Rheindahlen Military Cemetery Visit

A very poignant day today.

I did it.  I visited Rheindahlen Military Cemetery.

It’s nowadays not easy to get to, now that JHQ is closed.  My advice is to drive there, or take the number 26 bus and bring a pair of hiking boots for the final leg from the nearest bus stop.

Today was a bright, sunny, warm day, not enough to give a redhead sunburn.  I kept my promise to visit the babies’ section of the cemetery, which I had made to the mothers of three stillborn babies.

The cemetery was beautifully maintained.  Row upon row of gravestones, most with corps and regimental cap badges chiselled in.  Some, however, had no regimental badges engraved, but perhaps an angel or a simple cross.  These were the babies’ graves in an L-shaped section of the cemetery.

Did I feel emotional?  Not until I saw one gravestone that read:

Aged 10 minutes.

And then another:

Aged 6 hours.

And yet another:

Aged five days.

When I saw those graves, it all became so, so real: the Kopfkino images of the struggle to stay alive, of pride and ecstacy of becoming a parent and then the anguish of seeing life extinguished so soon after it had come into the world.  And then not being able to visit the grave at the drop of a hat.  Does that make the grieving process easier, or does that make the process much harder?

And then the stillborn babies.  Society has changed in its attitudes towards them.  Until the mid-70’s or 80’s, stillborn babies were buried in the cemetery without even a headstone, as if, because they had not even taken one mortal breath, even for ten minutes, they were maybe not even “proper” babies.  I took photos of their section and explained to their mothers that I was not able to find their babies’ exact resting places.  Nonetheless, I received messages of thanks for sharing photos of their resting places, and that made the visit all worithwhile.  The following is going to sound very cliched.  As a single man with no children, I can – literally – only imagine what the mothers must have gone through.

Rest in peace, little ones.  Rest in peace.

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Have a poignant day, won’t you!

 

 

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Cemetery Visit

I was born on dd/mm/yyyy in a British military hospital in Germany.  I am a pads brat, and proud of the fact.

The army wife giving birth before my mother died during childbirth.  I did not know that fact until ten years ago, when I was living near Oxford and planning a visit to Germany.  My dad asked me to do him a big favour and visit the grave of the mother in question, which, some months later I did.  It was a gloriously sunny day.  The Rheindahlen Military Cemetery, where she was buried, was billiard-table green and very peacefully quiet.

Two thoughts occurred to me as I stood at the lady’s grave.  Her name is Margaret.

  1. When had anyone last been to see her grave?
  2. The Angel of Death could have taken me, but chose to take Margaret instead.  Even on my darkest days, I have reminded myself of that fact.  There has to be a reason why I was allowed to live.

On Facebook among the anti-Trump, “what I am having for lunch” and cute animal photos, I recently saw some posts from two army wives regarding the Rheindahlen Military Cemetery.  Tragically, these two ladies had lost babies in the same hospital where I was born.  After making enquiries of various contacts that I know, I am intending to visit the cemetery in the next few days to visit the graves of the babies buried there, as well as to take photos and video footage to share with the mothers of these babies.  As a single man with no offspring, I can only imagine the pain these mothers will have gone through, when the Army and society in general were much more “stiff upper lip” than nowadays.  Since those first two army wives messaged me, I have received two or three other requests to visit other babies’ graves.

It is my humble duty and privilege to be living close enough to the cemetery for me to pay a visit.  Door to door: about 90 minutes.  I feel it is the least I can do for my fellow pads brats and families, to pay my respects and say a prayer by their babies’ graves.

Finally…  Some years ago, I remember a story about an army wife wanting to have her daughter’s remains repatriated some years after her burial back to England, where her parents were now living.  In preparation for the planned move, the mother came over to the grave at Rheindahlen Military Cemetery.  Standing by her daughter’s grave situated among the dozens of other babies’ graves, she told her husband:

No.  Let’s leave her here, so she can carry on playing with all her friends here.  They’d miss her terribly.

 

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Have a peaceful day, won’t you!

RIP, Bettina

2016 has been a year when many celebs have died.  November 2016 was also when a non-celeb died.  (I hate that euphemism, “to pass away.”  What does that expression mean, anyway?)  Bettina, my ex-colleague from my first “posting” to Germany in 2000-2003, died “after a long illness” (the favourite euphemism for cancer, never chronic arthritis or backache).

When you’re moaning about the your bus being late, or your email server being down, or strolling round the just-opened German Christmas markets, please spare a thought for Bettina’s soul, her friends and her family.

Nobody wants to die early.  Nobody wants to die slowly.  Nobody wants to die.

I remember going to one funeral six years ago.  The minister said:

Heavenly Father, we thank You for B’s life.  We thank you for her death.

Yes, we do thank you for her death.  We want to live.  Do we really want to merely exist, in pain and suffering?  I don’t.  We thank You, God, for Your grace and ask You to welcome Bettina into Your arms.

Have a peaceful day, won’t you!

Sunray Heading Downhill

Sunray.  His children used to call him “Dad.”  His daughter nowadays calls him “the sperm-donor.”  He’s been a  “problem child” all his married life and in the years thereafter.  Serial borrower.  Serial non-payer-back.  Heavy drinker.  Alcoholic.  Serial nuisance caller, trawling his address book for people to phone up to fifteen times a day.  Serial texter.  “U R ME PAL”; “CUM N SEE ME”; “GET ME A BTL OF ROSE PLS”.

I used to write to him every week or two, either a proper type-written letter or a postcard to boost his morale.  I used to phone him once a month.  Has he ever written back?  Once this year.  He now has a professional caseworker from the Royal British Legion, the Armed Forces charity.  Her summary to me?  “Yes, he’s a very difficult case.”

So, what’s the future.?  It’s not bright.  It’s not orange.  When someone is that deep in the rut of late-stage alcoholism combined with borderline personality disorder or sociopathy, there’s little you can do.

  • Poor physical health
    • Diabetes
    • Obesity
    • Osteoarthritis of both knees
  • Estranged from most of his family
  • No real, flesh-and blood, friends in his locality
  • The kind of personality that means people give you a “wide berth” (his favourite expression)
  • Poor hygiene
  • Etc etc

Does he actually want to live any more?  What are the reasons to live any more?  To even get out of bed?  Would death be a relief for him?

Choose the action, choose the consequences.

Have a consequential day, won’t you!

There but for the grace of God (2)

Ruined Life

 

John T***** – what’s he doing?
“Fifteen, twenty years,”
Some joke.
But not for him,
Or those who loved him,
His Christmas card list
Of ruined lives.

Christmas –
Just
Away
To
Separate
One
Year
From
The
Next.
Commas in his sentence,
One with no full stop.
Doing time,
And himself inside.

Not for him –
Mortarboard and gown,
Only lock and key.
Free snaps thrown in.
And Rachel?
Killed by the pressure of his finals.

A long time till
The Happy Return.
Buttery bars are sadly lacking
In jail.

So what then?
Prison gate graduation.
The time for walking
Beaming proudly
Towards loving parents –
A joke.
A ruined life.
Add it to the list.

There but for the grace of God go I

(Vocab point for non-native speakers of English: “Es hätte auch mich erwischen können.”

It’s October 1989.  I arrive as a fresher in my room at Nottingham University, ready to start my degree in Russian Studies.

“What a big room,”  say to myself on entering, then a few seconds later, I find out why.  I’m sharing the room.  Room-mate: John, a New Zealander, studying Classics (Latin and Greek an’ all that.)  He seems a fairly reasonable bloke.  If I can share a room for nearly two decades with my own brother and survive, I’m sure I can share a room with John for a few months.

In the end we tolerated each other.  I was a little immature (which fresher isn’t?).  He was somewhat alpha-male.  I was a bit of a scruffy, unwashed student.  He was often the life and soul of any party, albeit occasionally passive aggressive.

Cut to April 1991.

An Oxford undergraduate goes missing during exam time.  More “Dog bites man” than “Man bites dog.”  Then it turns out the fingers is pointed at the boyfriend, my ex-roommate.

“Nah,” I think, “it’s just the ‘meejah’ (media) turning on the scruffy, long-haired student.  A fortnight later she’s still missing.  Ex-roommate gives press conference, begging her to come back.

His body language.

Her body.  Found under the floorboards of her student house.  He had killed her.

Cut to December 1991.  I am on my year abroad in Russia.  My fortnightly call to my mum.  She tells me ex-roommate had been convicted of murder.  A few days later I receive in the post newspaper clippings from the British newspapers.

I am still stunned.  You don’t meet someone, especially a fairly affable person, thinking, “Hmmm, potential murderer?”

Since his arrest and conviction I have given two TV interviews, shortly after his arrest, and then shortly before his release.  My assessment of him then was that he was fundamentally a decent, likeable guy, but something must have gone wrong in the months leading to the crime.

My assessment now after a quarter of a century of thinking is less generous.  Let’s leave it at that.

In the end I can only admire his victim’s parents, devout Christians, who forgave him and even said they’d like to visit him in prison.

In the end he “only” served 12 years.  (The average life sentence in England is 13-15 years.)

In my younger days I was a stereotypical fiery redhead.  The whole case made me think and made me calm down.  It made me re-assess people.  First impressions aren’t always right.

After his sentence, John returned back to New Zealand.  I hope he has been a decent member of society post-sentence.

Have a decent day, won’t you!

Should we always pray for that miracle?

The big C.  That “short illness” that gets mentioned in obituaries and news reports.  My former colleague, B., has cancer again.  Four years ago she was treated for breast cancer.

Now it’s back.

With a vengence.

It seems the tumour cannot be operated on, so chemotherapy is the only option.  Sadly, the chemo has not been been effective, and it has made B. feel very unwell.  Judging by the text that a mutual colleague forwarded me yesterday, the prognosis is not good, with the chemo being stepped up, and B. not being able to work.

Today, I asked my house group to pray for B.  E, our house group leader, prayed for healing for B.  I prayed for that, too.  Then coming home tonight,  I wondered, should we always pray for a miraculous recovery (for want of a more suitable expression), or is it better to pray for comfort, peace, tranquility and acceptance of death when someone is probably terminally ill?

I don’t know the answer.

Have a prayerful day, won’t you!