For a very small number of us, Memorial Day can be difficult to grapple with because of the memories and experiences of war and where those experiences fit at home. But for the vast majority of us, Memorial Day can be difficult to grasp because we never had those experiences. Only a very small segment of our population has borne the brunt of the current conflict, and time and distance carries us further and further from previous ones. It all leads us to a place of disconnect from the veterans who carry the memories of our dead. That disconnect can be as difficult to acknowledge as it is to overcome.
For our veterans who experienced loss while deployed, Memorial Day takes what is normally an internal emotional process and thrusts it out into the open. This day externalizes the loss into a world that can’t understand, even with the best of intentions, that feeling of loss and what it means. We should all be grateful most of us will never know death as our warriors do. But because we will never know the depth, meaning and purpose of the bond they shared, we will also never know life as they do.
Struggling to survive together against chaos and death creates a sacred bond between people. It’s an endeavor most of us will never undertake in our modern culture. Living and dying within the sacred confines of that bond takes the two most basic processes of life we should all be able to relate to and sets them apart. When someone lives in that bond, loses someone within that bond, and then comes back to a home void of those bonds, our veterans are not only remembering and mourning the people they lost, they are remembering and mourning what they consider to be the best parts of themselves that also never came home. They rage against the dying of their comrade’s light in a moment, and against the dying of their own light in all the moments that follow. It’s why many veterans miss the war they hated so much.
When people aren’t ready to go, they rage. And when we aren’t ready to let them go we rage. And the young ranks of our military are filled with people who weren’t ready to let go of people who weren’t ready to go. My father raged against the dying of his light. It sounds glorious, but as a son, I wanted the opposite. I wanted to know he was happy and ready and that his last thoughts were good. But he wasn’t. He wanted life, he wanted time and he fought to his very last breath. If my dad raged against the dying of his light at 63 with all he had done and seen, what word even approaches the titanic struggle at 23? At 18? And if I raged against letting him go, having never known the test or struggle of chaos and death, then what can be said of the squad, of the platoon, of the young men and women out of sight, out of mind and outside the wire?
Memorial Day is a great time for us to take a first step toward that understanding. What can the rest of us do to get past Memorial Day platitudes and lip service on the way to a department store sale or bar-b-que?
Memorial Day is about people who sacrificed their lives in the service of this country and for most of us, our only connection to that sacrifice is the men and women sent home to us and the families left behind. The men and women who experienced that sacrifice, feel it every day, and can pass along to us who that person was, what their sacrifice meant, and how their loss is felt every day. The best way to remember the men and women who didn’t make it home, is to cherish, love, support, stand by, stand behind, laugh with, cry with, live with, and love the people sent back to us and the families left behind.
Just be a friend, just be present, enjoy the day, appreciate and remember to help make home feel like home. A deep breath and a moment together with loved ones is worth sacrificing for.