Little Lead Soldier

October 20, 2010

Christmas morning 2009 started early as usual. My Aunt came into my room at the crack of dawn to wake me up. I pulled on my light blue robe and hobbled out to the lit living room where my Dad, little Sister, and Aunt were sitting. The tall tree (taller then everyone in the family) was shining with multicolor lights and an eclectic arrangement of ornaments. There were six overflowing stockings sitting on the living room chairs- one less then last year. After digging through our stockings, we were ready to open our presents under the tree. The presents under the tree were wrapped in two ways; some were in Christmas paper, the others were in Christmas decorated cloth bags (my Grandmother’s eco-friendly way to save paper). The “elf” (my little sister) began giving each family member a gift. I was on my fourth or fifth present when it happened. I opened the draw string gift bag to reveal a Spanish study guide. My Mom then asked if there was anything else in the bag as I started to toss it into the pile of wrappings. I reached in and felt around the “S” shaped white packaging peanuts; when I felt something with a smooth texture. I pulled out a small, hard object wrapped in Kleenex. I unwrapped the surprise gift. It was a small, hand-painted lead soldier. I recognized it instantly; it was one of the soldiers of my grandfather’s vast collection. It was my Granddad’s stocking, the seventh stocking, that was missing from the living room that Christmas day.
My grandfather was diagnosed with Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia (CMML) when he was 69, in 2006. CMML is a very rare form of leukemia. According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, CMML affects approximately three out of 100,000 individuals in the United States this year. It is a difficult cancer to treat and lasting remissions are not common. Survival averages only 12 to 24 months after the start treatment. It started with anemia and the loss of red blood cells. The white blood cells then began to take over and push out more of the red. The cancer made Granddad feel exhausted.
Granddad began collecting lead soldiers at an early age. His Grandmother brought them back from a trip to England for him and his younger brother. As a small boy growing up in Hamtramck, Michigan I’m sure he had no idea that his handful of soldiers, ranging from Zulu worriers and Hussars to Scottish marching bands, would grow to a collection of over 1,700.
The treatment for the leukemia started right away. The doctor first gave my grandfather human growth shots once a month. The shots helped the bone marrow produce more red blood cells. This treatment went on for six months and then it didn’t work very well anymore. He started taking chemotherapy pills, and receiving blood transfusions. This worked for a while, but unfortunately, because the doctors did not have the precise treatment, the pills did not work to Granddad’s entire advantage. They killed both the cancerous white blood cells plus the healthy red cells.
Granddad collected lead solders into his retirement. He would order them on a regular basis from websites like EBay. Some he hand painted. He displayed his favorites on glass shelves next to his computer. Many soldiers were also displayed in my Granddad’s hobby room. A room dedicated to his collections, located across from the guest bedroom I always slept in. As a little girl, I was always a bit intimidated to enter the room with a thousand or so small soldiers on display. The soldiers wore painted uniforms of different colors, determining what army they belonged to. I remember thinking about the movie “Toy Story”, and how the soldiers in the movie came alive at night.
Granddad continued to take the chemotherapy pills to alleviate some of the symptoms of cancer. However, soon more medical help was needed. It was at church where I saw my Grandfather become physically exhausted. He stopped standing to sing the hymns, and soon he stopped singing all together. He was still cheery and talkative at church, but at home he had slipped into a depression-like state. My sister and I weren’t playfully teased anymore. Instead of talking about light hearted subjects, we heard about Granddad’s trips to the “vampire doctor” (he received many blood transfusions because the chemotherapy was not curing him). On transfusion days he came home for dinner renewed, it was like eating with a different person. Talkative and up-beat; he had turned back to his old self. Soon, the transfusions stopped helping. He stopped volunteering at the White Center Food Bank with my Grandmother on Wednesdays. He stopped coming to church. He was bedridden. After two rounds of infusion chemotherapy Granddad passed away Monday, April 20, 2009. He died in bed with my Grandmother, sitting at his side. I wondered if he had been scared during his run with cancer, but my Grandmother assures me that he was tired and as a Christian, he was ready to go on to his next life.
After his death we had a memorial service and two cemetery services. He has been put to rest, half of the ashes here in Seattle, the other half in Michigan, at the foot of his youngest sister’s grave. All there was left to do was to work on my Grandfather’s estate. We had to go through the basement, count, and categorize all that was left of my Grandfather’s collections and mementos. We found that he had 1,700 lead soldiers! We counted, tallied and took pictures of them, it was a long process. When we had finally finished, I asked my Mom if I could have one of the hand-painted lead soldiers to remember Granddad and my time with him. Her answer was uncertain, since it was really my grandmother’s decision; I decided not to pester her about it again. Months passed, and soon it was the 2009 holiday season, the first without Granddad in my life. The space he left when he died had still not healed.
My Grandfather has passed on but a part of him will stay with me forever. I will remember his faith, his determination, and his sense of humor as I live out the rest of my life; and I will take that little soldier with me on my journey, as a special keepsake, wherever I go.
I keep the little lead soldier in my closet and see it whenever I am getting ready in the morning and getting ready for bed at night. Each time I see it I remember him. I think about how he is watching over me, about our time together, and I think about the legacy of soldiers he left behind. “Goodnight Granddad, see you in the morning”.
Elizabeth Menstell