Veteran’s Day is just a few days away in this country as is in my own. Its British equivalent, Remembrance Sunday, is held on the second Sunday of every November.
At this time of year my mind goes to the memory of my grandfather, Henry Bainbridge Snr, who served in the Second World War.
Harry Snr was 20 years old, the proud father of a baby girl barely a few months old, when he was called to duty. He was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army in Singapore 1941 and taken to the Burmese jungle to construct what is known as “the Railway of Death” where he would remain in their captivity until the Japanese Emperor Hirohito declared surrender on August 14th 1945, six days after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
My grandfather was tall like myself, standing at over six feet, and weighed little over a hundred pounds when he and his fellows were liberated. Seventy thousand Allied troops lost their lives in that jungle: tropical disease, starvation and torture took their lives. The camp guards would fabricate stories about tools having been stolen and demand that the “thieves” step forward to be immediately beheaded, or they would randomly pick men to be executed. In a final act of dignity and in defiance of such unspeakable cruelty, men who were very sick and literally on death’s door would actually elect to walk – or more accurately, stumble – towards this door by volunteering themselves as the guilty culprits, sparing the lives of their friends who might have a chance of making it back home to their loved ones.
The British government was so appalled at the emaciated state of the liberated prisoners that they ordered them to be shipped home as slowly as possible, in order to get them “fattened up’, lest they scare English civilians with their living dead appearance. Many of those men did not make it home; the horrors of what they had been through finally caught up with them and committed suicide by jumping overboard. Now they were free of the day in day out torture of arbitrary execution., the most insufferable prison of all had quickly become that of their own demon-filled minds. There was no Post Traumatic stress Disorder then, no exit counseling, no medication. Life was just supposed to go on.
I’m eternally grateful that life, through a forever unknown combination of the whim of lucky stars and his own indomitable drive to survive, did go on for my Grandfather, as he came home and made a sibling for his now four year old little girl – my father.
I was shopping with my grandmother Gladys and her friend Joyce fifteen years ago in their home town of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, the last Northern English town just miles from the Scottish border.
We were in a department store and I asked my grandmother what she thought of the fragrance of a bubble bath I’d found. My grandma read the label, peering over the top of her glasses, and commented to her friend: “”Stress Relieving”…stress-relieving?” She paused momentarily to look at Joyce, an incredulous look on her face, making the customary “Eeee” sound of surprise that all people do from the North-East of England when confronted with something out of the norm.
“Eeeee…” she exclaimed. “I don’t think we had “stress” back in the war, did we?”
Joyce peered as equally hard at the label, bows furrowed in concentration.
“No, Gladys, I don’t think we did,” concurred her friend, “we just got on with it, didn’t we?”
What “getting on with it” looked like for my grandmother was being 19 and not knowing if her husband was alive or dead for four years, raising a baby girl on her own under a strict national food-rationing system and working nightly 12 hour shifts in an armaments factory installing timers in bombs to be dropped by the Royal Air Force on Nazi Germany (the ladies were only allowed to wear trousers on the night time shift as to come to work in anything but a skirt during daylight hours would have been tantamount to the collapse of civilized western society – which I suppose, was exactly what was indeed collapsing at that time).
My grandmother’s sister told me at her funeral that the “only time I ever heard or saw Gladys shed a tear was when she got that letter from the government saying that Harry was alive and was coming home. She went in the kitchen, shut the door behind her and cried her eyes out. And that, in her whole life, was the only time I ever saw your Grandma cry.”
In that poignant bubble-bath moment, which makes my heart ache with such fond remembrance, I was struck by the granite stoicism of these two tiny white-haired ladies, unified in their belief that their duty to themselves, to their fellow men and women and their loved ones, was simply to put their best foot forward and move through life the best they could.
I asked my grandmother on a separate occasion how it was she knew during those four years that Granddad was still alive.
She paused and looked out with window with an intensity and depth that as a child I did not understand: “I just did,” she finally replied, “I just did.”
I can’t possibly compare the challenges in my life to those which my grandparents survived but now, as an adult woman in my own recovery, I have a profound empathy for the blind faith which Harry Snr and Gladys drew on during their lives’ most harrowing moments.
This “blind faith” is everywhere in the suggested directives of all Twelve Step programs: “Act ‘as if”’, “Don’t leave the room before the miracle happens” and Step Three itself, “Came to believe that a Power Greater Than Ourselves Could Restore Us To Sanity” all speak to the fundamental concept that a loving and consistently maintained connected with a Higher Power of our own understanding is key to not just sustaining us through recovery, but in making faith a tangible tool which we can transmit and share with others in need.
So this morning, when I’m invariably stuck in the ubiquitous and infamous Angeleno traffic and already beginning to be flooded with a poor-me sense of righteous injustice, I’ll remember that bubble-bath moment with Grandma Gladys and Joyce in the department store.
I’ll put down the pint glass of angry stress that mentally I’m about to chug and set it down on the gleaming chrome bar countertop in my mind, right next to some other bottles – the contents of which today a constant connection to my own blind faith has showed me I no longer need to consume.
“Stress?” I’ll say to myself. “We just get on with it.”