Today, I posted on Facebook a column contemplating whether Memorial Day should include a commemoration of people like Henry David Thoreau and the many other anti-war activists and conscientious objectors and others who endeavored to prevent or shorten unjust wars. The column prompted some debate about what Memorial Day is “about,” with my two cents being that the purpose of Memorial Day is to honor the dead who gave their lives in service to this country, many of them needlessly in wars of aggression and greed, and that to me, we dishonor their memories if we do not continue to meditate on the need for peace; that to me, it does not take away from honoring the sacrifice of all those who have lost their lives and their families to meditate on the idea that while we are so incredibly grateful for their sacrifice, we are terribly sorry that they had to make it.
As the day went on, though, and I thought more and more about this discussion, it occurred to me that perhaps none of us should presume to say what Memorial Day is “about.” Because I imagine that, like Mother’s Day, Memorial Day is about many different things for many different people—those who have served and continue to serve, those whose family members or friends served and died, those leaders who sent young men and women into war, those of us who have not lost any loved ones in service to the nation but who understand that many of our freedoms, including our freedom to protest unjust wars, are a result of those sacrifices. It may mean to a mother who lost her son in a war she does not believe in something different from what it means to a father who lost his son in a war in which he believed wholeheartedly. So I think when any of us presumes to say that Memorial Day is “about this” or “not about that,” we may risk ignoring the diversity and depth of experiences and emotions that are brought to bear upon the meaning of this day.
So as the day continued, I thought more and more about what this day means to me. Having only a few friends in the military and having never lost anyone I loved to a war, it obviously does not mean to me the same thing that it might mean to my friend, Helen, one of the mothers I have become friends with in this journey of losing a child, my friend Helen who lost her 29-year-old son Joe to an IED in Afghanistan in 2006. It does not mean the same thing to me that it does to Joe’s wife, or to his young daughter and stepson, who lost their father on that fateful day. So what does it mean to me?
As I was meditating on this, I heard an interview on NPR with a chaplain who accompanies the notification officers tasked with the terrible duty of notifying the loved ones of those who have died in military service. The chaplain said that in every case when he has made the walk to the front door of one of those families, as soon as the door opens, before the notification officer can even get a word out of his mouth, the grief has already begun—the sight of the government vehicle in the driveway and the two officers in uniform on the front steps tells them everything they need to know. He said sometimes, family members would see them coming up the walk and simply refuse to open the door, as if doing so would mean keeping their beloved soldier alive.
And when I heard that, when I imagined that moment in my head, that’s when I had at least a better sense of what Memorial Day is about for me. Because what I thought of when I heard that chaplain describe that moment when the grief begins before the officer can even say a word, what I thought of was that same moment when we knew, without anyone saying a word, that Hudson was going to die. We had been waiting for what seemed like hours and hours for the doctor to return and tell us the results of Hudson’s latest CT scan, taken after her pupils stopped responding to light altogether. Finally, the hospital social worker guided us into a private room and sat us down. Then the social worker, two nurses, and two doctors all walked in and sat down in five chairs across from us. It was then that we knew. The words were superfluous. We knew in that moment that our lives would never be the same.
And as I remembered that horrible moment, I had a sense that for me, Memorial Day is about honoring all of those mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children who have had to open that door, who have known, before any words were even said, that their lives would never be the same. And for me, it is about doing whatever I can do to make sure that no family, no mother, ever has to endure that horrible moment without an unassailable reason. I don’t intend that as a political statement but rather as an intensely personal and emotional one. If another mother’s child is going to die for my sake, if another mother must endure that moment when she knows without being told that she will never see her child alive again, then the very least that I can do on Memorial Day is pledge to do my best to make sure that her child “shall not have died in vain.”