Every year I wear a poppy pinned to my jacket.
When he was a child, my father would hide under a big wooden kitchen table while his stepfather, probably moved by demons he could never comprehend, mercilessly kicked at him with work-boots and tried to thrash him with the buckle of his belt.
When he was fourteen years old, my father lied about his age and joined the British Royal Navy. My father and other the youth of his generation, like plankton adrift on the tide, were swept up by immeasurable forces beyond their understanding or command, and set down in the maelstrom of World War II.
Stationed aboard a Destroyer, my father was saw many of his fellow children injured or killed in a variety of exotic locales. He saw a man eaten alive by shark, and another maimed by a faulty cannon. He saw the bodies of German U-Boat mariners floating on the surface of the Ocean. He was awarded a medal for using a rowboat and a length of rope to tow a floating mine away from a ship.
In South Africa my father worked on diamond mines and rode his motorcycle into my mother’s heart. In an English seaside town he watched her body consumed by a power outside his understanding, watched her slowly die in a hospital surrounded by doctors and useless machines, all fighting an unwinnable war.
The poppy is red, the colour of blood and anger.
Alone in a house full of children, my father had to learn, with so little practical experience, how to nurture and keep alive the flame of life. He learned dress wounds and cool fevers. He learned to change soiled bedsheets and what to do about measles and whooping cough. He learned to cook meatloaf and chicken and vegetables. When the times of raving darkness descended on him, he terrified his children with words and fists, by threatening to leave. By not leaving.
Pretending to sleep in the darkness of my bedroom, I would listen to the sounds of overturning furniture, wild curses, dishes shattering against the wall–all the sounds of a lifetime of pain and anger booming like a circling storm, a great unstoppable force. I would repeat words and phrases over and over in my mind, or concentrate on a certain hairline crack in the ceiling, because by thinking hard enough I could make the storm move further off.
Every day, trying to shake off demons I’m maybe beginning to understand, I move a little closer toward forgiveness.
The scent of the poppy is mustard gas and opium–the smells of poison and dreams, of remembrance and forgetting.
Every year I wear a poppy on my jacket. It’s not about glorifying war. It’s a way of remembering those who were faced with forces beyond their comprehension, who offered up their lives for others, who committed unspeakable acts and did their best in the face of impossible circumstances. It’s a way of re-membering, of trying to see the whole of things, of putting things that had been torn apart back together. It’s a way of putting together a picture in my mind of one man, among so many others, who was filled with bravery and fear, sanity and madness, who committed unspeakable acts, who taught me honesty and fear. One man who always did the very best he could under impossible circumstances, moved by immeasurable forces he could never control, pursued by demons he could never comprehend.