Journey to John

“Turn right on Rue René Cassin,” the GPS instructs me in his ever-cheerful tone, and I oblige with a slow turn, because everywhere is new to me and here I’m as cautious a driver as the voice is chipper. I approach the first open parking spot and slide in, knowing that my destination is just on the other side of the hill. There are closer spots, I’m sure, but I’m ok with a little walk. I suddenly need a few more minutes to catch my breath, even though everything up to this point has been standing in the way of this moment.

“You’ve arrived at your destination,” GPS-man chirps, and I smile.

I’m here, finally. I made it.

I feel my heart start skipping a little faster than normal and I draw in a long breath. My chest has thudded with anxiety for so long that it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes, but I know, this is not the hammering of anxiousness today; it’s anticipation. A homecoming of sorts, though I can’t begin to explain what that means, given I’m a good 6,000 miles from everything and everyone I know.

Just like he was.

The smile slips off as the familiar sadness washes over me at the remembrance. I’ve thought countless times how awful it must’ve been for him to be here—alone, afraid, hopelessly far from home, hours and days spent wishing it could be different, all the while knowing he was far too decent and noble to be anywhere else.

As I’ve done several times already on this trip, I gaze again at the screensaver on my phone; a self-made combination of his face and a quote that clings hard to my heart: “I’m really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience.”

His sacrifice was enormous; mine is not. I had no choice but to come here, in that we are the same, but our reasons lie miles apart: he came here to serve, and I came here for him.

I visited the bunkers in Ypres where he was stationed yesterday on my drive out of Belgium. I spotted cemetery signage every few kilometres on the way; reminders of how destruction and loss spread across the country, a country that declared neutrality in the war and was brutalized by it anyway. The grass grows green now, the blood thoroughly washed down into the earth, but the weight of it remains, unmistakably dense and heavy, I can feel it. The stones that are marked “A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God” pain me the most. That some of these men were rendered unrecognizable in battle is a horror I’m grateful I only need pay respect to, not bear witness to.

It brings me back to him again, as it always does. How he was able to look out and see beauty amongst such carnage, much less be poetic about it, humbles me immeasurably. It reminds me of my obligation to create, too, simply because I can. He and countless others died for that privilege, I can’t—won’t—ever forget that.

I grab the plastic bag of flowers I bought at the Aldi yesterday—red-orange roses, presumably a dozen, though I didn’t bother to count. I recall the question that ran through my mind when I considered the selection: “What kind of flowers do you buy for a relative you’ve never met but feel like you’ve known your whole life?” Red roses felt far too romantic for family; white ones too neutral. Not that I expected it, especially at a grocery store, but I was hoping for something at least resembling a poppy, though I did wonder if that might be a little too on-the-nose anyway. It’s entirely possible he would like something other than poppies for a change.

It’s warm out today, much warmer than it’s supposed to be in September, according to locals. The sky is a brilliant blue with only a few streaks of cloud here and there, but it’s early enough that the dew on the grass won’t be burned off until sometime this afternoon when the sun’s heat fully takes hold. I’ll sit on my jacket if I need to, I think to myself, because I don’t need to wear it and I already know I’m going to be here for quite awhile.

As I crest the hill, the expansive horizon in Wimereux—as it’s done several times already—makes my heart swell a little. I suppose before yesterday’s drive I never stopped to think how luxuriously picturesque the French countryside would be—I think of France and immediately conjure images of the Eiffel Tower and little else. But to my country-loving heart this place is prettier than any city I’ve seen so far on this trip, which, when I think of all the remarkable things I’ve experienced the past five days, is saying quite a lot.

I smile and say ‘Bonjour’ to the elderly neighbour who waves at me from his garden; his house sits directly next to the cement wall protecting the cemetery and I want to add how lucky I think he is to live next to such sacred ground but my French is basic at best, and it’s possible that this place means more to me than it ever will to him, despite never having set foot here till this very moment. Not that it matters. I will revere it enough for the both of us and then some, of that I’m certain.

The water sparkles in my peripheral to the right, but I can’t look anywhere but to my left now that the headstones are coming into view. The first tears come and I note some of the sadness being replaced with relief upon seeing that he’s truly resting in such a beautiful location.

My legs have gone slightly wobbly, the way they might before a job interview or a big date. The entrance is only a few feet from me now and another deep breath finds me slipping through the open iron gates. I might be here on my own but I am not alone, I know this. I whisper a quiet Here we go, linking imaginary arms with every family member as I do, bringing their love and spirit and intention with me as I pass the first few rows of stones.

The civil graves are first. They’re ornate and some of them are surprisingly recent, with dates in the 2000s. Judging by the number of flowers and pots, I can tell they’re frequently visited and cared for, but truthfully I pay them little attention because up ahead I can see, at about the halfway point in the plot, the Canadian and British flags, along with the simple white stones synonymous with casualties of war. As quickly as I can walk without being disrespectful, I find myself in the middle of them, wondering when his name will pop out. Up and down, row on row, he stays quiet.

The strong, silent type—I could certainly imagine him that way in real life.

I have to check myself for assuming he would be easy to see—an abundance of poppies or a bigger stone—something to signify a man of importance rests here (not pomp, I imagine he would likely hate that) but each stone looks exactly like the next and I have to laugh a little to myself as I pass by the same ones again and again.

After wandering past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier one more time, I spy the vault in the wall and find the directory book inside. Flipping forward to M, it’s names and numbers for most, but for him, a full paragraph, along with the coordinates of his final resting place:

Grave Reference: IV, H. 3.

Someone has hand-written the number 4 overtop of the 3, but when I find him exactly where the ledger said he would be, I sense some mild irritation at the so-called know-it-all who thought they needed to correct what was already correct, but I don’t have a pen to undo it and it fades away quickly enough once I finally appreciate that, at long last, I’m here.

There are four of them resting in the last row, a few feet from the monument of the cross, all of them Lieutenants; Locking to his left, Sharp and Taylor flanking him on the right. The beaming sun behind me stretches my shadow across his stone.

“Hi, John,” I say somewhat shyly, even though there’s not another soul around to hear me. “Finally, I’m here.”

It doesn’t take more than a few seconds for the rest of the tears to fall, and I let them. I had been a little surprised that they didn’t come yesterday at the bunker. I certainly wasn’t saving them up for today, but I suppose it makes sense that being here in his presence would be what hits me hardest. He might have even preferred it this way—to remember the spirit more than the sacrifice.

I draw in a deep breath and contemplate my surroundings for a few minutes, and feel another chunk of weight lift off me; it really is rather beautiful, all things considered. The dead here have unobstructed views of the rolling hills beyond the stone walls, and even though you can’t see the water from this particular vantage point, the sea air reassures you it’s close by. I turn my face to the sun and listen to the neighbouring chickens cluck and the rooster sing out and that too brings more tears, if only because I think they’re sounds that might make him feel at home.

I hadn’t planned what I was going to say but true to character, I start by giving him shit—teasingly, but also with that notorious trademark McCrae edge—for his stubbornness (another enduring McCrae trait) at ignoring the seriousness of his own illness, the one that led him into the ground sooner than it should have—even though I know it came from his concern for others and his unwavering sense of obligation and duty, so it’s impossible and rather pointless to stay mad about it.

I say the things he already knows:

That I visited the bunker yesterday, and that I’m so unbelievably sorry his final years were spent enduring such heartache and misery.

That he is with me more often than not, including every single time I sit down to write.

That I wrote the book, along with a thousand thanks for being an unwavering source of inspiration.

That we’re endlessly proud of him, his words, his legacy, and his sacrifice.

That I love him, that we all do, and that we are so grateful to him for being the man that he was.

I think about everyone who longed to come here to see him and couldn’t find the ways or means to do so.

I cry some more.

A good hour of sitting and smiling and crying easily passes, and I cannot think of anywhere else I would like to be than here in the sun with him. Except, maybe sitting with him at home in Canada.

In one of our moments of silence, the air is suddenly filled with a flock of pigeons, swooping and cooing above us. I grab my phone to capture it but I’m too late, the show is over. The time illuminates on the screen and I can’t help but be struck by it.

“No shit!” I exclaim with a laugh—it’s 11:11 exactly.

A huge smile breaks out across my face. “Wowwww, that’s impressive,” I say, “and yet I’m not the least bit surprised.” I know exactly who it was that roused those birds from their perches—the same man who’s been leaving feathers at my feet all along this journey, usually in the moments when the anxiety would start to prickle in the back of my head.

“Thank you,” I say again. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say that enough, but I will try.

Just as I decide to move from my spot in front of his stone and into the shade of the monument, the small gate at the top of the cemetery creaks open and an older couple in brightly-coloured cycling gear step inside. As they wander in my direction my ears pick up a few words in German, and since my German is even more basic than my French, I say nothing to them beyond bonjour. I have no doubt though that they also came to see the same man I did. And it might be just as well I can’t converse, because now that they’re closer I need my hands to stifle the grin I can’t contain at seeing just how exceptionally revealing their spandex outfits are. So much for cemeteries being solemn and dignified.

I hear John chuckling with me, I swear it. He is a McCrae after all—of course he would find this as funny as I do.

I avert my eyes back to the sky and leave them to wander up and down the aisles, eventually affirming my earlier hunch. They stand for a few minutes in as much reverence as spandex allows, snap a photo of his stone just as I did, then carry on with their day.

Once they’re onto the sidewalk and safely out of earshot, I let the laughter loose, along with a joke that I think is best kept between he and I, if it’s all the same to you. I know it’s hard for you to imagine that I heard him laughing with me as loudly and as clearly as I did, but I did, and it’s a moment I will never, ever forget, so you’re just going to have to take me at my word on that one.

I stand up to leave and realize that I can’t; not yet. I had wooden legs the day of my grandpa’s burial too; it was the first time I’d had to go somewhere with him, only to have to leave without him, and I’ve always felt a wrongness about that. It was difficult then, and it’s difficult now. My mind circles back to before when I’d told him I wished he weren’t so far from home, which leads me to thinking that that’s where he should be, which leads my brain to start working out scenarios that might make that possible.

But the truth of it is, he left so much of himself here, in his service and his selflessness and his gift for finding beauty amid horror, and then for sharing his words about it with us. It really does seem fitting that he stays here, too.

And if the spandex seniors and the smattering of tributes already here are any indication, it’s safe to assume he has a regular stream of visitors. Were he home in Canada, he’d surely not get a moment’s peace, and I definitely wouldn’t feel good about that. It’s selfish of me to want him close to us. It might be equally selfish of me to find comfort in leaving him so far from home too, if only because I’m one of the few who’s had the chance to feel the peace that surrounds this place.

It’s the only thing that lets me leave on my still-wooden legs.

All my life, my distant relation to Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae has felt exactly that—distant, a little abstract even. Being here pulled him all the way out of the ether and fully into my heart.

Before I go, I tell him that I don’t know if I’ll ever find the opportunity to  come here again—I certainly hope so. What I do know, is that everything that felt abstract and not-quite-real before my arrival has only been strengthened and amplified times a thousand: the love, the pride, the honour, the gratitude—it’s all beyond measure now.

The only thing I’m leaving here with less of, is the heartache I walked in with.

And that makes today as close to perfect as it can possibly get. Bye for now, John. Thank you again, for everything.

Plaque of In Flanders Fields poem at
Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium

5 thoughts on “Journey to John”

  1. Susan Cornell says:

    Karen your thoughtful and eloquent words are a great testimony to your love and admiration of a special man, gone to soon. A relative who you honour generations later. The spirit and heart of John McCrae resides in you, you carry his legacy and I know without a doubt, how touched he would be to read your words. How proud he would be to hear your voice. You write beautifully and I can’t wait to read your book. Sail on Karen. You make this friend proud.

  2. Barbara Jones says:

    How timely as Remembrance Day approaches. THANK YOU for posting this blog and THANKS to Colonel John MacCrae for stirring the precious gift of PEACE is every Remembrance Day here in

  3. Sonny says:

    I can almost feel the pride and gratitude of the Lt. Col. himself, that you went all the way out there to see him. An amazing and beautiful way to honor your ancestor, as he walks with you always. This was beautiful, Karen. Thank you.

  4. Bob Hambly says:

    Hi Karen – I feel so lucky to have come across this touching tribute. Beautifully written. Barb and I plan to make that very same trip some day for my great uncle is buried there. Way back when, my grade six teacher made the class memorize “In Flanders Fields” and recite it aloud individually. The poem has stayed with me ever since. All the best.

  5. Karen says:

    Hi Bob,
    I am just seeing your message now, and genuinely thank you for your kind words. I trust that when you make the trip to see your Great Uncle it will be moving and meaningful, it really is a beautiful place. I hope to hear the story of it some day. Take care, Karen

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