There’s the smelling and the not. The being in tune and the fog. The scents of sorrow and the smell of life’s renewals.
George served in World War II. He went away to war with a fiancee and an earnest faith in provisions. He came home from a prisoner of war camp thin and sickly. His family moved from his home state of Illinois while he was overseas and his fiancee got involved with another man. He went monotone when speaking in the briefest detail about surviving WWII and imprisonment under inhumane conditions. But George’s voice broke as he pressed his thumb into his palm when he talked about coming home to no home at all and no loved ones to greet him. It wasn’t until then he quit believing in god, he said.
He’d lived on belief in an image of his future. It got him through the hunger and the stench of being assigned to dispose of corpses. The image of his parents and his girl welcoming him home and the dream of starting new in peace and with lots of bread and butter and pork chops.
George was my mom’s longtime companion. A man who treated me like a daughter. Better, in fact, than some fathers. A man who hoarded canned goods and Christmas decorations like a person determined to never starve again. He survived a prisoner of war camp and further survived the loss of the dream that kept him going. Everything changed in the home he left behind in order to serve. So, after the war, he got on a train for California because he’d heard the jobs were good and the weather marvelous in the Los Angeles area. The train trip was lonely and he was disheartened.
Defeated, discouraged, tired, weak, he paid no attention to the changing scenery on the trip West. Until the moment something reminded him there is unexpected joy in living. The train stopped in Riverside, California while the orange trees were in blossom. It smelled better than anything he ever could’ve imagined. It cleansed the nightmarish rot. The blossoms of the orange groves snapped him back into awareness. They rejuvenated him.
He chose to stay and started fresh. Built a good life. Lived a long and good life. Independent until the last year. That last year in an assisted living facility without a kitchen or a pantry in his room. We put up a Christmas tree and a fresh pine wreath on his door his last year. Ate a bland Christmas dinner at a cafeteria table that overlooked the duck pond.
Twice over he was rushed to the emergency room where we found him restrained to the bed and delirious. In an absolute panic. A panic mixed with anger. They were holding him down to rape him, he said. We were all in on it together, he said.
It’s then you know you can’t take heart aches and bad memories away from people. It’s then you know the sacrifices were worse than you let yourself believe.
By the time they released him into home hospice care to await the end, he was back to cracking corny jokes–back to being George. Kind. Passive. George’s bravery was in experiencing violent inhumanity and opting to never perpetrate the same. George found faith again in his life and he lived in peace. He slowly drifted into a coma and died in peace. He was a peaceful man.
I am grateful to all who serve in the name of giving peace to a greater number of others. Because of that sacrifice I can live, love, lose, work, write, cry, dream, scheme, plan, hope, imagine. I can hike in the mountains and enjoy the invigorating smell of pine needles. I can putter in my garden and appreciate being alive and being free to smell roses and sage and jasmine and marigolds.
And, for George, orange blossoms.