(Below is a mostly unedited letter I sent to someone a few months ago. The only changes I have made were grammatical and removing my grandfather’s name for operational security purposes. Even though, at time of writing, I hadn’t had some of the epiphanies I have had recently, I still think my story may be of some use to some of the readers of the Spearhead.)
Nothing – absolutely nothing – in life is permanent. If you spend your entire life dreading the loss of something, you might not ever get to fully enjoy that thing. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way, and I think it might help you to hear a story from me, maybe so you can learn the same lesson I did.
Part of the reason I enlisted in the Marine Corps was because my grandfather retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the Marines. Growing up, he had always been something of a hero to me – even if I didn’t really understand much about the Marine Corps, or felt like I knew him much. In fact, he once made it very clear to me that I was the son of the black sheep of his family – he still loved me, I felt, but my exposure to him was limited. I take my middle name after him.
After I enlisted – and saw what the Marine Corps was really like – my love and admiration for him sky rocketed. It’s something people could never understand unless they go through it. I can’t even try to put words to it, I know it’s futile – others have tried and failed. I heard that my graduation photos from boot camp had circulated back to him, and that for the first time in a long time, his family saw him cry, he was so proud.
Training in the Marine Corps is lengthy and intense. I wanted very much to, when I was first able, take leave and meet with him, to talk about the Marine Corps and give him a chance to talk to someone who could understand. As I continued to work on my own memoirs, I realized that my grandfather had stories – amazing stories – that he had probably never told anyone. He had fought – and survived – on Iwo Jima! He never talked about it much with anyone, and after being in the Marine Corps, I can understand why… people on the outside just don’t get it.
As my training was nearing completion, I received bad news. My grandfather was coming down with Alzheimer’s. By the time I graduated, members of my extended family, who were with him, made it clear that his memory was pretty much gone – he couldn’t remember his own children anymore. I had missed my chance – forever – to really talk to him and understand his life.
I grieved, candidly, in my own fashion. I grieve now, as I recall. Grieving is natural. You just can’t get stuck on it. What I realized, as I became stuck on it, was that I couldn’t control the situation – I had no ability to influence his disease or his memory. Furthermore, I was sure that I would do his spirit no honor by remaining paralyzed in grief. Instead of grieving, I took the time to drudge up a deep introspective dialogue – sifting through my own memories for my memories of my grandfather.
And as I did this tough work, rather than remember with grief and regret and longing, I focused instead on cherishing each memory, remembering it to the fullest and enjoying it as though I were there again. Some memories I enjoyed for the “first” time, having, as a child, not enjoyed that particular experience, but as a man with new understanding, cherishing it in a new way.
Part of my healing process involved investigating my family history. I tried to learn as much about him as I could – being that I hadn’t known him very well, and what I did know came from youth. He was a beautiful man. (I’m crying a bit right now, but it’s not painful. I am proud to be his grandson.) The trials and tribulations he went through – being one of MANY children from a very poor family, suffering through abuse, disowning his own family much like I have had to do, paying his own way through college, entering the Marine Corps as an officer in lieu of what he could have done with his education, and serving in World War 2 and the Korean War (he proposed to his wife and got married shortly before reporting in for The Basic School, right after receiving his commission – he would not see his wife again for two years…they stayed married until she died of old age), retiring in order to become a public servant in another way – by being a teacher and then principal at his local high school.
Did he do everything right? No, perhaps not. My father claims the way he was raised by my grandfather was not fair or healthy – but my grandfather’s other children seemed to have turned out better than my father, so who is to say who is right? But the struggles he went through, the pain and adversity he must have felt, resonated with my own life, and I felt very close to him. There was nothing that I could do for him in his final days, but that was okay, because I could live the rest of my life in his honor. I used to want to change my name in order to disown my family, which I had come to hate. But learning about my grandfather this way, after he was already effectively taken from me, restored my faith and pride in my family name.
Now, when times are dark and when I wish I wasn’t in the Marine Corps or doing other things, I turn my thoughts back towards Bill, and it gives me strength and resolve.
This turned out longer than I intended. A lot of my coping with Bill’s situation was done on a more subconscious, nonverbal level, also. This is the first time I’ve told ANYONE – even my few close friends – about this. The lesson I learned was to not be consumed by grief over loss; to instead channel that grief into something more positive. Everything must eventually come to an end, so it does not make sense to dread that time and to waste your energy being full of regret and sadness. Let the passing of something you’ve cherished be a cause for remembrance and cherishing. Let it be a new beginning – something to live the rest of your life for, rather than spend the rest of your life mourning.
These philosophies dovetail also with the revelation of thought I had while in the more intense training phases of my Marine Corps career, where I literally trained for every waking moment to kill and be killed. Life is so fragile and transient. We are all so very fragile and vulnerable. It makes no sense, none whatsoever, to dedicate your life to seeking achievement or seeking material gain over emotional depth and well-being. There will always be more work to be done tomorrow, and there will always be another achievement to seek or another record to break. Eventually, we will all pass our peak, and in all likelihood, have things left we still want to achieve or accomplish that we cannot. However, we may not always have a second chance to tell someone that we care about that we love them, or another chance to get to know that someone interesting just a bit better. Take risks in the name of enriching your relational life – strip everything else away and the measure of your life, I think, is the impact you had on other people and on the bonds you forged with them – on the families and communities you forged or were a part of.