Thursday, May 28, 2015

"I might not have sight, but I have insight...."

President Harry Truman sharing a laugh with my father-in-law, H. Smith Shumway, in 1947 while giving him an award. After landing on D-Day on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, he was blinded at age 22. He had been fighting though the hedgerows of France in the push to Paris when a landmine hit him..

On May 8 this month, the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the ending of World War II in Europe. On September 2, 2015 we will remember that final ending of the war that brutally dragged on a few more months in the Far East. Since I am going to be in Normandy, France next week for the 71st anniversary of D-Day, my thoughts drift to those brave souls who never came home to their families. And also those who left the Normandy shores with scars that would last a lifetime. My son and I will be there in proxy for my father-in-law who died four years at age 89. He came home blind, and would cheerfully, purposefully live the next almost seventy years in darkness. 

Although our world passed through unspeakable pain, death, and loss during the World War II years, I believe people rose to the occasion to do very difficult feats in those times. In many countries, they showed their mettle and courage--their strength of character. Maybe they did things they did not think they could ever do, but with sheer grit and dogged determination, they did it anyways. I salute them. But may it never happen again. May we remember those who have battled for us--by aspiring and living for peace.

In the internationally acclaimed book about WW2 in Germany, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the narrator, who happens to be Death, states at the end: "I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race--that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words so damning and brilliant. ...I am haunted by humans." Yes, humans constantly evade my predictions and estimations too. We humans are remarkable in our power to do inestimable good, and unfortunately, immense evil too.

This next week when I am in Normandy, I will remember the fallen (the average age of the soldiers who landed on D-Day was 22), and all those who battled for what they believed in. As individuals and as a group, I am grateful for their service 71 years ago. However, in 1996 when I walked the beach of Normandy beach with my father-in-law on a breezy springtime day in May, he pointed up to the cliffs, and said, "It is so quiet here now, just listening to the seagulls and the ocean. I remember when I climbed to the top of those cliffs. As I mounted to the top of the cliff and looked back at the sea with all the ships, planes, jeeps, and parachutes, I thought to myself, 'If only Roosevelt, Churchill, and Hitler could have seen this view with me below, they never would have asked us to do it. '" As he gazed down the cliffs at the death that surrounded him, my father-in-law did not cower and cave to his responsibilities. He trudged on, like he would do for the rest of his life.

Grandpa, I will be thinking of you--not only how you lived your life in battle, but how you tried to heal yourself and others after the war too. After spending two years in rehabilitation, and nurses saying they had never seen so much shrapnel in a body or being told you would never see again, you, instead, choose to live not only with dignity and independence, but with compassion and cheer. I can still see you with a twinkle of playfulness in your glass eyes when you would say, "I might not have sight, but I have insight." Love you, Grandpa--all the way to heaven and back!

Grandpa is on the stand behind President Obama with the other Normandy veterans. He has his red cap on that has a patch with the Big Red One patch on it. 

Smith with his sister before he was blinded--just before he went to war. He aimed to be a doctor, but when he was blinded he got a master's degree in counseling. He would later became a national figure for the blind , advocating for inclusion in the classroom--long before it was an accepted norm. His aim to contribute and help never left him.

When he left his parents to go to war, some of his last words to them were: "I will come home swinging both my arms and legs." It did not occur to him that he would  never see their faces again.
He married his college sweetheart, Sarah, after proving to her parents that he could support her as a counselor for the blind.
Smith and Sarah would raise seven girls, and one token boy--my husband.  Smith never shied away from changing diapers/nappies. Lucky for Sarah, he could always change them in the dark....

On the Jersey shore with Sarah--always sharing a joke or a laugh.
His beloved Sarah passed away from cancer not long after this picture. He lived the next 19 years without her. Again, with profound loss, he continued to live with humor and cheer. He could out pun anyone on the planet.
Grandpa Shumway, as everyone called him, lived with our family for almost seven years when our kids were growing up. Living with a blind grandpa has lots of bonuses: wrestling on the floor with a University of Wyoming wrestling champ, accompanying him as he played the violin and harmonica, getting him to speak for World War II Days at school in the community, having him show you his glass and plastic eyes, giving "professional like" magic shows for birthday parties and Cub Scout events, playing a competitive game of Rook, and being your cheerleader. He would always say when given a choice to do something fun or go home (and a few people were tired and it was late), "Don't be a party pooper." Sometimes he told me, "With your voice, you should be on the radio." How could you not love him?

A picture at the last family reunion. He had 41 grandchildren, and the ability to make everyone of them feel significant and important. They all knew he was one of their biggest fans.