The following is a letter I wrote on the bus from Normandy to Paris during our recent Junior Class Trip to France. It was a weekend of many adventures–from camping under the stars and then the rain, to an eleven-hour whirlwind tour of Paris–but in light of the trip’s overall purpose, I’ve decided to save those stories for another day, or let the album below tell it for me, saving the words for my impressions of the Canadian Cemetery at Beny Sur Mer.
“All he hoped for. All he had — He gave. ‘O Valiant Heart.'”
Epitaph for Rifleman L.L. Bridges
Dear Valiant Heart,
Did you have a great deal, like I do? Did you have a wife, or children? Were your parents writing you letters, waiting at home and praying every moment that you’d come home to them? Would you return to a job, a farm, a house, a family? Did you have an education, or part of one? All you had, you gave. All of it.
You must have hoped for a lot, too. 28 years old, from Regina, Saskatchewan. Maybe you were in Europe for the first time. You must have hoped to see Paris, like I will later today. Getting there would have meant much more to you than it will to me; it would have meant you’d won. You hoped to win, that good would triumph and evil would, again, be driven from this continent you’d risked your life to liberate. Beyond Paris, you must have hoped to go home again, someday, when all of this was over. And at the base of it all, the very soul of you that waited, holding your breath in England in the days before, I know you hoped to live. To live longer, richer and more fully. I’m 28–or will be soon–and this still feels like the beginning.
Valiant Heart, we’re both a long way from home. Perhaps you felt called here, as I do, back when Canada was alone in this war, when Hitler marched to the sea, when Britain braced herself under bombings, looking to you for help. I wonder if God’s voice is as calmly inexorable for soldiers as it seems to be for missionary teachers. He must have promised to be with You, every day and hour, no matter where He took you, even when He took you here. I hope you knew Him, that He was your last thought before He was your first real sight. No matter why you were here, called or not, you had a choice. You could have run away, or rather stayed put. I could have, too, I suppose. Neither of us did.
Yet while my calling brings me here as a teacher, surrounded by the vital energy of 21st century teenagers, yours brought you on a boat to Juno Beach, where you left behind all you hoped for, all you ever had, beginning to understand it would cost you everything. I’m humbled by your sacrifice, awed by the mystery of this gift that stretches three generations to us, today.
And me, almost seventy years later I’m surrounded by private-aged scholars, students of history and life. I try to imagine what it would have meant to be a teacher then, to learn of sacrifices made by your comrades, some of them no older than my own students. It hurts me to imagine it. This morning we pulled on coats and hats, tromped through the windy blackness. Caught between wet sand and hard stars, we huddled against the cold and thought of you. Landing early, unsure of the future. We long, each of us, to live well, to know God and hear His voice above all else, no matter where He takes us. Perhaps you did too. We listened for Him this morning, and I now thank you for your gift, for all you had and hoped for.