Today is the 70th anniversary of VE Day. The day my grandfather’s life almost ended. My mother, uncle, myself, my daughters – if he had perished we would not have ever walked this Earth. It’s also my birthday today. In all the festivities and hooplah, I don’t want to forget what my Grandfather went through, and how my own existence was in jeopardy exactly 25 years before I was born.
My grandfather was born fighting for his life on a May morning in 1925. He was premature, weighing in at one pound. The doctor took him outside and pumped cold water on him to jump-start his system into action. Grandpa and my great-grandmother fought Death and won.
Grandpa grew up fighting for survival selling newspapers on the street, often in bitter cold winter with inadequate shoes. Hours of selling papers just to get a bit of bread, milk, and ground beef to share with his mother – a single mom in an age where even if the guy was a jerk it somehow was the wife’s fault. I think I know where Grandpa’s fighting spirit came from.
Grandpa enjoyed playing baseball and football (no protective gear to speak of) even though he was a modest height – 5’4″ (1.7 meters). His grit and athletic ability helped him survive the war. Somehow he got through some pretty hair-raising stuff, including the Battle of the Bulge and liberating a concentration camp. 70 years ago today my grandfather was wounded. Everyone else in his unit was dead. He crawled back to camp not knowing if he’d make it back alive, not knowing the war was already over.
Grandpa taught me how to shoot baskets and throw a bowling ball, and although he didn’t understand my “thing” for Karate when I was a teen, he supported it because he believed in physical fitness. Grandpa was bowling well into his 70’s. When he could no longer bowl, Grandpa kept walking in the neighborhood until he had a mini stroke and fell. He tenaciously kept up with physical therapy at the nursing home. The final week and a half of his life, we watched his final fight with Death. Two days after Grandpa passed away, one of his great-granddaughters won medals in her first Karate tournament.
Grandpa fought so that his daughter and son, myself and my daughters could grow up in freedom. The Nazis hated autistic people – my Grandpa had no idea he was fighting for the life of one of his own great-granddaughters. He just said that he was doing what he had to do, what anyone would do. But it means so much more than that to me. My daughters are free to study martial arts, free to exist, free to form their own opinions about life.
There are senseis in a sister dojo who sometimes compliment me on what they call my “fighting spirit.” I always, always, always think of my Grandpa when I hear those words. I feel that compliment deeply, and very much appreciate it. My Karate daughter has a “fighting spirit” too – in her it manifests as gleeful concoctions of strategy on the fly. I never saw my grandfather play football or baseball, but his eyes would light up as he talked about strategy. My autistic daughter has her great-grandfather’s legacy as well – she struggles against her own disability every single day at school, and this self-awareness and determination is marvelous to see. I think we’ve inherited something very precious indeed.
Thank you, Grandpa. I still remember 70 years ago there was a young man not much older than my own daughters crawling back to camp in agony and fear, all his friends dead. Thank you.