I listened to so many people – very educated people – thanking active duty servicemembers, the deployed, and our Veterans, all without mentioning the dead. And while it’s just peachy to honor everyone who serves, and to thank them for their continuing sacrifice, it always confounds me when it happens on Memorial Day without mention of the dead. Memorial Day is set aside to remember the dead. It’s like a nation afraid to say the word. Dead.
It bothers me that more people don’t observe that fact. It bothers me when people say “Happy Memorial Day.” It bothers me that it’s symptomatic of an American population that doesn’t understand the military. And so, I find myself annoyed on Memorial Day again.
I live in a rural area nowhere near a military base. Here the military is a distant ideal borne mostly by VFW and American Legion volunteers who stand near the coffee shop trying to pass out red tissue paper flowers. There are no active duty servicemembers walking about. The word “ma’am” is uttered mostly by polite older men to older women. There are no military uniforms. There are farmers in coveralls and a hardware store where you can still buy things “on account” and a high school team named after potatoes. It’s Americana and it’s quaint and it’s patriotic. Yet it’s getting harder and harder to find the military memory here, and in other American towns just like it across the country.
As the kids and I walked up the gravelly road into the cemetery for the Memorial Day ceremony, I noted the inscriptions on the moss-infected graves as we passed each one: WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. I was thankful there were no fresh graves, no visible connections to Iraq or Afghanistan. But I also understood that it was the reason for the widening gap between our military and civilian populations. Because for most of our nation the dead are not friends and brothers as much as they are cold headstones or sanitized news stories or touching Facebook photos. Even in a cemetery full of flags on a misty Memorial Day, the military sacrifice was conceptual. Theoretical. Second-hand.
We came to a stop in front of a tipsy podium rigged with extension cords, standing alone amidst the headstones. Men in blue covers gathered behind it, their pristine white gloves matching their hair. The moist flags hung heavily and as people gathered, we all stood motionless and stale. The ceremony began and my children clung to me for warmth, or maybe more. Their father was in the Middle East last Memorial Day. This year he was only on a business trip. But the lump in our throats was still very fresh.
I looked around. At 41 years of age, I was the youngest adult by many years. It was pathetic and embarrassing. I felt angry.
The speaker told the familiar story of a young man who didn’t come home after throwing himself onto a grenade. I was thinking of the young man’s mother when my seven year-old looked up at me and tugged on my shirt. I could see tears welling up in his eyes as he whispered, “what does ‘absorb the blast’ mean?”
My eyes glazed over as I realized that once again I was the only thing standing between him and a truth he already suspected. I replied quietly, “It means that he laid his body down on a grenade.” He looked at me, blinked, and waited for the confirmation. I felt like a surgeon who had just excised a tumor, trying carefully not to use the word “cancer.” I decided to be clear, because it was important. I leaned down so I could look him in the eyes and I whispered the truth. “It killed him. He did it knowing he would die. And it saved other people from dying. Do you understand?” My son nodded and turned away, but was soon squeezing my leg even tighter than before.
After the ceremony he stood staring quietly at the grave of a World War I veteran for a very long time. As I watched him it struck me how a story, some hushed words of truth, and something he could touch and see impacted him. In that moment, that dead man was a real person. And in that moment, that dead man in the ground stood in the gap between my son and the mere concept of sacrifice.
So on Memorial Day I will probably always be annoyed by the sales and the drunken barbeques and the well-wishers. But I will lessen the blow by always honoring the dead, and by teaching my children that it’s not just a theoretical, patriotic practice. It’s real. The dead are real. Like a mother answering an unwanted but inevitable question, the dead stand between us and a truth we already suspect – speaking plain and clear, even in their whispers.