The entire weekend we’ve all been inundated with advertisements for the barbecues people host and for sales that are going on today. We’ve been told that we shouldn’t run out of beer and that this or that sale will never be repeated. The day has been touted as a celebration of food, booze, and savings. And many of us have been hurt by this happy-go-lucky attitude about the day.
Memorial Day is a day set aside to remember those who gave their lives in service to America. It was intended as a day when the memories of the fallen would be honored. Not just by their families and friends but by the nation. It was meant to be a day of contemplation of the ultimate sacrifice of these brave young people.
My oldest brother joined the Marines and died serving this country. He was 19 years old. The brother closest to him in age was in the Navy at the same time, aboard an ammunition ship. I thank God that he was spared, both for my sake and, especially for my parents’ sake. You see, after my oldest brother died my mother was never quite the same.
She had a nine year old to care for so she didn’t fall apart, at least not completely. Yet, even decades after my brother’s death there were things that cut her deeply. When I was a little girl I had very long hair. One summer my mother took me for a haircut. The style was called a “Pixie cut” and it was quite short. When my mother saw me, shorn of my waist-length hair, she started to cry. It wasn’t the loss of the hair that did it. She told me I looked exactly like my brother. We made a trip to California in the 1980’s and the sight of the Pacific Ocean only reminded her that she last saw her oldest child alive at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Mama was a very intelligent and extremely funny lady. She was a great mother and a very strong woman. Yet there were things that reminded her of my brother and could stop her in her tracks.
And, although he rarely showed it, my daddy also keenly felt the loss of his firstborn child. I remember one morning he and I were sitting on our porch as the sun was just rising. It was so quiet and Daddy seemed unusually solemn. Then he began talking to me about my brother. He told me stories about his child that he’d never shared before. Some I’d heard from Mama but some were anecdotes about incidents that were just between my brother and my father. I recall staring straight ahead, not wanting him to stop talking. It was almost as though he were speaking to himself. I was afraid that any comment I made would interrupt his reverie. It was one of the most intimate moments we shared and yet it was almost as if I weren’t there. The depth of my father’s grief was finally laid bare.
My surviving brothers often told tales of the wild teenage exploits of their big brother. They were amusing and sometimes shocking. After all, my oldest brother had been the epitome of the good son to my parents. The idea that he was also a wildly adventurous boy almost felt at odds with the boy whom my mother described. She’d told me how he went to a local fair with a friend and they met a couple of girls yet, when he won a box of chocolates, he didn’t give them to his accidental date but, instead, brought them home to her. And my brothers told me how he’d sat on the hood of a car speeding down the middle of a freeway that was not yet open. I heard how he would do chores perfectly with a smile and also how he and his friends did things that would have made Mama’s hair stand on end. Between Mama, Daddy, and my brothers I had a complete picture of the young man my brother was and the man he would have become
And so, on this day that people will spend going on picnics and spending at the beach I can only think of all the young people who are no longer with us. Those who never got a chance to grow up, get married and have children of their own, and grow old. I think of the grandchildren that parents all over the country never got to have and the holidays that felt just a little empty. I think of sweethearts that never met. And I think of how so many families will go through the rest of their lives with a hole in the shape of a brave youngster.
And I ask this of all of you; as you enjoy your day, however you may be spending it, to remember the fallen. Remember the sacrifice they made. Remember that you’re enjoying your day because of them.