A theme of our trip has been unconditional love. It is with this feeling in mind that we shook ourselves awake at 4:30a.m. to wander, cold and bleary, through quiet Normandy streets to Juno Beach. This place, this integral piece of our identity, drew us as the tide; and we, as a group, curled up together in a pile on the bleak beach to see the sunrise, as our ancestors before us might have before the iconic D-Day raids. Unfortunately, due to the complete inability of 16 Vimy scholars to check the time of sunrise, we ended up laced together, singing our national anthem, digging in the sand, creating bright inukshuks and brilliant memories, and waiting to see the light we knew would come again for over two hours. The camaraderie in the darkness; the feeling of absolute, unconditional love as we waited, with baited breath, for the lights to return, is a feeling not soon forgotten. We have been deep within the ground lately, exploring the living war — less cemetary than sous-terraine. We have explored how the darkness can consume, how it feels to trust your instincts and your brothers in arms in absolute darkness, we have discussed the theory of lightlessness. This morning, we discovered how it feels to wait, shivering and anticipatory, for over two hours just to see the sunrise. Hours later, at 6:55a.m., the sun rose bold and burning over the pale, swept beaches of Normandy, and as light rain hit the shoulders of our Vimy-issue jackets, we stood on the rocks, hands laced together, and felt the sweep of unconditional love.
The days are not easy. Far from it, in fact — we are poppies, the ground beneath our feet churned up, allowing us to grow up in red plastic jackets among the tombstones of a hundred cemeteries. It is easy to often feel rooted to the spot, being blown about, unable to choose where you land. It is looking up and seeing a field of poppies, a field of red jackets, that is grounding. It is hands on your shoulders as you feel lost looking at graves of soldiers murdered by the SS in a quiet country garden. It is standing before a row of pearly tombstones and knowing you have stood on the loose gravel that covered their shallow graves, and feeling fingers lacing within yours. It is the ineffable feeling of absolute trust after knowing someone a week. This is the experience the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize gives you.
Today, I will take away memories of a quiet girl feeling open enough to share the story of her great-grandfather’s best friend, who never made it home. I will take away the feeling of absolute horror, and pain, that you feel when you realize the memorial garden of the church you are standing in covered up the graves of 20 of your murdered countrymen. I will take home the final words of a Vimy scholar to his great-uncle, lost to the horror of war. These are experiences I feel in my bones. There are happy times, too — loud music on the bus, and Juno Beach at sunset in dripping swimsuits, and feather-light crepes, and Baroque-era a capella concerts in a 13th century church. Each and every moment is a memory I will never regret having, and even if it is painful at times, or hard to come to terms with, it is one of love. We enter each cemetery with a feeling of unexplainable gratitude and love. We are reminded by our leaders each and every day that they fought for us to feel this unbreakable bond, this laughter, this love. I have found a family in two weeks, found a home miles from where I thought it was, and found out exactly how far love can travel, how much it can sustain someone: whether on the battlefield or standing on the remains of one.
As the sun rose halfway behind grey clouds on Juno Beach approximately 2.5 hours after we expected it, I stood hand in hand with my family, sang an off-key and sleep rough national anthem, and walked slowly up the pier, rocks clacking in our pockets. The boots of 14,000 soldiers walked behind us, marching us slowly into the morning light. No matter what happens, their light will sustain us. No matter what happens, we will face the hardship together. No matter what happens, we will love each other, wholly and unconditionally. And on days like these, it almost seems like that could be enough. Lest we forget.