My father-in-law died just two springtime’s ago. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of him—often, fondly and expressed with laughter. Sometimes, it’s with regret.
We’d come north to be closer to him after my mother-in-law passed away. We knew he’d need our attention and care as the years compounded. These were bonus years, we felt, when got to know him, when we spoke of meaningful things, including his reflections on life, people, history, politics, and even war. He’d tell us his catalog of stories, as if he’d never told them before, as if we hadn’t heard them dozens of times. We knew that one day, we’d miss hearing him tell them.
That day didn’t come until he was 95 years old, after he’d led a full life, equal parts remarkable and ordinary.
There are days when we feel the deep, profound loss, a black hole that cannot be sated, always threatening to suck you into its mysterious depths.
Those are the days when I think of all the questions we neglected to ask, all the memories he never got to share or didn’t want to.
Through his eyes, we’d seen the world in a different way. He could change your way of thinking with his perspective. He did that for me on numerous occasions, about things that I already thought I’d had all figured out—poverty and frugality, simplicity, curiosity, race, charity, death, religion, friendship, family, humor, war.
What a privilege to have had the time with him, I know, and I’m especially aware of it today, when so many families gather to mourn their loved ones who never came home from war. I think of their generations of loved ones deprived of the simple moments strung together to make a complicated, fulfilled life. I think of those who never got to say goodbye, left with medals, mementoes and incessant, gnawing what-could-have-beens.
My father-in-law and all four of his brothers served in WWII, and they each came home to their family—perhaps not whole and unscathed, but alive. I’m sure not a day passed for any of them when they didn’t think of their fellow Americans, their brothers and sisters in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, who perished.
One of the stories my father-in-law used to tell was how he’d come back home from his “island-hopping” tour of the South Pacific and made a pitstop in San Francisco before making the cross-continental trek home to New Haven, Connecticut. He called home right away. His father answered in an impatient bark: Who the hell is this?
It’s me, his third eldest son said into the receiver, explaining his current location.
His father softened, but pointed out that it was the middle of the night in New Haven, Connecticut, and that he’d been awoken from a sound sleep by the phone call.
When my father-in-law told this story, he’d chuckle at the memory. Who the hell is this, he’d say, imitating his father’s gruff-Yankee tone.
Of course, his parents, siblings, and community must’ve been relieved. One son was on his way home—news worth a sleepless night, which is why we’d all laugh along during his retelling.
Today, I think of all those families who didn’t get a call like that, who received entirely different, generationally devastating news, instead. May we take today to be still and reflect on their profound loss and sacrifice.