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My grandfather, Albert Marks (May 18, 1917-May 14, 2011) - Garwulf's Corner: The LiveJournal — LiveJournal
The musings of Robert B. Marks - author, editor, publisher, and researcher

Robert B. Marks
Date: 2011-05-15 21:08
Subject: My grandfather, Albert Marks (May 18, 1917-May 14, 2011)
Security: Public
Location:In my chair
Tags:albert marks, family, grandfather, obituary
Yesterday morning, at around 9:30, my grandfather – who I called “Papa” – passed away.  Well, that’s only partially true.  While he was 93 years old, and a veteran Royal Canadian Air Force officer of the Second World War, he was also stricken with Alzheimer’s.  In a very real way,  his life ended five years ago when the Alzheimer’s took hold.  It was yesterday morning, at around 9:30, that his fog finally cleared.

I find it hard to be sad right now.  Mainly it’s because it was three years ago that I could no longer deny that my grandfather had been taken, on that day when he had to be put into the Sunnybrook Veteran’s home.  I mourned him then, crying my eyes out and punishing myself for feeling that the kinder thing would have been for him to have died instead.  That’s the terrible curse of Alzheimer’s – it takes your loved ones away from you without properly taking them, reduces them to a shell, and leaves you with corrosive feelings that under any other circumstance would be abominable at best.

What I want to feel is angry, although mostly I just feel drained.  I know that may seem strange, but this is one case where I can only say that he deserved far, far better.

As with so many veterans of World War II, many of my grandfather’s sensibilities were shaped by the Great Depression.  And, as so many of his generation did, when the call to arms came, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force.  Most of his wartime experiences we’ll likely never know – as with so many other veterans of World War II, it was an experience he did not like to talk about.

What we do know is that he was trained to be a navigator.  We also know that he was good at teaching – so much so that the RCAF tried to give him an instructor’s post and keep him in Canada.  My grandfather wanted none of that, though.  As he put it, he was more scared of standing in front of a classroom than he was of fighting the Germans.

To put that stance into perspective, my grandfather was Jewish.  And by then it was well known that the Nazis were not likely to treat a downed airman according to the Geneva Convention if he was a Jew.  Now, if he had been in home defence when he was shipped over to Britain, that wouldn’t be so bad.  But, he wasn’t – as far as we know, my grandfather was in Bomber Command.

We don’t know why he never flew in combat.  What we do know is that at one point during his training in Britain he was in a plane with a man who flew so recklessly that my grandfather refused to fly with him again.  We also know that his roommate during training was killed, and unable to bring himself to return to their shared quarters, my grandfather sought new accommodations.

What happened then, as far as we can tell, was that he was transferred to Mosquito training.  And this too is a puzzle – the Mosquitos were the prestige assignment in the RAF and the RCAF.  It was a much sought-after promotion.  Perhaps one day the family will get his service record, and some of the mysteries will be solved.  Regardless, it was while he was in training that the war in Europe came to an end.

Perhaps that was one of the most remarkable things of all.  Despite having served in Bomber Command and the prestige assignment of the RCAF and the RAF, my grandfather ended the war without so much as a single drop of blood on his hands.

It was also during his time in Britain that something else remarkable happened.  He found love.

Perhaps it’s hard to imagine in some ways just how exceptional this was.  After all, war brides were common enough in the Second World War.  But my grandfather was Jewish, and his beloved Dorothy Fairless was Christian, of the Church of England.  And in the 1940s, such a pairing was unusual, particularly when my grandmother converted to Judaism.

My father was born in England on December 9, 1945.  My grandfather took his new family back to Canada, where they were blessed with two more children, Richard and Marlayna-Lynne.  And he and my grandmother raised them very well.

My grandfather was a very dignified and reserved man.  He wasn’t comfortable with open displays of emotion, but we still all knew how he felt.  He loved photography – at least one of his photographs won an international award, and he was involved in running the Toronto Camera Club for a number of years.  He also ran his own business (in my family, this seems to be something of a tradition), Albany Paper Products.  Once he retired, he learned how to braille, and spent time translating books into braille for the blind.  Before I moved to Kingston, I spent a bit of time tape recording his life, and asking him questions.  During that time, he told me that he really thought his life had become somewhat empty (and this was while he was a translator for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind).  I think that speaks volumes about who he was – that even in his December years, he felt the need to keep achieving, contributing, and being helpful.

And then, as he approached the age of 89, the dementia took full hold.

Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease.  It does kill – it just attacks the short-term memory first.  On his 90th birthday, he needed to be reminded again and again why everybody was there.  His body was still pretty healthy – his short term memory, though, was down to five or ten minutes, and his eyesight and hearing had become poor.  By the time he was 90, he had to be put into a home, as the stress of taking care of him was inflicting a heavy toll on my grandmother.  My grandfather’s body passed away at the age of 93.  But in all too many ways, his life ended at the age of 88.

He deserved better.  He deserved the opportunity to enjoy those last five years, and live them on his terms.  And, while I may be too drained to feel properly angry, deep down inside there is a cold rage.  His life didn’t come to an end befitting a dignified and worthy man – it was stolen from him by a disease that forced him to linger in a never-clearing fog.

About six weeks ago, my grandfather had a fall, resulting in hip replacement surgery.  As happens in Alzheimer’s patients, his body began a decline.  About two weeks ago, I went into Toronto to say a proper goodbye.  With me I brought a theory – that perhaps by invoking both the long-term memory and the part of his brain that involved skill sets, I could clear enough of the fog away that he could be himself again, even if it was just for a few minutes.  Whether it was a fluke or not, I succeeded.  For five minutes, we talked about photography.  I wish I had known more about the subject, as perhaps the conversation would have lasted longer.  I’m the one who ran out of material, and his fog returned.

And then, a while later, the time came for us to leave, and for me to say my farewell.  I told him that I didn’t know if I would see him again, and that when the fog cleared, he should stand proud – he’d earned it.  And then I said goodbye, and because it suddenly seemed the right thing to do, I kissed him on the forehead.  Although it may have been my imagination, I think I saw understanding in his eyes.  And then I left.

Well, Papa, at last the fog has cleared.  Stand proud and rest well.  You earned it.
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Marlayna Lynne Marks
User: Marlayna Lynne Marks
Date: 2011-08-09 18:12 (UTC)
Subject: A Special Thank You, Rob
How wonderful to have come across your post about my dad sharing your experiences! We all know how trying it was for us to adjust to the 'new' man in his challenge with Alzheimer's. It was up to each of us to allow him his journey through this difficult stage of his life, and yet heart-wrenching to watch.

My own experiences although different from yours have not been shared so openly. I am very grateful for your openness in sharing your wisdom about Papa. I know that he is with us in spirit and free to recuperate without his body/mind frailties.

Thank you so much for sharing some of his life that I had not known about in my own time with him. We all have something special with each other and sharing yours with Papa is precious.

Your Auntie
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