“The bombs…listen…they’re seven klicks away.”
The night before my Grandpa died, he shared a story from the shadows of his hospital bed: he kept hallucinating about World War Two.
“Grandpa, it’s ok. The war’s over. You’re safe. Go back to sleep.” I held his hand and he settled back down in the dark room. With a sigh, he closed his eyes.
Over and over, he fought the axis powers as his kidneys shut down: reliving terror, death, and war.
I sat next to him and wondered what it must have been like to sign up for the Army a few months after he stopped being a teenager. How it must have felt to have people dying all around him in combat, how scared he must have been—but to be part of such a valiant fight that affected the world’s future history. These thoughts have formed the basic premise for the fantasy series I’m writing: two opposing militaries and their battle outcomes affecting the entire world.
“They’re landing now. Let’s dig in a little deeper.” His arms flailed about the bed, trying to grasp an unseen shovel. I grabbed his wrinkled hands, again.
“Grandpa, you’re safe. You’re in New York. The war is over.”
He’d sink back and I’d wonder, how did a twenty-year old adjust to the new normal, where bad stuff happened all the time, and good people died?
I’m not sure anyone ever truly adapts to that.
Grandpa never liked to talk about the war. We only found out about his medals and bravery after he died. Looking back now, I wonder if the fatigue and pain he experienced in his old age was depression mixed with some PTSD. And now that I’ve got a few grey hairs of my own, I realize I, like most other doctors (if we’re honest), have my own mild form of PTSD that I try to hide from—because the only ones in this country who see as much death as doctors do are soldiers in war time.
The other day, my mom gave me a present: a shadow box filled with some of Grandpa’s medals and a picture of him in uniform, recovering from yellow fever during the war. Inside the frame is part of the bronze star he kept secret. He won it for saving lives in a feat of ingenuity and courage while under gunfire. When I pass by the wall where the shadow box is hung, I touch its glass—cold and hard under my fingers—and think about how I want my fantasy stories to honor Veterans like him: the sacrifices they kept secret, the pain they couldn’t talk about because it hurts too much.
We all have tales to tell. There’s healing for others in our hurts. So let’s start sharing. I’ll begin by showing you a picture of a shadow box that I took…in the light.