Werner was a German refugee who lost his family during the war, and who started a new family shortly after the war ended. He came to North America in 1951, bought a tiny plot of land, built the basement of a little bungalow, and then brought his wife and two tiny daughters over to join him.
They all lived together in the basement while he built the rest of the house above. They would cook their meals on a little camp stove on the sidewalk. The neighbors would watch, and Werner would build, ignoring their thinly veiled whispers of disapproval. He was intent on creating a better life for the four of them, and on leaving the horrors of war behind.
He worked hard. His wife worked hard. Together they managed a motel while Werner grew his construction company. Eventually the hard work paid off, the construction company thrived, and Werner’s family grew out of poverty, enjoying financial success and social status.
Then one hot morning in the summer of 1980, Werner parked his orange BMW on the side of the highway. He got out and raised the front hood of his car, standing behind it for a while, hidden from the view of oncoming traffic. Eventually a transport truck clocking 70 miles per hour approached.
Werner stepped in front of it.
When my uncle went to identify the body, they drew back the sheet only far enough to show him the shirt my grandfather was wearing. No other parts that were left of him would have been recognizable anyway.
Two days prior Opa had driven me to school in his little orange car because I had missed the bus. He admonished me as I sat next to him. I felt guilty that I had disappointed him…he had never been effusive as a grandfather, but had never been harsh either, and I had wished so much to impress him.
As I laid on that gurney, under the mercilessly cold hospital lights, I wondered what he would have thought of me, if he could see me now.