Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Gene R. Westfall - my hero

I don't post really personal stuff very often.  But I've kept a journal on and off for nearly 30 years, and here is an entry about a man that I've admired for most of my life.  He died today.

March 15, 2015

Grandpa isn’t doing well.  The social worker at the home where he lives thinks he’s ‘leaving’.  Hardly a surprise, but still sad and hard to process.  He’s been through so much, and this is how it ends - with very little family, very few memories, and as weak as a kitten.  But he is loved.  And he is appreciated, probably more than he ever knew.  And as long as I live, he will be remembered.  He made a huge difference in my life, and in Mom’s, and in Lisa’s, and in Colleen’s.  And he’s one of the last of a generation that sacrificed so much.  We were never as close as I would have liked, but he’s one of my heroes.  And he’s a hero precisely because he doesn’t think he did anything heroic.

Gene R. Westfall - my grandfather.  And my hero.  I’m talking like he’s already gone, and I suppose in a way, he is.  He has been for a while.  But his body is still holding on.

We don’t know if it’s Alzheimer’s, or some other kind of dementia, but he’s a shell of the man I knew.  Such a cruel end.  At 92, all he would have left are his memories, and now those have been largely taken from him.  He barely remembers my Grandma.  He doesn’t remember his second wife at all.  He gets me confused with my uncle, the one who died decades ago.  Most amazing and disturbing, though, he doesn’t remember being in the Army.  His time in the Army and as a POW in WWII were as much a part of his identity as his own name.  He gave time and money to the American Legion and to the VFW for longer than I’ve been alive.

Maybe it’s a blessing that he doesn’t remember the war, but his organizations were such a big part of his life.  And now, all of it is gone - his friends, most of his family.  The people who knew him when he was himself can be counted on one hand - me, Lisa, Mom, Colleen.  And Lisa and Colleen only saw him a handful of times.  One man, who thought himself so ordinary, made such an impact on so many other lives.  It makes me sad for the men who didn’t survive the war, who didn’t get to come home and have families and grow old.

I asked him once if he had survivor’s guilt.  It was an impolite question, but I was young and didn’t know any better.  He did.  He wondered why he got to continue and the others didn’t.  That’s the brutality of war, though.  There was no reason.  He could have very easily been one of the countless dead, and I know that at one time, that weighed on him.

He fought his demons with alcohol and drugs after he came home, like so many former soldiers.  In spite of what he thought of himself, he was strong, and he carved out a life, raised a family, stayed engaged with the world.  He lived on his own into his late 80s, even though he probably shouldn’t have been alone for some of that.

I didn’t mean to make this entry all about Grandpa, but I’ve not written a lot about him before, and I wanted to get this down while it’s fresh in my mind.  And he deserves to be written about.  I don’t know if anyone will ever read this journal, but maybe someday, even after I’m gone, someone will read his name, say it out loud, and remember what he did, what so many of them did, and what so many of them sacrificed.

I’ll have to look through my notebooks.  I asked him about the war once, on a car trip to visit his Aunt, the woman who raised him, when she was in a home.  I wrote down everything I thought was important.  He remembered names of places, names of ships, dates, unit numbers.  I know I have it, but it’s probably packed up right now.  When I find it, I’ll put it here in hopes that someone, maybe Colleen, will be interested enough to do a little research, to read about what he experienced.

My little problems seem pretty insignificant compared to the life of a WWII soldier.  Maybe it would be good for me to remember that once in a while.

Be at peace, Gene Westfall.  And thank you.

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