For far too long Memorial Day, for me, meant barbecues, family get-togethers, and (probably unsafe) bonfires with friends. It meant the occasional flag-waving and perhaps a moment of gratitude shared over a few ill-advised beers. It was mostly a day off to spend in the sun or lazily on the couch and it was definitely a day I sadly took for granted. Now that I’m a mother and the father of my son is a veteran, Memorial Day means something much, much more. Now that my younger brother has been an active duty military member for a surprisingly unbelievable number of years, the beers and barbecues and social aspects of Memorial Day fall second to the resounding, palpable sacrifices so many have made.
I’m not saying I wasn’t aware of the meaning of Memorial Day prior to my brother joining the Armed Forces or before I was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with my son’s father, a Navy veteran. I grew up in a military town and have military family members and know enough about the military to feel thankful. But, like the majority of our country, my thankfulness only went so far as to wear an American Flag t-shirt, maybe listen to a few patriotic songs, and spend some fleeting moments thinking about those who weren’t celebrating Memorial Day, but mourning it. It was hard for me to not fall into our now-frustrating cultural faux thankfulness. I did what I was supposed to do, never fully appreciating military members, their families, or the sacrifices of so many who have and will come home not to loving family members or parades, but draped under American Flags and memorialized during 21 Gun Salutes. Then, I fell in love with a veteran. And then my brother joined the military.
Now that I see my son taking a liking to the sea and his father’s military metals and the dog tags that hang off of our bedroom door, I feel a very real chill ice the marrow in my bones. Now that I see my son dancing with his Navy bear and wanting to wear his father’s uniform, I can’t help but imagine him as one of the many soldiers for whom Memorial Day actually stands for. I feel a minuscule fraction of what I can only guess a mother must feel, as I imagine the seemingly unimaginable; the folded flag and the lowered casket and the ceremonial uniforms. My heart clinches and my lungs burn and I fight back the tears I know far too many parents have shed.
I spend Memorial Day pushing horrible realities out of my mind instead of planning a trip to the beach or a family outing in the city. I focus on my brother’s wife and children and bite my lip as tears form on the corner of my eyes.
Now that I see my partner remembering friends lost in either the line of duty or years after they’ve come home, unable to adjust to a civilian life they cannot understand, I forget about the barbecues and beers. I imagine a veteran taking their own life, a reality for the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day in the United States, and can’t even begin to think about eating a cheeseburger or squirting ketchup onto a hot dog or basking in the sun as I lazily apply suntan lotion. I've become overwhelmed with selfish thankfulness because my partner was willing and able to seek help for his PTSD symptoms and is capable of leaving his military service somewhat behind him, even though the men he shared it with and the memories he made because of it are always with him and around him and a part of him.
Now that I see my brother, who has two daughters of his own, prepare for yet another deployment while still commemorating the brothers he lost during previously tours, I spend Memorial Day pushing horrible realities out of my mind instead of planning a trip to the beach or a family outing in the city. I focus on my brother’s wife and children and bite my lip as tears form on the corner of my eyes. Now, as a parent myself, I see my brother as more than just a sibling; he is someone’s partner and two little girls’ father and though I’m not one to pray, I silently wish with every fiber of my being that he'll be one to walk off a plane when his deployment ends, and not one to be carried off by his brothers-in-arms.
Now, as my veteran partner searches for a job, Memorial Day means spending a majority of my time angry. I am angry that some don’t view my partner’s time in service to our country as a worthwhile equivalent to a college education. I’m angry he has to defend his choice to join the Navy instead of some Ivy league college. I’m angry that our systems and structures have failed so many of his brothers and sisters in the military.
Every year on Memorial Day I push past my fears and anger and guilt and take the time to truly appreciate the family I have and the people who have fought so adamantly for my ability to enjoy them.
Each and every day these men and women have given so, so much. So today, I give to them. I support organizations like The Code Of Support and The Raider Project, take pledges and donate money that will go toward aiding other veterans and family members of fallen soldiers. I do what little I can for those who did, and do, so much more.
Now that I'm acutely aware of just how lucky I am that my brother can continue to serve and my partner can be a well-adjusted veteran and wonderful father, Memorial Day is, honestly, about being a little selfish. I selfishly thank any and all higher powers that I'm not the one experiencing what so many family members are forced to endure on a daily basis. I'm thankful that, now, Memorial Day means remembering those I don't know but appreciate, instead of remembering those I love and miss so deeply I cannot stand to enjoy a world that doesn't have them in it. This year on Memorial Day, I am so incredibly thankful for what I have and yet I hate myself for feeling so thankful when so many are feeling so pained and alone and lost. I struggle to enjoy the family I so deeply love while simultaneously being so overwhelmed with relief that I can.
I have learned firsthand the cost of their sacrifices and the privilege of my freedom. I know what it means to watch a brother and a partner board a plane and a ship, headed to some far-and-away destination and not know what the future has in store.
But every year on Memorial Day I push past my fears and anger and guilt and take the time to truly appreciate the family I have and the people who have fought so adamantly for my ability to enjoy them. I have learned firsthand the cost of their sacrifices and the privilege of my freedom. I know what it means to watch a brother and a partner board a plane and a ship, headed to some far-and-away destination and not know what the future has in store. And I know the overwhelming relief that comes from seeing them return.
I don't bemoan the people who celebrate with a barbecue anymore, because I've learned Memorial Day honestly does mean cracking open a beer and enjoying a barbecue, because that is what so many veterans and military members fight for. I know it’s what my partner and my brother want us (and everyone else) to do every Memorial Day and on weekends and special occasions and when we all need to experience unabashed laughter and the love of our families and friends. It’s about gripping my partner’s hand just a little tighter when he reminds me that Memorial Day isn’t about him, but about the countless men and women who have died in combat. In means kissing my son and hugging him for far too long, so aware that he's alive because his father is, too. It’s about remembering those who don’t get that ability — those lost to the violence of war and the family members who spend every day missing them — and whispering through my son’s wild hair, “Thank you,” as I give him another, even tighter, squeeze.