My most memorable Remembrance Day experience took place eight years ago. It was my first semester out of Canada (I think it’s difficult to be truly patriotic until one has lived in another country, but I digress), which was exciting but also challenging in many ways. One of the most difficult aspects was that I wouldn’t be returning home for almost two years. My family knew this because it was part of the seminary program, so the goodbyes in August of 2010 were particularly difficult. I distinctly remember my grandfather, who doesn’t hide his emotions, crying and, through sobs, saying to me, “I am never going to see you again!” It wasn’t an easy goodbye, but I took it as impetus to communicate with him and grandma more often by phone and email. Over the next few months I sent him many emails prodding him to reveal more about his history: growing up in Poland, being exiled to Russia, fighting in WWII, being exiled again after the war, immigrating to Canada, meeting grandma and raising a family. His story is heroic. He endured many crosses that I and most people who have only lived in peace can’t even imagine.
That semester I also had the privilege of becoming friends with a few military men. Four of my classmates, all now priests, served in the American Armed Forces prior to entering seminary. One of them, a major in the Marine Corps and veteran of the Iraq war, regularly sat next to me in class, and so on the morning of Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in the US) I was well positioned to stand when he entered the room, shake his hand when he came to his seat, and thank him for his service.
With the stories of my grandfather and my friends on my mind, I was not focused on the lecture that morning. Instead, I penned this poem and gave it to them as a small sign of my gratitude:
Today I shook the hand of a hero,
a man more courageous than I,
a man who fought for my freedom,
a man who was willing to die.
My faith is a gift from heaven,
a gift I can never repay.
My freedom is a gift from my fathers,
a gift God asked them to pay.
Today I shook the hand of a hero.
My tears I held back from his gaze.
My tears are a gift from heaven.
My tears are from love for their ways.
My grandfather didn’t pass away while I was away at seminary. He is still alive, one of only a few WWII veterans remaining, and he continues to tell his story and remind us that freedom isn’t free. Today I pray for him, for all those who served to protect our country in the past, and all those who continue to protect it today.