Saturday, July 2, 2011
Imagining John's Independence Day
I sat at John’s bedside; his face was graveyard gray, and sagging like the worn planks of a condemned house. In his youth John was a capable navigator for the Royal Dutch Navy. It was 1940, and John was home for a short furlough with his parents when the German army tore the front doors from the hinges of his sleepy village. It was a home invasion of massive proportions, disrupting checker games, and Sunday suppers, trampling well-tended lives underfoot, and stripping away the healthy flesh from a civilized society.
John was driven underground by Hitler’s minions, living in a hand-dug cave beneath his parents’ home. He hid like a fox from hunters, coming out only by the moon’s dubious light, transforming him into a hungry shadow searching for food like an animal. He begged crusts and crumbs from terrified neighbors, also sequestered to their homes.
The German soldiers rolled through his picturesque village like an army of masticating ants, killing and carrying off twenty times their weight in carcasses and loot, devouring everything in their paths; ants with thick helmets shielding their consciences from the ricocheting screams of the innocents, overpowering the powerless and meeting no resistance, proclaiming a ruthless victory that went as smoothly as a bayonet through a baby.
John waited, starving and powerless in his bleak grotto, until allied troops liberated the Netherlands nearly five years later.
John turned ninety five on his last birthday and had managed to maintain a sharp mind, generous humor, and a sincere love for his fellow man. I marveled at his resilience, and I sensed that when I visited him that I was in the company of a great man. I also knew that this visit in particular would probably be our last. John was in the final stages of his battle with cancer.
I held John’s emaciated hand and envisioned him as a twenty four year old man hiding from the Nazis. I tried to imagine the mental and physical strength he had to conjure in order to get through such a horrific ordeal, and the unspeakable relief he must have felt at his deliverance. He knew the meaning of freedom in a way that most people in our country couldn’t fathom…including me.
Last Monday, our dear John passed away peacefully with his lovely wife by his side. It was the ultimate liberation, freeing him from a sick body that had become more of a prison than a home. Although I’m going to miss John, I know that things are as they should be.
Why am I telling you this story? Because it’s almost Independence Day and John is gone, but I am still filled up with him. And, I wanted to say something important about the day….and how John’s life was important too. I needed to put these thoughts on paper so the meaning of John’s suffering would never be forgotten.
I’m sad…but mostly grateful. Grateful that I knew John and that I live in a country where there is peace and plenty. I want to thank John and the other brave souls who have suffered and perished for freedom’s sake, for giving me the carefree pleasure of lighting a sparkler, eating a hot dog, and waving the American flag this holiday weekend.
One need only look back a short distance to imagine what life would be like without freedom…