“Death comes like a thief in the night.”
Those words have been etched in my brain for twenty-six and a half years, when my mother quietly uttered them following the unexpected death of my dad. And now, the thief has returned. My father-in-law, whom I have written about several times in this blog, passed away during the night. With his recently rapid decline in health, we knew Death would take him any day. No, it did not sneak in through a back door. Rather, it came as a welcome reprieve for a man who suffered much toward the end of his time on this earth. And, no, it is not a tragedy. He lived a long and full life. He grew up without knowing his father, having lost him to the thief at the tender age of two. He was not fatherless, however. He had uncles who lovingly served as father figures. He attended Marmion Military Academy, beginning what would become a seventy year dedication to the Monks of Marmion Abbey. At the terribly young age of nineteen, he experienced, simultaneously, both the brutality and merciful heroics of his fellow man when he suffered a life-threatening and, certainly, life-changing wound during the battle at Iwo Jima. Upon his return home, he attended college, eventually earning his Master’s degree from the University of Chicago. But, without question, among all his achievements, the title he most cherished was simply “Dad.”
He was a humble and faith-filled man who never considered himself a hero for his military service, uncomfortable with the label. He never thought himself above anyone. Ever. He was a man who witnessed good and evil in the world. He was a man who loved his family. And he was a man who loved God and took his faith very seriously. He lived his life in such a way that he never needed to worry about when the thief would come. So, while he will be missed by we who are left behind, his passing is not a tragedy. It is simply his final journey home.
Today is the day that will live in infamy. Yes, December 7, 1941 will always be remembered for the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, spiralling the United States into a second World War. My father served in WWII as an Army paratrooper with the Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne Division. My father-in-law served in the Marine Corps and, at the age of nineteen, suffered a severe, life-threatening injury during the battle at Iwo Jima. Only recently, has he told anyone of his experience during that life-changing moment.
He still isn’t sure what hit him. All he knew was, in a split second, he felt like he was on fire. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he only prayed that the unspeakable pain would end. Unbeknownst to him, his unit had been pushed back as he lay, completely unprotected, in front of his own lines. A medic came to his aid and hastily administered morphine, while attempting to carry him back to safety on a canvas stretcher, only to be dropped several times when bombs exploded all around them. He says he can remember looking at the medic just as a bullet shot right through him. He remembers seeing the hole. Then, my nineteen year old, wounded father-in-law administered morphine to the very medic who had so bravely come to his aid. That man never survived the battle. He died saving my husband’s father, but he will never be forgotten.
(Insert shameless plug here) My son, Brian, produced a short documentary, while studying film in college, entitled, The Story Of A Generation, which can be viewed on You Tube. In it, he interviewed his grandfather about his experience at Iwo. It is worth the time to watch, as these men are vanishing too quickly and, soon, I fear their stories will be relegated to ancient history. After the war, he went on to receive his bachelor’s degree at LaSalle College in Philadelphia, continued at the University of Chicago for his Master’s degree, and, then together with my mother-in-law, raised eight children. Though his injury is a constant reminder of the hell he endured, he remains “Always Faithful” to the Marine Corps. Semper fi, Grandpa.