La Varde 1944 – Opa’s Last Stand

Why does the death of my grandfather, a man I never met and my father hardly knew, fascinate me?

War is no light matter, we are all touched by it. I have been touched by it. My family a casualty of it.
War is a part of my history.

To bring war out of the history books, out of the television, the newspapers, out of one’s imagination, out of my imagination, I felt a need to retrace the final days of my grandfather’s life.

When my older brother mentioned he was going to France to find Opa’s grave, I had to go along. I wanted to make my history, my reality. I wanted to see and feel the place where the battles of Normandy freed a continent on the souls of so many men. I wanted to own the small fraction of that piece of history that was my heritage.

Opa in WWI.
Opa the soldier in WWI.

 

I don’t know much about my grandfather. He was born in Meerane Saxony Germany in 1897, a town near the Ore mountains. My father shared with me that my grandfather’s family came from many woodworkers. Some say this region is where many Western Christmas traditions came from: the Nutcracker, Christmas pyramids, and arches, and the famous smokers. He had served as a young man in WWI and received an iron cross for bravery. He was a musician and violin maker. He moved to the Netherlands during the Great Depression where he met my grandmother and settled in Den Hague. It was in Den Hague that he opened a violin shop. And it was here in February of 1943, when my father was only eight, that he was drafted at the age of 45 into Hitler’s war.

Opa the violin maker.
Opa the violin maker in Den Hague.

I wrote in a previous post, that my grandfather was in an anti-tank division stationed in the Netherlands until June 1944, when his company 657 panzerjager were sent to Normandy and deployed in St. Lo area.

In that previous post, I also stated we thought there was conflicting information about the location of my Opa’s death. A document my brother received from the German government said he died in La Varde, which my brother translated as Fort La Varde near St. Malo in Brittany.  A letter received by my step-great grandfather, in 1948, from a comrade who was with Opa at the time he died stated Opa died in a foxhole near St. Lo.

Well the mystery still remains, but I think my brother has found the best answer and that is in a small hamlet called La Varde on the Cotentin peninsula near St. Lo. This was the location of a battle located in the marsh surrounding the Taute river. Americans, under General Macon, were making their way towards St. Lo and discovered a small German stronghold on the hamlet of La Varde. American troops sludged through knee deep mud, threw grenades and fired rifles towards the ill prepared Germans in the late summer afternoon of July 17th, 1944.

La Varde, France
La Varde, France
Opa’s last stand, La Varde. La Varde is a small black box right of center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My grandfather was killed instantly when a piece of flying shrapnel from a grenade sliced it’s way across his neck and through his jugular vein. He was in France for less than a month. It was probably his first experience in combat.

His body would lay in the muck of that marsh for a few days, until the fighting stopped and the dead could be collected and brought to a proper burial place. Opa’s last stand.

Or was it…

As I walked along the beach near Fort La Varde, the morning we were to visit his grave, I said a little prayer for my Opa. I wanted him to know my brother and I wanted to pay our respects, to say thank you for his sacrifice and to let him know that his legacy continues. I think he was tickled we were there and  we were thinking of him, a person we never knew. Opa, it will take more than war to break the bonds of our family! Thank you Opa!

Last family picture.
Last family picture, my father is the seated little boy.

 

Car accidents do happen…

The fog outside this morning is like pea soup.

Driving through this stuff is not impossible but it does mess with my eyes. Or is it because it is a Monday morning and my two cups of coffee haven’t kicked in yet?

I have my second cup of coffee with me on my drive to work. At a stop light I decide to dump the cold brew left in my cup outside my window. The light turns green as I place my cup into the cup holder, slowly I let off the brake, the car moving thanks to gravity and going downhill, but wait there is a drip – save the drip from staining my seat or my pants –  eyes off the road so briefly…

BAM.

I hit the car in front of me. The sound was horrible. Sparking a memory, from 15 years ago, of the last time I was in a car accident – only then I was the one hit.

Am I sure this is happening? Where am I? How did I get here?

The fog makes the scene surreal.

We move our cars to the side of the road.

He is uninjured. Only frazzled like me.

I apologize profusely, smile even.

Damn, I am such a Seattleite.

It was his first accident.

I walk him through the protocol.

We share information.

I call my insurance company.

It’s over.

Or has it only just begun?

accident

 

 

 

 

 

Be the change you desire…

sun set

Lately I have been reminded about my limited time on this planet.

The reminders have been blatant, smack you in the face, kind of events. A friend committing suicide, another friend dying from colon cancer and my mother’s journey to rid her body of cancer.

My heart aches and my mind reels into motion, what can I do differently?

Questions abound…

Am I doing enough?

Am I serving my purpose?

Am I eating right?

Do I have cancer?

I had my annual mammogram, and now I am scheduled for my first colonoscopy. That was the easy part.

The hard part is reconciling my accomplishments, reconciling where my life is currently and looking at the map of my life and figuring out if I need to take a different route to get to where I need to go in the future.

My heart aches and my mind reels…  I do not want their deaths and their struggles to be lost – there is a lesson in there for me to learn from… I peer into my soul and see that I can do more…

I can help others!

I can teach others!

I can share with others my humanity! We all hurt, we all struggle, but it is through this strife that we can emerge anew.

I have learned that death is not an end, it is the beginning of something new, change is not bad, it is good – Really good.

Take some time and peer into your soul – sit quietly in a park, under a tree or by the water. Where do you want to go? Who do you know you can be? See your potential.

Now go on and be the change you desire.

A bed of roses…

Death.

No matter how hard we try, we just can’t get away from it. Nope, sorry, you too will die, your spirit will leave your physical body and go…  wherever spirits go when we die. So why do you ignore it? You know… Death?  When someone you know or love is consciously dying because they are terminally ill or they are on life support after a tragic accident – why are you afraid? Why don’t you know how to act? to feel? What to say?

uncle danny 1987
Uncle Danny with cousin Nick, 1987, photo taken by author.

When my uncle Danny was consciously dying, having been diagnosed with AIDS a year or two earlier, I visited him for 3 weeks during the summer of 1987 in San Francisco. I was 16 and in denial, how could he be dying? He was full of life, was an amazing chef, funny, caring (he had started school to become a nurse when he was diagnosed), handsome and most of all I loved him more than any other person in my life. He was my father figure, since my relationship with my biological father was not so great. He was the person who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, what I wanted to study in College, how I was feeling, he was actively engaged in my life. So how could he die when I was beginning to go through a period in my life when I needed him most?

Author and her uncle
The author and uncle Danny summer 1987.

I was selfish, “Uncle Danny, can you move back to Chicago?” I asked one morning during that 3 week visit, I  wanted him to be closer to me. “Honey” he said. “I am going to die here.” Despite my shock at his answer, I appreciated his bluntness, I respected that he was a man who didn’t mince his words, he told it like it was.  During those three weeks I was with him, the last time I would be with him on this earth, I tried with all my might to squeeze everything I could out of every day. I was  hyper-conscious of his impending death, I tried hard to cherish every moment with him, thinking this could be the last time. Despite being a warrior against death, I still had a weird hole inside of me, one that somehow couldn’t be filled with the fresh squeezed orange juice he gave me every morning. Nor with saying “I love you Uncle Danny” every night before going to sleep. I was scared that when he wasn’t around, who would care about me like he did? Who would listen to me?

The day I had to get on a plane back to Chicago, I knew it would be the last time I would see him. I tried pushing that feeling aside as I gave him that last hug before walking down the jet-way. That walk down the jet-way was the longest walk of my life, I was all too conscious of what was happening, my heart breaking with every step I made towards that plane. The worst was I couldn’t just break down and cry, I was in public for crying out loud. I had to keep it together, if not for me, for my uncle, whose eyes I did catch when I did one of those “last looks” the kind that turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt – the kind that tore an even greater hole in my heart as I saw tears welling up in my uncle’s eyes.

Journaling saved my life. My uncle recommended I start journaling after a phone conversation soon after I returned to Chicago. He also suggested I look into applying to a university I had never heard of before, called University of Chicago (my future alma mater). A few months later during a cold Chicago winter morning, I awoke abruptly, got dressed and went for a cold walk along the shore of Lake Michigan before anyone was awake. I took a long walk, eventually ending up at a local catholic church, St. Joseph’s. I was not raised religious, but I felt a need to light a candle for my uncle and say a prayer. After an hour or two I finally went back home. As soon as I walked in the door, I heard my mother on the phone, confirming what I already knew, he had passed away.

My grandmother was with him that morning, and later that year, I would share my story with her and she would confirm that at the moment he took his last breath, was the same time as when I woke up.

Author and grandmother 1971
One of the first images of the author and her grandmother, 1971.

My grandmother, Elivira Rosa Silva was born 95 years ago in Preston Cuba, where my great-grandfather worked in the sugar cane fields of an American company. She died 5 years ago, just shy of her 90th birthday in San Francisco, CA. Although she was old she had been full life: a former beauty queen, she cared about her looks to the very end, she loved eating well and sneaking a cigarette every now and again. She gave up her independence, reluctantly, about a year before her death.

On Valentine’s day 2007, I tried calling her at the nursing home. When the nurse said she wasn’t available, I called my mother to see if she had spoken with her. “No” she said. I called again the next day and still no luck, so I called the receptionist. After trying to locate her, the receptionist came back to the phone and said, “Your grandmother is not here.” I responded, “Is she in the hospital?” “Yes.” she replied, not able to give me anymore information than that. I called all of the hospitals near Alameda, CA and finally found my grandmother in the CCU of a hospital in Oakland CA. After talking with her nurse, I was able to talk with her doctor. “You are the first family member I have had a chance to speak with” the doctor said. He went on to explain to me that she had several infections in her body, her kidneys were not in good shape and her heart was bad. I asked what her prognosis was and he said 50/50. I hung up the phone and made a reservation for early the next morning to fly down to Oakland.

2005 author with grandmother
Last image of the author together with her grandmother, 2005.

I had to convince my mother that “this was it” that if she didn’t get her butt on the next airplane to San Francisco that she would regret not being there during her mother’s last days on this planet. My mother was letting her anger at her mother get the best of her. Thankfully she did get on an airplane.

I have consciously danced with death on a bed of roses, smelled her heavenly scent and felt her prickly thorns in my heart. Death opened my heart to experience life, raw, naked, intensely. So why would I want to fear this part of my natural life history as a human? Why would I want to miss out on witnessing the amazing transition from our current dimension to another?

I will be there with you as you die. I am not afraid. I consciously walk towards death every day and I have never felt so alive.

Til Death…

Death.

What it means to each of us is very personal, but transcendent as well, meaning it is a part of our being human. What is your relationship with death? Is it filled with fear? Peace? or Indifference (which may lead back to fear)?

The author with her childhood friends Khal and Regina, Dec. 2010.
The author with her childhood friends Khal and Regina, Dec. 2010.

It was June 12, 2012, a month ago, when I went to an old friend’s funeral. Khal’s passing reminded me about my relationship with life and with death and how we who are left on this physical plane to deal with loss. Although Khal’s physical body left this planet way too soon and it filled me with sadness, I knew his spirit lives on in the people whom he influenced with his love and his stalwart personality. I am at peace with death.

What I am not in peace with is how some of us will meet our death. Through stupid accidents, preventable or treatable diseases, through another’s incompetence or malicious intent.  Khal’s death was due to preventable and treatable diseases, that many of us have, it’s called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), it’s called pride, it’s called emotional abuse as a child, it’s called being overwhelmed with life. I saw so much of my own struggles when I last talked to him, we had just reconnected via Facebook in 2010 and were planning a small high school reunion. During this time I remember sharing with him my concern over his weight and health (he was an athlete in high school and a U.S. Marine), he shared that it was because he had a hard time making time for himself.  I suggested he think of his future, his kids, that he needed to find time for himself, for them and he promised me that he would start going to the gym. I said I would keep tabs on him, that I wanted to hear how he lost weight when I saw him at the reunion. I did keep tabs on him, once or twice and he had started going to the gym. I was even keeping tabs on him in my dream state: “Khal, I had a dream that you were smoking in your garage.” I messaged him one morning. He was dumbfounded, he said that no one, not even his wife, knew that he smoked. I asked him why he did that, and he responded “Stress.”

I lost contact with Khal soon after the reunion. He had reconnected with other friends and I had hoped through that he would find some reprieve from his stress and quench his need to talk to someone about it. I was also going through my own dark period (end of relationship, dealing with demons from my past, etc.) and had begun shutting people out of my life. During this time I even deleted my FB page, losing contact with many people I thought were superfluous in my life. I was performing my own type of death ritual. I needed to do that to reconnect with my true self and needed time and space to find me.

Me and tio
The author, with Uncle Danny, circa early 1971.

This wasn’t the first time I had done my own death ritual. Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Transitioning from marriage to divorce. Death to me is a transition. I came to terms with death, both physical and psychological, when I was a junior in high school. It was during this time that I learned my uncle had AIDS (a preventable and now treatable disease). It was the mid-1980s, when the big AIDS scare began and all those awareness campaigns started. Uncle Danny wasn’t just any uncle, I had three others, he was my kindred spirit. He died during my senior year, an already difficult transition period (college looming, boyfriend being a butt head). Thanks to his suggestion, the summer before his death, I had begun writing in a journal. These journals, were pivotal in helping with transition; they provided me with a venue to vent my anger, talk about my sadness and eventually see that in death we do not part with those whom we have that special connection. My uncle was there with me then and is now and I’m still writing in a journal.

I am at peace with death. I am at peace with transitions. Trust me, it doesn’t make it any easier when a relationship ends or when someone you love dies. It doesn’t mean that I look forward for the next transition to happen. No, because I am still only human and I have these things called emotions to deal with, to work through, to come to terms with. But I am wiser. After each transition I learn something new about my self, about what it truly means to be human and what this life is all about. My spirituality grows with each transition. It is as if being at your most vulnerable, your most human, opens a window to see beyond this physical plane of being. To gain sight to see that my energy mingles with all the energies of the universe, that I am a part of something greater, that we are a part of something greater.

I am at peace with death and with life. Today I realized it has been a month since my friend was buried, and in recalling my relationship with death I realize that it has been 24 years since my uncle died. I am vulnerable, I am feeling emotional, but I am also feeling the love that connected us during their time on this planet and I can continue feeling it to this day and possibly forever.

Fork you…

Sign to various locations
Sometimes the roads in life are in a different language.

When there is a fork in the road take it. Just do something for crying out loud. Don’t just stand there scratching your head wondering which is the “best” road. For some it will be the road less traveled, unpaved, muddy, with huge pot holes or ruts. For others it will be immaculately paved, well trodden, a road others have obviously taken, cookbook, zero or little uncertainty. And then there are those “middle of the road” folks, who like paved roads but are willing to deal with a little gravel now and again. But as we all know there are no road maps for life on this lovely planet Earth, don’t let Rand McNally fool you into thinking there is. So my advice to you is to have fun, be adventurous and face your fears. If you don’t like the road you chose, then tomorrow choose a different one.

Secretly, I have been searching for that well paved road all my life. You know the one with all those well lit signs, telling me where to go and when to turn left or right, to get to my destination. Every turn I’ve made in my life has left me on a road I didn’t know existed the day before. The road to my marriage, the road to my divorce, the road to my academic degrees or my career. I had no guides, written or otherwise, yet I never made a wrong turn. Because regardless of what people may say, we choose our journey, we choose our lessons and we choose to learn from them or not.

The author taking an opportunistic swim in a pool above the Rio Toa.

Traveling is a great way to determine what type of person you are. Are you an adventurous muddy road sort of person? Or do you like to do the tourist thing and have someone else guide your vacation? Me, I’m that person who reads guidebooks before a trip and then tosses them aside when I arrive to my destination. Or at least I strive to be that fearless soul. Rather I am in the middle somewhere, sometimes safe, and sometimes daring. It just depends where I go and with whom I am with. Oh yeah, when you travel, just remember who you have chosen to travel with. That person may or may not walk along the same road as you. Remember, traveling is a microcosm of life, your experiences will be colored by whom you are with and who you choose to hang around. I once heard the great travel writer, Paul Theroux speak in Washington D.C., and he shared that early in his career he traveled with his wife, but he quickly realized that his experiences were being influenced by his concern about her welfare and he felt he wasn’t having authentic travel experiences. “Brilliant!” I thought.

My mother hiking to Rio Toa.
My mother not in her element. But she got an “A” for effort!

With all of this wisdom you would think I would make all of the right decisions on how to travel and with whom to travel with. Wrong! There is this thing called guilt that has forced me, gun to my back, to take a couple of trips with my mother. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mother, but she and I travel on very different roads. Knowledge of this was thrown to the wind when she asked me to go to Cuba with her. That trip had adventures that should be in a book and if the planets align, perhaps it will be.

Lesson: Even though you may consciously choose a road that will be bumpy and uncomfortable, you may learn things about yourself that are worthy for a book.

May the fork be with you!