As a child, I cherished the moments spent with my grandfather. He was the kindest most patient person I knew. From my early years, he dedicated his time to take me to my drawing or dancing classes a few times a week. He also taught me how to read and count, and everywhere we went he would take an opportunity to have me practice counting or reading. Sometimes it would be a store name, a name of the building, or a magazine. Whatever it is that we got to do together, I was always thrilled to spend time with him.
My grandfather was also a WWII veteran, but he never talked about the war. All I knew is that he was in a war, which seemed so foreign to me at the time. I did not know what the word “war” actually meant until I grew up. Back then I naively thought it would be cool to be a soldier like my grandfather until my grandmother found out about it. She got pretty upset when I told her. She put her hand to her chest and cried out loud, “they shoot people out there!”
The idea of going to war did not seem as cool after that.
My grandfather never talked about what happened to him during the war. He had enough medals to cover both sides of his chest. He used to wear his medals to yearly May parades in Kyiv, Ukraine. I did not know what each medal was given to him for, but I knew one thing - he was my hero. My grandfather was my hero not because of the medals, but because I knew he loved me the most. I don’t know how I knew that because he never told me he loved me. But I just knew!
When I was just a kid, going to bed was the most boring chore I had to do every night. Instead, I would sneak out of my bed and sneak under my grandfather’s blankets. My grams was furious, “He smells like cigarettes!” she would say. But I did not care. I would just cover my head with the blanket and pretend I was not there.
I also remember my grandfather loved his cigarettes. Without filters. Just cigarettes. And I knew that they were bad for his health. So as a good girl, one day I decided to do something good for my grandfather! I had it all planned out. Armed with good intentions, I discarded his special stash. I felt so proud of my actions! Well, at least for a little while…
The next thing I remember was my grandfather looking for his cigarettes. When he discovered their absence, he found me.
"I threw them away," I confessed, still believing I was protecting his well-being.
“Why would you do that?” he asked calmly.
“Because they are bad for you,” I replied.
“But where are they?” He was still hoping to be able to recover them.
“They are in the garbage,” I said, and I walked him to the secret spot where I disposed of his precious cigarettes.
“Oh! Oh! Those were good cigarettes,” he said. “But you are right – they are bad for me. But, oh boy, that was a brand-new fresh box of cigarettes.”
I never got reprimanded for it. The topic was closed and we never spoke of this incident again.
I never touched his cigarettes again.
My grandfather, a man of few words, revealed to me once the depth of his suffering. He told me he was shot in the left shoulder by an enemy and that there were still bullet fragments stuck within. He shared how much his body hurt all the time. As a kid, chronic pain was also foreign to me back then.
Later in life, after my grandfather’s passing, my mother told me how my grandfather’s tank was hit in one of the battles during WWII. Miraculously, he managed to barely escape the engulfing flames, evading what could have been a tragic fate.
I’m certain this experience, and whatever else happened to him during the war, left a permanent mark on my grandfather, as it did on so many soldiers who endured the horrors of war.
The war can have profound and long-lasting effects on soldiers. Physically, they may bear scars or injuries from combat, and mentally, they can experience trauma, anxiety, and depression. Many veterans carry the weight of their experiences with them throughout their lives. Many never share their stories with anyone.
My grandfather was soft-spoken, smart and modest. He was respected by everyone who knew him.
To me, he was a hero, but most of all – he was my beacon of love.
I loved my grandfather and he loved me even more.
Who is your hero?
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