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Rise and fall

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A Remembrance Day reading

He is dying. After 82 years, it comes to this: the slow weaning of life due to pancreatic cancer. He just lies there. A skeleton of what he was only a few months ago.

I can’t help but stare. We all sit. We all stare. We watch his chest. Rise and fall. Rise and fall. He pauses sometimes. We all think it. Was that his last breath? Did I just watch him die?

Rise and fall.

My mind is wandering.

His glasses look so big on his face. He used to be a big man. His wife is a good cook. He used to eat like a king. Mennonite food. We would sit there, staring at it all steaming on the table. He would say grace. Just short of an altar call, every grace was a sermon.

He was a thankful man. He would thank God for the food. He would thank God for sending his Son to die on the cross. But he would always, always, always thank God for living in a free country. A free country. And then, the doxology:

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

He remembered my birthday. Of all the things to remember, he remembered my birthday. It was on that date his father and eldest brother were taken to Siberia. He never saw them again. His eyes welled up with tears as he told me this. I was just leaving. My stomach was full, my shoes were on, and I was putting on my scarf. The leftovers were in containers under my arm and he told me the last time he saw his father and brother was on the same date as my birthday.

This was the most he would talk about his past. In small doses and always out of the blue. He would hand us these pieces, and it was our job to fit the whole puzzle together.

He told me this: he was forced to be a translator for an officer in the German army. We are at the Olive Garden. He is on the front lines hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting it all. A grenade explodes nearby and he is covered with shrapnel. The next thing he knows, he is lying on a table and nurses are carefully removing each piece. They are like pins. I munch on my salad. When you buy soup, you get endless salad.

I have never seen a man so prepared to die. His chest. I watch it rise and fall. Rise and fall. He wakes up. We all do. One by one we talk to him. I grasp his boney hand. His skin is like paper.

He tells me he loves me. I’m not his grandson, but he tells me he has always thought of me as one. He tells me how thankful he is that I married his granddaughter. “Say hi to your parents,” he says, “they are such good people.” He is dying and thinks to tell me to say hi to my parents.

I have a hard time dealing with the fact he told us so little of his life during the war. I can’t tell if he was embarrassed or if he just didn’t want to relive the past. Maybe it was to protect us. Protect us from knowing how horrible people can be.

I have never seen another person die. Just on the news. Even filtered through television, I felt sick. A person’s life, snuffed out in an instant. He saw plenty. And here he is, on a bed, and we are watching his chest rise and fall.

On the front lines, his hat was shot off by a bullet. I found out there were countless other times he escaped death. Only by the grace of God. He survived.

He travelled to Winnipeg and married his sweetheart from the old country. DeFehr Furniture was his employer until retirement. He was good with his hands. He carved a multitude of small wooden sculptures. He gave me a crane. It stands on our bookshelf. I look at it during commercials.

He dies the next day. My wife and I go to the funeral that Friday. The guests are mostly seniors. Friends, family, whatever. I am sure a few of them would have some stories to tell. Or maybe not. Maybe they don’t want us to know. But I think they want us to understand.

Awake, my soul, and with the sun
Thy daily stage of duty run;
Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise,
To pay thy morning sacrifice.

Thy precious time misspent, redeem,
Each present day thy last esteem,
Improve thy talent with due care;
For the great day thyself prepare.

Wake, and lift up thyself, my heart,
And with the angels bear thy part,
Who all night long unwearied sing
High praise to the eternal King.

All praise to Thee, who safe has kept
And hast refreshed me while I slept
Grant, Lord, when I from death shall wake
I may of endless light partake.

Lord, I my vows to Thee renew;
Disperse my sins as morning dew.
Guard my first springs of thought and will,
And with Thyself my spirit fill.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

“Morning Hymn,” Thomas Ken

—Ryan Polinsky composed this piece for a Remembrance Day dramatic reading at the school where he teaches. He attends Steinbach (Man.) MB Church.

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