A day of silence and sunlight

Backyard cookouts, a day off from work, a trip to the lake, an extra-long weekend at the beach- this is what pop culture tells me Americans do on Memorial Day. I always remember an eerily silent house, tension that breathed like an additional family member, and an unspoken pain that changed my family forever. Memorial Day was a day of reverence and solemnity that never involved parties or fun or even conversation.
My mother’s only brother was lost in service to our country and she could never emotionally handle Memorial Day. No matter the number of years between us and the day her brother died for his country, her world would be forever colored with grief and longing for him. We weren’t allowed to turn on a TV because of the Memorial Day coverage. Panoramic shot of fields sprouting with stones where the youth of a generation had been planted, patriotic images of flags flying over them sent my poor mother over her own edge. Just as surely as my uncle, my handsome just-turned-21 devil in a convertible, was buried at sea her own youth and innocence had been plunged to the cold and dark depths with him.
Once I had an elementary teacher who spent an exorbitant amount of prep time on a lesson on patriotism and Memorial Day just before we left out of school for summer. I remembered this lesson vividly and waited with my own intense pride for this day to come. When it was finally Memorial Day, I approached my mother with a seriousness that only an eight-year-old can muster and I recited the phrase my teacher had taught me to say:
“A grateful nation thanks you for your sacrifice.”
My mother turned her hollow eyes to me and with her own brand of defeat said:
“I don’t want your gratitude. I want my brother back.”
This was how we tiptoed through a day in May, a day in July, a day in October. This was how we knew to keep quiet when we saw that hollowness eating at her at Christmas, at his birthday in March.
She tried her best to keep her own children and anyone else’s from military service because she just couldn’t survive that kind of loss again. I remember being in high school and saying that a friend wanted to go into the military and she responded with a shocked, “Why?”
It wasn’t that she was unpatriotic or that I was raised to dislike our nation- far from it. We were a very patriotic family that recognized our nation’s place on the world stage, but also a family that equated service with loss- loss of life, loss of youth, loss of innocence, and even loss of self.
My grandfather’s older brother had come home to suffer the rest of his life fighting Germans that only he could see. He struggled to regain the man he had been, and would be released from the hospital to go back to his family, only to find himself fighting a battle that had been over for decades but in all of his nightmares night after night. His personal defeat would come again and again with each hospitalization.
I wondered then how to best observe this day. I didn’t want to subject my children to the crippling grief that had emotionally frozen my family in the moment of my mother’s loss. I also didn’t want to pretend that the same loss hadn’t mattered in my life or wouldn’t matter to theirs. So as I struggle with what to write and how to write about Memorial Day, I would like that the right way is to tell my children to say go play. My kids will. I will. My family is not going to ignore the loss through service, but we will not allow out time together to be limited by it. I don’t think that is what my uncle or any other veteran would want. I think he would want to be remembered, but as a young man who embraced life and lived it for all the richness he could draw out of it. I think that is what he would have wanted for a fitting memorial. We will enjoy our freedoms that have been bought for us with a young man’s life, a young man’s mind, enumerable losses and individual sufferings. They did this for us. My uncle died so that my children and millions of others can go to school and go to church and grow up to be what they want to be and live with the freedoms we have. And all can be celebrated in his memory.