I felt the hand on my foot and woke instantly.
Glanced at the clock. 4 am.
“Nightmares?” I ask, sitting up.
He started to cry.
“His legs. Oh, God, his legs were blown off and he was screaming. I took his belt and my belt and I used them to make tourniquets. He just kept screaming and screaming and my hands were shaking and I was crying so hard my tears were falling in his blood… He was my friend…”
He takes a deep breath. I see his head turn towards me in the dark.
“When will they leave me in peace?”
I scootch over to sit beside him and pulled the blanket around our shoulders. His gnarled fingers shake as he clutches the blanket and we sit.
“Tell me the train story, Dad.”
At 82 he started to lose his vision and as darkness closed in, the flashbacks haunted him all the more. He was going down a windowed stairwell one day, when a car backfired and he dived for cover. Broke 2 ribs, that time.
“Farmboys. All 12 of us. Hitching a ride on a coal train that had 3 empty cars. Plenty enough room for a dozen strapping farm boys travelling 2000 miles to Toronto with nothing but the shirts on our backs…”
“ Poor kids of immigrants, off to the big city the only way we could get there.”
“Because, if you signed up at home, you didn’t get to go overseas, like my brother didn’t. Figured it was the only way I’d get to see the world. And it paid good. I could see the world and send money home to Mama to feed the younger kids.”
“It was hard for her, after Dad died. We weren’t old enough to enlist. You had to be 21, at first. We were prepared to lie about our age, but they took us anyway…”
He was barely 18. Six years in the Royal Canadian Regiment was enough to widen any farm boy’s horizons.
Came home speaking six languages and telling stories of giving his rations to the poor starving little children who shouldn’t have had to see what they saw. Never mind that he wasn’t much more than a child, too.
On September 3, 1943, he was in the first wave of Canadian soldiers to storm the shores of Italy. He’d been in the field hospital before that. Injured in battle on August 22. But they needed him again. He was a gunner.
Permanently lost hearing in one ear and when the war ended, they left him behind because he had malaria. Wasn’t healthy enough to bring home yet.
“We were black as coal when we got there. Had to sneak onto a farmer’s field and wash our clothes in the stream and hang ’em up on a tree to dry. That coal dust was just filthy and it got everywhere…”
“Did you run around in your underpants while your clothes dried?” I ask.
He’s laughing now.
“You did, didn’t you!”
“Hey Dad, remember how you used to make me hot chocolate in the middle of the night when I had bad dreams?”
In the dark, I see him smile and nod his head.
“Want some hot chocolate?”
He kisses my cheek.
We go into the kitchen and I put milk on the stove to warm.
I miss him so much.
I would give anything to hug him just once more.
I hate war.
I hate what it did to my dad. I hate what it does to our people. Not just their bodies, but their minds.
I hate that some of them will live the rest of their days waking up screaming from nightmares of things no one should have to see. No one.
I hate that so many people had to die for others to have freedom.
I hate that there are still people fighting and dying for freedom.
I hate that there are Holocaust deniers. I hate that we have people who think Fascism is cool. It makes me so angry I can scarcely breathe. Because my grandfather was one of the Jews who lost his family in the Holocaust.
But today is not the day for those things.
Maybe, just for today, we could just honor the memory.
Tomorrow will be soon enough for everything else.