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How to Remember

My son, like many eleven year old boys, loves to play “army guys” and “war”. Would his interests be different had he been our son from a younger age, rather than adopted at the age of eight? Who knows. This weird boy games/girl games stuff seems to be everywhere so he may not have been any different. I’d like to think he would have, but probably not. His interest in all things war makes us uncomfortable. We get that he doesn’t understand the realities of war so it’s all fun and games to him, but still.

We took him out of school early on Friday so that we could meet with family for a vacation. This meant he missed the school’s Remembrance Day assembly. I felt uneasy about this. I didn’t want the school to get the idea that we don’t feel such assemblies are important, that we’re all “Woo hoo! Extra vacay day!” But more importantly, I guess I have a hope that there might be something in such an assembly that might convey to my son what I don’t know how to about Remembrance Day: War is hell. Let’s not do it again. For so many reasons.

That’s why, today, I am struggling with what to say to my son as he plays on the beach without a care in the world. As he lives a life children in other countries don’t get to, a life his grandparents didn’t get to. As he lives a life not knowing the realities of war. As he lives the life we (my wife and I, my family, my country) have worked hard to create for him; a world without war.

I don’t know a lot about war myself. It is one of the privileges of being born into a country like Canada at the time that I did. But in my own way, I have seen its effects. And it isn’t fun and games to me. Like many people my age, my grandfathers were both in the war. It broke them. Plain and simple, it broke them. I cannot imagine what it is like for young men to “fight for their country” and I in no way mean to disrespect the intentions of those who did. I understand completely that they all did what they believed was right and that, yes, there are times when such measures are necessary. My heart breaks for my grandfathers and all the men (and now women) who have fought in wars; those who lived, those who survived, and those who were never the same. But, for me, Remembrance Day is also about more than them.

I know what damage was done to the families of those men who were never the same. Mine was one of them. While I didn’t come along until 1970, that damage influenced how I was raised (both positively and negatively), shaped my family, is carried on in me. I have choices about how I live that my parents didn’t. Not just because I grew up in a country without war, but because I grew up in a home without addiction, abuse, and terror as a result of war. That privilege influences how I see the world, how I parent, and what I fight for. I am well aware of my privilege. But I am aware of my family’s history too.

So, how do I talk to my son about that history? How do I help him understand that, when we mark Remembrance Day, it’s about honouring the lives lost, but also the lives damaged? That those lives may include people who never, ever saw war first hand? How do I teach my son that it is never okay to hurt a woman, no matter how much you are hurting. That it is never okay to violate a child, no matter what violations you have seen that changed your brain irreparably? How do I share with him that these things are what I think about when I honour Remembrance Day? That I cry for my grandfathers, yes, and for all the lives lost, but that I also cry for the other casualties of war? That so many people lived but, in essence, didn’t survive. That, despite never having been at war, I was shaped by WWII and that I am one of the lucky ones who came out virtually unscathed. Actually, luck had nothing to do with it. “Luck” was my parents’ conscious decisions that I would not be a casualty of a war that was over decades before I was born, and yet still, I was impacted by what went before. And how do I explain to my son that I am overwhelmed with gratitude that he doesn’t know anything of that.

How do I navigate that line between letting my son grow up in a life free from war and its far-reaching destruction and a life without knowing our important history?

My son is eleven. I am well aware that there are eleven year old children in countries currently being impacted by war and my concerns are trivial compared to what they are living through. I am well aware that he does not have a father broken by war, a mother responsible for picking up the pieces who is abused when she tries to. I am aware that he does not live with the ghosts and monsters of the war screaming in their sleep down the hall. And for this I am grateful. But those who are not aware of their history are doomed to repeat it. And my son has been through a war of his own. While I don’t want him to be burdened with anything more, I want him to understand why it’s not fun and games, why we remember, why we guard ourselves against forgetting, and why, most importantly for me, we promise each other: Never Again.

As I write this, my son comes out onto the deck of our vacation home with a message from my wife, “It’s time to make the salad.” While he tells me, he shoots off a cap gun that he snuck into the basket at the store today without us knowing, that we decided to let him keep because, hey, it’s vacation. That now seems like a terrible choice.

I don’t know how to talk to him about these things.

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