes and think of those days, I see grey rain, black umbrellas, and red felt poppies. One year my sister wore a kilt. Both of us usually wore wool stockings, even under pants, to help stave off the cold. Because we were so young, neither of us appreciated why we stood in the streets silent with other darkly clad people. In turns, my dad would hoist us onto his shoulders so we could see the solemn parade of veterans. We would hold our hands over our hearts and sing about our true patriot love, not understanding the words as they left our mouths. I remember being careful and proud of the red poppy my dad would pin to the fabric of my jacket, just over my heart. This ritual was important to my father and, whatever my sister and I failed to understand, we knew that standing there in the rain with his daughters meant something to him.
As November 11th neared during my first year at Rockridge Secondary, I prepared for the type of ritual I had attended as a student. I thought we would go through the motions, have the obligatory moment of silence, watch a veteran place a wreath against the podium and listen as one of the band students played The Last Post. I suppose that in the glitz and distraction of consumer culture, I subconsciously believed that war was too distant, too historic, too unfathomable for Canada’s privileged youth. But, perhaps because of 9-11 and other recent acts of war, or maybe because parents continue to introduce their children to the reality of November 11th, or maybe because humanity simply doesn’t forget, Canada’s youth today remember and honour the cost of their freedom in a way that truly means something.
The entire student body was summoned into the gym. Chairs had been set up in rows and each student took a seat. A stage had been erected at the front of the room. Beside it a small group of band students warmed up. I took my seat near my students and welcomed the chance to relax for a few minutes.
As soon as all one thousand of us were seated in the gym, the lights went dark and a spotlight shone on a lone student standing centre stage. He was wearing a beige jacket and soldier’s cap. When he spoke, he told us of how he had enlisted that morning. He told of the pain in leaving his loved ones and of the obligation he felt to protect them. After his monologue we heard from a series of characters, his friends and family, until finally his girlfriend took the stage. Tears pricked my eyes as she shared her worries and sorrow. Then, the stage went dark and audio of a battle shot into the darkness. When the lights finally came up to cast a cold glow over the stage, the girlfriend was crying in the front corner as she read a letter informing her of the boy’s honourable death. Behind her and projected onto a large screen played images of her life with the boy she’d had dreams of marrying. I was glad of the dark.
Next we listened as a Japanese student dressed in a shimmering kimono of reds and purples recited a poem about Hiroshima. As she read, the poem’s English translation scrolled across the screen over images of the mushroom cloud and people’s pain. I was in awe of how this student-led assembly managed to make history so current. I have not experienced war first-hand. Neither have my parents. But that day I found myself close enough to imagine its smells, sounds, and devastation.
The only other time I have felt the presence of war was at my Great-Papa’s 100th birthday party, when I was 12 years old. The evening had been full of cake and relatives and congratulations and balloons, and he was tired from all the excitement. So my aunt, my sister, and I had wheeled him up to his room in the retirement home. As she went to turn down his sheets, my Great-Papa, who only moments before had been dozing with his head on his chest, suddenly grabbed my wrist with ferocity. The silver bracelet I wore bit into my flesh as he gripped tighter and tighter.
“You’re too slow! Damn it! Get in the hole! Get in the hole! They’re going to kill you! They’ll kill you! Run!” His watery voice was now booming and clear, his shaking muscles now firm and steady. My aunt met my terrified eyes as I tried to twist my wrist from his vice grip.
“Get down! Get down! You’re too slow! You’re too slow! You’re too slow!” The panic in my Great-Papa’s voice made my throat tight because, in that moment, he took me to an actual battlefield, muddied with rain and blood, noxious with gas and fear.
“Grand-dad,” my aunt said, “Grand-dad it’s okay. Everything is okay. You’re in your room and we’re here with you, your grandchildren. It’s okay.”
Now he straddled both worlds and looked at her, pleading, “But he’s going to die! They’ll get him ‘cause he’s too slow. He’s too slow…” his voice drifted into tears and my aunt, having freed my wrist, motioned for me to wait in the hall.
Back in the darkened gym, students stood at attention as the bugle sounded. Fresh in our minds played images of small children running from black rain, a young boy just enlisted, and row upon row of committed white crosses. I held my wrist and said a silent thank you to my Great-Papa, who now rests in peace, and to these students who, without even meeting him, honoured him so well.