I was about to write about our trip to Normandy but, I suppose it can wait for a few more days. Because sometimes, in the midst of our dreams and fantasies (and I have plenty of those every day), life jolts you back to reality. On the last day of our trip we were informed that my husband's uncle had died; and yesterday, my uncle passed away. Both of them had been poorly for the last few years, just a shadow of their former selves, and now they are suffering no more - for that we are grateful. As we are also grateful for the ability to remember them as they used to be, before the frailty brought on by illness turned them into men we could barely recognise.
Ben was a typical mid-Westerner (or what I think of as typical): rather gruff and loud but with a kindly heart. He had a way of cracking jokes and a mischievous twinkle in his eye that was quite infectious. The stories he would tell about his life were legendary - as were his escapades. For some reason, he always reminded me of the cowboys we saw in the old Westerns, a cross between John Wayne and Kirk Douglas (I know he would get a kick out of that remark), a definitely no-nonsense type of man. He served as a sergeant in the US Air Force medical corps during the Korean war. After the war he was assigned to the VIP ward reserved for top military officers and the President of the United States. He was also the personal attendant to General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a retired commander of the US Air Force. Ben was buried with military honours in the small town in northern Missouri where he has been living for the past 60 or so years.
My uncle Vic was my dad's brother. There were seven boys in the family. He was the fifth. As families go, we were not the huggy-touchy-feely type. But he and his family lived next door to us and he was always there, on the other side of the garden wall; and now he's there no more. There is security in familiarity and, even though sometimes months would pass before I saw him, I knew he was there. Now I know that I will never see him again. But I do not want to dwell on that fact, on the realization that the family is changing and that nothing will ever be like it used to be. Nor do I want to remember these last few years when he was ill and weak. I will remember him as he was: the most fastidious of the brothers, clean to the point of obsession; the one who was always the first to dance at weddings, the tips of his almost-legendary moustache waxed to a fine point.
Ben and uncle Vic were two very different men, who lived very different lives. Both were heroes to their children and grand-children (and, in Ben's case, great grand-children), both imperfect in their own way - like lall of us. Life seems to stop and slow down for a while as families gather to mourn, but then it continues with its frenzied pace, its crazy dance that carries each of us to the brink.
If you have been to the Swiss town of Lucerne and walked across the iconic Spreuer Bridge, you may have come across a series of 17th century paintings known as the Dance of Death. These paintings were produced to remind people of the fragility of life. And yes, life is indeed fragile and fleeting but it is also beautiful and glorious. In the end, the most important thing of all is to live it without regrets. So, as the saying goes, and hard as it may be, let's not cry because it's over but smile because it happened. I am sure that that it is what both of these men would want their families to do.
Location: German Military Cemetery, La Cambe, Normandy, France