It’s two in the morning on Nov. 11. My mind fixates on the death, dying and grieving class I will be teaching at Toronto’s Emmanuel College in eight hours.
Because the classroom faces Queen’s Park, site of provincial ceremonies — cannon shots and fighter jet flypasts — I will not be able to ignore the 11th hour of Remembrance Day.
This is not my only struggle. Each year, I dutifully wear a red poppy and stand with reluctance, my mind a battleground for the two minutes of silence. Does Remembrance Day not glorify armed conflict in a world unwilling to rid itself of guns, violence and war?
As I ruminate on how I will incorporate the act of remembrance into the class time, I recall that one of the students, a military chaplain, is already scheduled to present on suicide and complicated grief in the armed services. The solution to my quandary is suddenly obvious: I will ask him to present at the start of class and then facilitate the two minutes of silence at 11 a.m.
His presentation of sobering statistics and stories puts a human face on the military. He tells of a young soldier who, on return from Afghanistan, leaves his bedroom unusually tidy, goes to the armoury and shoots himself by the chaplain’s office. He describes a military culture that understands grief as weakness, where mass casualties are taken for granted. There is little help or reintegration on returning home.
As the clock strikes 11, he leads the two minutes of silence. He reminds us that this precise hour and date is when the last shot was fired at the end of the First World War — the war that would “end all war.”
My heart is opened by his stories. In the silence, I feel my connection viscerally: my grandfather fought in the trenches for four years. He returned at age 23; his buddies did not. He was gentle and loving, yet an aunt recounts the time she asked him about the war. In a completely uncharacteristic demeanour, he replied, “Don’t you ever ask me that again.”
I remember with tears the irony of his death at age 65, in 1961. In Grade 9, a knock at my classroom door summoned me to the office. I was sent home. There I learned that my grandfather, at the bank to cash his paycheque, had been shot during a robbery. He died two weeks later; the date was Nov. 11.
The summer following my class, I spent time in Dresden and Berlin, two German cities that were massively bombed during the Second World War. Both have constant reminders of the horror and human cost of war. Little brass “stumbling blocks” are embedded among the paving stones of Berlin, naming those who lived nearby and were murdered by the Nazis. Both cities also speak to human resilience: cathedrals and other buildings have been reconstructed with remarkable care, detail and beauty.
Visiting these places, I felt grief, but like that day in the classroom, a deeper meaning of Remembrance Day silence is etched into my being. It is not only a reminder of the best and the worst that we are as human beings, but also an opportunity to personally recommit to bring more love into our hurting world.
Anne Simmonds is an adjunct professor at Emmanuel College and lives in Toronto.
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