On November 11th, 2007, I arrived at Menin Gate with my internet printout map of the large memorial ready to search. Immediately, I was overwhelmed. Surrounded by wall after wall of names, I worried that after all my preparation, I may not be able to find his name. I knew it was special just to be there, but I really wanted to be able to find his name for my Grampa to see. I searched and searched, and finally, found him. Miller J, 21st Battalion. He was right there, right at eye level. The magnitude of the situation finally hit me; I could no longer hold it back. I began to cry, not caring which one of my peers was close enough to see my tears. I was filled with tremendous, overpowering emotion that seemed to consume me.
Suddenly, I felt a soft hand grasp my own, expecting a friend, or even one of the school teachers that was accompanying us on this trip. I slowly looked up and was shocked to see the face of a complete stranger; it was an older British man. His eyes were full of tears and it seemed to me, before he even spoke, that he understood the emotion I was feeling. He did not introduce himself, nor did he ask me for my name. He simply asked me who it was and I told him: my Great Great Uncle John. He smiled back at me, his hand still holding mine and placed three poppies at the base of the wall at which we were standing – the wall which held my Great Great Uncle’s name. In that moment, I felt compassion. I felt instantly connected to this man in a way in which I had never felt connection before. I knew without asking, that he too had family honoured on this memorial. This man will never know the effect his simple gesture of kindness had on me and on my life. I will forever remember this moment as the moment I finally understood humanity.
When I returned back to the hotel later that night, I could not hold all the emotion I had inside. It seemed to be spilling out of every inch of me, consuming all of my thoughts. I felt compelled to write something down so I would never forget how that moment made me feel. I began writing a letter to my Great Great Uncle:
I came to see you the other day. It felt weird. I’ve seen pictures and heard my Grampa tell stories about you but to be honest, you weren’t real; I didn’t really care. So many times I watched my Grampa get emotional thinking and remembering you and I can tell you that I never once blinked an eye. How could I? I didn’t know you. You didn’t seem real to me.
I knew how much it meant to Grampa for me to find you. He told me that he would never be as full of pride, that he would be forever proud that a Miller visit your grave. To me, finding you was not a personal goal, it was just something nice to do for my Grampa.
And on that day, on November 11th, I looked for you. I looked for you among your thousands of comrades. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed, how could I ever find you on these walls full of names? Where could you be? Grampa’s words were ringing in my ears, “so proud”, over and over, “so proud”. Would I be able to do this for him? I hoped so.
I kept walking, reading the many names and following the printout map I had found on the internet. Bay 26, panel 10. Bay 26, panel 10. Where are you?
I walked up the staircase and there you were. Suddenly, Grampa was no longer on my mind. It was just me and you. I stood there and looked at you, a man I had never met and I cried. I cried for you and for all your comrades. I cried for your life and for your courage. I cried in thanks and I cried in love.
It had never once crossed my mind until that moment that you are my blood. You are my family. I was ashamed at my ignorance and I was sorry for my selfishness.
“So proud” , “So proud”.
You were right Grampa, never have I ever been “so proud”.
My journey to Menin Gate was not as I expected. Although I was infinitely proud to be able to do this for my Grampa, I became distinctly aware of a new feeling inside of myself. That feeling, was my own pride.
I am immensely fortunate to have been given the opportunity to have this journey and wish, from the bottom of my heart, that each and every person could have a moment as I have had, a moment of realisation, creating a new, personal sense of pride. Be it at the Menin Gate Memorial holding the hand of a stranger, here in Canada, or wherever else, I vow to encourage the pursuit of this life-changing moment in every single person because it is in the moment that I believe the true essence of Remembrance Day can be found and that is pride.
Not only is this a day to remember our past, to be proud of our soldiers and commemorate those lost, but it is a day to look forward and give thanks to the soldiers of today. These men and women, just like those of our past, are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, grandparents, and even…Great Great Uncles.