“Through the gate of death may they pass to their joyful resurrection”
“Think not only upon their passing; Remember the glory of their spirit”
Before I get to other updates on what I’ve been up to in France, I knew I had to share this experience. I knew it would be a big deal, but couldn’t imagine it would be as impactful and even emotional as it was.
Our last stop of our weekend in Normandy vas the visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Omaha Beach. For years, my mom has told me that it is her dream to go and visit the grave of her grandfather, my great grandfather John W. Sours. So, when we saw that my abroad program offered a trip to Normandy and that this cemetery was on the agenda, it was a no-brainer. I was excited to go see something that no one in my family has had the opportunity to see and to get closer to my family because of it.
The morning of, I asked my tour guide if we’d have any free time at the cemetery and showed him the information my mom had sent me about my great-grandfather’s grave. My guide was amazed that I had family buried there and asked for more information about his background and career. To be honest, I knew very little, but when I said he was in the 21st infantry division, my guide was thoroughly impressed. “You know, they’re famous!” he said. “I’ll take you there and we’ll make sure we find it.”
I felt sick to my stomach all the ride there, as I hadn’t been getting much sleep on the trip and was stressed about having to do a last-minute presentation that evening. When we arrived, I was also nervous about the visit to the cemetery, which I had not expected. It was a bigger deal than I thought, everyone was solemn, and I actually had a legitimate connection to it as well. As we walked through the entrance, I peeked to look behind the large monument and saw the field of scattered white crosses and occasional Stars of David. It hit me that it was real. Each one represented a person’s story, a life that was given up, all for those of us who live on today in a world of peace and independence.
The guide and I split away from the group; he asked if I wanted to bring anyone but I immediately said no. I didn’t want to attract any attention to myself and I knew I needed to be alone. We walked to the far side of the cemetery, my heart beating faster and shoulders tensing with each step, and eventually we found it. I asked for some time alone and he walked off. In that moment, I took it all in. I could just take photos and tell everyone about how cool and unique of an experience this was, like I had expected I would do, but instead, reality kicked in and overtook me. I attempted to pray, but I was so overwhelmed and couldn’t find the right words. I stood there on my knees, in tears, thinking about how lucky I was. Lucky to have been born into a family that would die for my future and would funnel all their resources into me, giving me the opportunity to be in France, sitting by our relative’s grave, when they had been dreaming of it forever. Before I left, my guide took photos of me by my great-grandfather’s cross and asked if he could say a short prayer over it. Even he was moved to tears.
As I walked through the cemetery, I noticed that so many crosses were people from the dame group as my great-grandfather, meaning that they had not only fought together, but shared daily meals, conversations, and other seemingly unimportant interactions. And of course, so many of these crosses were marked with the same date of death: June 6, 1944. The day that changed everything.
I rejoined my group but remained distant. When people asked me about my experience, I said it was harder than I had thought and nothing else, because even that brought back my heightened emotions. I took time to stare into the distance past Omaha Beach, to the exact place where my great-grandfather could have sailed to shore, or ran for his life, or been shot. The thing is, I no longer felt that anxiety that had been building up the whole ride here. That just didn’t feel relevant anymore. And it’s very possible that I had actually been nervous about this experience that whole time, I just hadn’t realized how much it would affect me.
The most important thing I got out of this experience was that everything was put into perspective. “You know, people say that they fought and died so that you can smile and live today,” my tour guide told me. And he was right. I didn’t need to spend all night worrying about my presentation the next day or even focus on what’s next for my career path. I have a family that loves and supports me so much that they would fight for my freedom, so I am already blessed beyond words. I’m generally not a big fan of the idea of war, and maybe not as proud as I should be to be from a family with numerous veterans (yes you, dad!). But to see people I didn’t even know treating me differently and praying over my great-grandfather’s grave, well, that gave me a new point of view.
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