I cannot watch people suffer. I cannot watch movies with violence, I cannot read the news constantly full of people being attacked and murdered. I cannot stand my Facebook feed, filled with posts about children dying of cancer or families who’s mother or father just were killed in a car accident, or people spewing insults arguing over issues. It took every ounce of my self control at times to stand at my father’s bed side while terrible, deep physical, mental, and emotional suffering slowly deteriorated his body in what would be his last seven weeks.
I had no idea. I read my history lessons as a child–so that’s what I based my understanding on. The concentration camps, the rounding up of Jews and other “types” of people. But how clean and under represented it was, I had no idea. Of course it would be. We were children. Children cannot mentally process the true, deep sense of horror and violence that was World War II. The physical and emotional suffering they endured. The men. The women. And, oh, the children.
My little ones will have the sweetest of childhoods. Yes, they have suffered loss. Most of my children vividly remember losing their sweet brother halfway through the pregnancy. My children were robbed of a lifetime of memories with my father. My five year old will have fuzzy, abstract memories at best. And my son–he will have no memories at all. But overall? They will have a beautiful, innocent clean childhood.
Last summer, I read The War That Saved My Life. It was while reading that book that I first learned about Black Out curtains. I now wince every time we close our children’s black out curtains in their room. Oh what a different meaning! It was in that book that I also learned that children were forcibly separated from their parents and sent to live with, in a sense, foster families in “safer” parts of the country. Some of these children never saw their parents again. This book is “young adult” novel, but I admit it was a slightly difficult read for me.
In a desire to learn more about World War II and after hearing so many people rave about it, I checked out The Nightingale from my library. Ironically, it was that book that I read next to my father as he suffered so terribly in his last weeks. I sped through the first half of the book. It was addicting and fast-paced, an easy read; I grew terribly attached to the characters and the story played visually out in my head. Then, the book turned dark. More deeply and more raw than The War That Saved My Life, this book revealed more graphic, more awful details of World War II than I had ever known. I had no idea the extent to which people suffered during that terrible war. And I know–it’s because I have been sheltered and protected from the awful truth.
The more pages I turned, the worse it became. As my own father’s health continued to decline, as more humiliating and terrible sufferings racked his body, the book became increasingly more violent and detailed. I’d read a few pages, put it down, not sure I’d be able to finish the book. I stood for hours one afternoon, as my father slept through sedation, my hand in his limp hand, as I read from the book that lay on his hospital bed. My legs grew tired as I stood, not wanting to leave his side. My back ached, my head spun as reality grew bleaker. But I kept standing. And I kept reading.
I have no right to continue to shelter myself from the atrocities of what people suffered during World War II. Those who do not learn history, are doomed to repeat it. My mother always said this to us, encouraging us to read as much as we could about history even with its raw and violent injustices. So, I kept turning each page of The Nightingale, soaking in every horrific detail that people–children of God–suffered. But it was not–is not–just the physical and emotional suffering that struck me. We did this to each other. Because of hate, because of pride, one group of arrogant people subjected other people–Jews, homosexuals, Catholics, the list goes on–to horrific suffering. Families were separated, people suffered more than what should have been physically and mentally possible, millions of people were killed. Slowly, with as much intended suffering as possible, nearly a generation of people were wiped out.
I took the book with me the night my mother called us home. It was in my bag. I took it out once, at my father’s bedside the night before we lost him. I stared at the cover. The blue-black with the blue and golden writing. The rose bush and golden bird lighting onto the bush. And I put it back in my bag. I stood up, walked to my father’s bedside.
Dad. Dad. Daddy!
He was so agitated. It was so hard to watch. Not even close to the giant of a man who had entered the hospital. He was almost unrecognizable. But those eyes. I knew those eyes.
He looked at me, his eyes settling on mine one final time. The flash of recognition.
It’s Addie–your Sprite!
That precious nod.
I love you. You know that? I love you so very much, Daddy!
The last nod, his eyes lost connection with mine. I watched the them grow distant, and he looked away. It was the last time his eyes would settle on mine in this life. The next 24 hours were hell. And had he not been my father, I’m not sure I could have stood and watched what I did. Maybe we did, we seven people, because we took strength from one another. I could feel myself taking strength from my brothers, my sisters, my mom. We were holding each other up by being together.
Once I got home, the book went back to the library for awhile. Not because I wasn’t going to finish it. But, because every time I tried, the cover took me right back to the days where we hoped beyond reality that he would live. The days spent sitting in a hospital chair for hours, looking often at his sweet face. The days we prayed he’d be spared. The nights I spent weeping next to my bedside with a candle lit, praying him through another complication, as his body suffered another physical blow that we were not sure he would survive.
Suffering. Human suffering. So universal. So constant. So inescapable. So painful. But, sometimes so intentional. We shelter ourselves so much. I had no idea what it looked like to watch a strong, giant of a man waste away so quickly. What deep bodily and mental suffering looked like. Everything is cleaned. History books–cleaned. Reality of war–cleaned. Human injustice–cleaned. Illness and death–cleaned.
I finished the book this morning. It was so hard to turn each page by the end. It took great force. I had to force myself to finish a book about World War II. How pathetic and shameful to admit. People lived that. And I struggle to finish a fictional book written about it.
As I shut the back cover, I can’t help but think. The sheltering, the cleansing of history–what is it doing for us? The sterilization of suffering and death–what is this accomplishing? We are weaker than previous generations, our stomachs unable to handle the truth, our minds unable to process such atrocities. Many of us struggler to witness and process true pain and loss. But even more, we hide what hatred sown by human beings can do. An army of men rose to power all over Europe and caused indescribably suffering and killed millions of people.
And I look at Facebook today, the news, my own corner of the world. The hatred. Oh, the hatred. Mosques and Catholic Churches bombed, with so many lives lost. Wars still fought, terrorists still mutilating and killing. So much hatred, so much violence, so much death. And people are the victims. Precious souls from God. But we can’t–won’t, maybe–comprehend that. Because we are sheltered. We see words, read numbers. And that’s all they are. Words and numbers. Because most of us haven’t personally lived through the effects of this hatred.
My father was spared no suffering by the end. What a tragedy it was for us. To watch the pillar of our family fight so hard, spend his days in torture. Never rising from that awful bed. That book that I read page by page by his bedside, the same copy, sits next to me now. I thumb the pages. Page 129, he was still alive. Page 273, still here. Page 319, gone. But, he was never alone. He was never not watched over by someone who loved him deeply. Because he taught us how to love.
All those people who suffered. I had no idea how much. Who struggled to stay alive in camps and bunkers and homes, only to die a horrible death. To you–I am sorry.
Oh, what power hatred has. But what greater power love has. An entire generation whose lives were destroyed by hatred. While I have been sheltered from the violence, the graphic details, I have realized this: In subsequent generations, those who were taught how to love, what real love looks like, that’s the undoing of the hatred. My father loved until the end. And he was loved until the end. In his final weeks, he showed us what faithful, Godly loved looked like. My mother showed us what sacrificial love was–even making the most difficult decision of her life. Letting him go.
It is love–sacrificial, Christly love that will quench the hatred. It is teaching each other, our children, our families and friends, what the opposite of that kind of hatred can do. Not only learning about the historical periods of hatred, but the power of love, every small or large act of kindness, will spare us a repeat of that history. Every time you have to slow down to hold open the door, smile at a stranger, leave a note for someone. Every time we love those with whom we disagree, embrace those with different beliefs, welcome those of different color. We undo and keep at bay the hatred.
Mother Teresa said it best:
I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.
I promise to my children, the keepers of the future, that I will gradually teach them the effects of hatred but emphasize and live out the power of love. Because love is infinitely more powerful than hate.