(In honor of All Saints Day)
1945: He was retrieving his camera gear with the rest of the photography team, when a Master Sargent told them they were being assigned a different task. Handing them a mirror and a tube of lipstick, their instructions were to approach the corpses and put the mirror up to lips of each body. If the mirror fogged, place a "L" on the forehead with the lipstick and a medical team will follow-up. No fog earned an "X" on the forehead. With thousands of bodies, they had an excruciating task.
"James" is a former soldier who was present at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Several months ago he told me story after story of the war, memories that have been flooding back in the past six weeks as he lay in a hospice bed. Thinking about how technology has advanced war I said, "War is scary," to which James replied, "If war was scary I could handle it. War is terrifying. Terrifying. There was no place to hide." Tears streamed down his face.
Stories of the deaths of his son and wife followed. Claustrophobic, not able to bear an MRI chamber, his wife died of a brain aneurysm. "She died of fright," he said. He lost his son as a result of poor health choices, but even more difficult he says, is the loss of one of his daughters. Still alive, but estranged from the family, she's been "lost to hate."
James knows sorrow, he knows loss, and his life is waning. In considering his own mortality, he says, "Death does not cause me sorrow like most people." In spite of the horrific memories of war, James is at peace. He is ready for it. "Death, which we don't have to think about very often, is a byproduct of living." I am deeply impressed by James. In these memories he is conjuring up long-forgotten people; in the remembering he is honoring them and preparing to join them.
James was somehow not able to let tragedy defeat him. He went on to live a productive life in which he helped a lot of others. In his reflections upon his own death he is helping even more. Like me.
I wonder about my own feelings about death. My death. It's hard to think about when I have a (mostly) healthy body, with years of work and adventure ahead. But it's coming. It's a physical reality that waits. I hope to have the peace that James does. I hope to be able to let thing be as they are, and to accumulate few regrets.
Since James has gained a fair bit of wisdom in his years, I asked for some sage advice for life. He gave me two suggestions:
1) "Don't push things". For instance, if you want a new car, and all you can think about is getting a new car, don't push through with your desires. Wait for the universe to provide. It may not be as fast you'd like (I'm not sure if he meant the car itself, or the speed with which it is acquired), but it will happen.
2) "Keep your feet dry". Because when your feet get wet and stay wet, you'll eventually not be able to walk.
Thank you, James, for teaching me about life, death, peace, and gratitude.