Out of Darkness, Light

A Man of Valor

Last week was horrible. Just horrible.

My cousins called me. My 95-year-old aunt died of COVID-19. She’d been frail, especially after breaking her arm last summer. After they move her into a rehabilitation home, then nursing home, my cousins knew their mother wasn’t coming out. Auntie had trouble remembering where she was or who she was with. Days of the week became a mystery, and slowly those who loved her fogged into a night where little, if anything became recognizable.

Everyone was grateful her nursing home remained free of the virus. Those who worked there as well as those who called it home began to receive their vaccinations. Everything looked bright. Until, as it will, COVID-19 snuck in the back door and touched Auntie. Though she had her shot, she developed a mild case of it. She tested positive, then negative, then positive again.

Finally, Auntie had enough. She told my cousins she wanted to die. The world had become an unrecognizable place, offering nothing of the vast world she and her husband, my uncle, set off to explore. Confined to a hospital bed, in a negative-pressure room, with no visitors allowed except the health care workers, she chose to bow out early in the morning. While it had not been entirely a surprise, it was still a shock, as any passing is.

Our families did so much together. Auntie and Uncle traveled with my parents. On the last week of every August, they pulled in our driveway at our home on the New Jersey shore, camper in tow. It was the highlight of our summer – cousins to play with, Uncle and Dad competing to see who made the best pancakes, long days at the beach and evenings playing every sort of game. Auntie made the best chocolate cookies. They perfectly accompanied the A&W root beer and Breyer’s ice cream bought from the drive-in just across the way. All these memories, more alive than ever.

With heavy hearts, my cousins began the sometimes daunting, often wistful task of sorting through their parents’ belongings. Auntie had loads and loads of photos, plus scrapbooks from all the places she’d been throughout her long life. As they reached into the closet, up on that top shelf, a metal box lay almost hidden. Cousin opens it and finds a collection of journals. The pages reveal a story only spoken in passing, bereft of any real details.

Uncle served in the Navy during World War II, Pacific Theater. That’s all I knew, except once he mentioned that he’d walked on the Great Wall of China. Had no idea of the course of events that took him there. He served on an aircraft carrier, and maybe other ships, but he never mentioned to me which ones or even what he did on them. Maybe my father heard the stories, but perhaps they weren’t fit for children’s ears.

Now those words so carefully written in beautiful cursive handwriting told a story in exacting detail where Uncle went and what he’d done to defend the Allies. All the names of all the famous ships were listed: Intrepid, Alaska, New Jersey, others. He’d been to Iwo Jima. He engaged in gun battles with Japanese Kamikaze pilots. He went to Japan. Many of the Pacific Islands. Even something about a sunken ship, though not sure yet if it was his. One wonders how he managed to survive. All this history, witnessed by Uncle as a young sailor. As my cousins turned the pages, the ghosts of the war rose out of the journals, their father chronicling what he’d seen and where he’d been, never to be forgotten.

My cousins will scan these precious journals and put them into books for all to read, to remember. Much of the information is in acronyms. Could my son help translate? You see, Son is in the Navy, and I’m certain he’d more than want to be of service. To honor his great uncle by deciphering his journals while serving should certainly be interesting. It’s almost as if Uncle is extending his hand to his nephew, welcoming him into a world few would understand. Although Son’s serving in peacetime, he’s put himself on the line for our nation, just like his Uncle.

The man in the above picture now rests with my aunt, forever at peace.

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