Photographing a hero isn’t hard, but writing about someone who has survived and thrived through unimaginable hardship is a difficult task. I find myself in a cloud of words, trying to portray how this man embodies the very qualities of a hero, but unsure of how to do justice to his story. And what a story it is… seriously.
This is Ralph. He is my husband’s grandpa. He lives in Calgary and unfortunately, is a Calgary Flames fan (I can forgive him for that.) Most of his grandkids (myself included) have lived with him, taking claim to the big yellow room in the basement. In fact, when I go back, simply smelling the air downstairs takes me back to the days that I was living there, attending photography classes at SAIT, dating Ryan (he proposed in that basement), and finding my independence for the first time living away from home. Grandpa was the best roommate. But I do remember one evening, becoming worried that he wasn’t home yet. See, grandpa didn’t see very well, but still went out on his own. My anxious mind couldn’t rest until he came home. He finally walked through the door, and (like the parent of an unruly teenager), asked him where he was and why he was late. Turns out, he just wanted to go watch a hockey game, so he took the transit down to the arena (solo) and watched the game. He’s never let anything stop him.
Grandpa grew up out East, signed up to go to war, and met his love (at first site) at the train station, surrounded by other soldiers. That is the very simplified version of what happened. But remember I said he has a story? Well, he went to war but was captured before entering battle. He spent FOUR YEARS in a concentration camp under Japanese rule. He got sick. His friends got sick. Most of his friends didn’t get better. But he fought. For years. Eventually he was freed, and that’s when he came home and met his forever love, Phyllis. (see the photo below that he still keeps by his bed) He doesn’t speak much about the happenings of his time in the Japanese camp, but over the years we have learned more and more about what he went through. What thousands of people went through… and boy, did he fight for his life. But he would deny and callings of a hero.
Many who experience what he has, become hardened. But Grandpa decides to love. Seriously, this man would give you anything if he saw a need. He chooses to be joyful. He chose forgiveness.
To read more about his story, his grandson, Mark Sakamoto (Ryan’s cousin) wrote a book. And it just won the Canada Reads award… it’s called Forgiveness. It’s powerful, and not an emotionally easy read, but it needs to be read. It tells the story, not only of Grandpa Ralph, but of his daughter marrying a Japanese man, whose mother went through the torment taking place in Canada, for people of the Japanese heritage. (I seriously had no idea that even happened until I read this book…) Mark did an exceptional job writing this piece and I’m thrilled that it is getting the recognition it deserves.
Ralph has made an impact on an enormous number of people… myself included. I’m proud that I am part of his family. I’m happy to have spent time with him back in my college days, in the home he built and raised his family in. I wanted to capture him in photographs, in his uniform that he so proudly wears to the few engagements that he goes to each year. Grandpa will be 96 next month, and he isn’t able to do the things he was able to years ago (his vision is next to nothing, due to his sickness in the camp), but he still lights up when we come to visit, and offers what he can to make us comfortable. He cares deeply.
I drove to Calgary and got just a few photos of him in his uniform, wearing the medals he so dearly deserves. Some photos are meaningful and tell a story so simply. I hope these do it justice.
(This is Marilyn, Ralph’s daughter. She cares for him, and has for many years- taking him to his appointments, checking in on him, taking him to church, and she’s a nurse, so she made sure he had the best care… she deserves a medal too)
Here she is. The one he spotted in the train station.