There are two ways in which I have honored and will continue to honor Memorial Day: before my brother went to war and after my brother went to war.
I very vividly remember learning what Memorial Day was as a kid and feeling conflicted about “celebrating” it. There were groups of families who weren’t looking forward to this special Monday like I was. I didn’t know any of those families, of course. All of the families I knew were like mine with some variation on the day’s activities – barbecues, going down the shore (that’s how we tri-state people say going to the beach), park festivals, block buster movie-going, you name it. The three-day weekend was game for anything as it was the kickoff to summer. As for my family, we barbecued. Every year. And it was a blast!
Either my family drove across the Ben Franklin Bridge to Cherry Hill, NJ or my cousins drove across to West Chester, PA. Both drives led to a house with a smoking grill lined with hamburgers and a backyard set up for an annual badminton game (As a side note, I’d like to publicly state for the record that my cousin Ken and I are reigning champs, although this has been heavily disputed). My brother, my cousins, and I held play-to-the-death summer backyard badminton games for years…like, well into our twenties…like, our last game being in our thirties (where Ken and I reign as champs – just wanted to get that in again). We literally wore brown patches into what had been green grass on either side of the net because we played so hard. This thrilled our parents as home owners. Ah, but they didn’t really care. It was a great day for them too – a day off from work with good eats, good laughs, and a good life. Parents were happy, kids were happy, and summer vacation was a couple of weeks away – Memorial Day was a fantastic holiday!
That was before my brother went to war. Twice.
My brother served in the U.S. Army with deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Those years were the most horrible Memorial Days to date. How could I ignore the obvious wonderment of whether I would forever be a part of those “groups of families who weren’t looking forward to this special Monday” next year (and every year thereafter)? It was terrifying, and yet I knew it served zero purpose to live in that headspace, so I made efforts to not be the emotional basket case I felt like and attended a barbecue or joined in on the activity of the day like it’s just another fantastic holiday. Waves of emotion repeatedly washed over me throughout the day, and I wanted to stop the party and yell Hey! Why is everyone laughing and having a good time? This is a sad day. And, who knows, this could be one of my saddest days for a long time to come. But I didn’t do that. I fake laughed, fake smiled for pictures, and took a bathroom break when I needed to dry a subtle watering eye.
The most beautiful phone call I ever received was the one where I learned that my brother had landed safely on U.S. soil. He was home for good and with no plans for future deployments. I breathed…honestly, for the first time in years. I hadn’t realized that I was even holding my breath. He was going to be here next Memorial Day and for every Memorial Day after. We could barbecue, play badminton, go down the shore, or do anything we wanted like other complete families. All was great. But it wasn’t.
Now it’s after my brother went to war.
Memorial Days since haven’t felt like that old fun. My breathing still becomes tepid. Old familiar fears creep up and mix with tears of deep gratitude that I can’t properly put into words. And to be completely honest, I feel guilty. My answered prayer is someone else’s unanswered prayer. My greatest fear is someone else’s harshest reality. I feel guilty (but so grateful) that I got what I wanted and so many others didn’t.
While I don’t pretend for one second to associate with the grief of fallen soldiers’ families, my worst fear gave me a glimpse into their every day, and I sincerely don’t know how they deal with Memorial Day. How do they gather for a barbecue with an empty seat at the picnic table? How do they play badminton with a teammate gone? How do they breathe? No really. How do they breathe?
Sometimes I think it would be great to go back to those happy Memorial Days with barbecues and badminton games when it was a fantastic holiday (before). Now (after), I think Memorial Day is a fantastic day to offer up prayers for fallen soldiers and their families. It’s a fantastic day to reach out to veterans from any wartime era because they may be missing a comrade. Most of all, it’s a fantastic day to be grateful for life. So many lives were given for ours. That’s the trade-off. That’s how war and peace, which is to say evil vs. good, was designed. It always has been, and it always will be.
So I won’t wish you a happy Memorial Day because we wish each other happy birthday, and this is not a day in the same vein. I do, however, hope you have a fantastic Memorial Day, and how you make it fantastic is up to you.