I’ve noticed a lot of controversy this year surrounding Memorial Day. In the past, just getting people to recognize it is not National Mattress Sale Day or National BBQ Day was a big deal. Of course, those efforts still continue and intentional misuses of the holiday still offend military and veteran families, none more so than Gold Star families.
Now, there is a movement amongst some to stop saying “Happy” Memorial Day. There is nothing “Happy” about a day set aside to honor and remember all those who have fallen in defense of our country. It is a day of solemnity, and it is not appropriate to celebrate, they intone with Taps playing in the background. We should be reverent and somber in our observance of the immense sacrifices so many have made.
One such is this video –
I don’t know that reporter’s back story. I don’t know if he or anyone in his family ever served, much less fell in service. I hope not for his sake and that of his loved ones; this is a very exclusive club and we don’t want more members.
But, speaking as a member of the club, and speaking for many others I’ve come to know over the past two and a half years, I respectfully disagree with this sentiment. Memorial Day is indeed a somber day, one which all of us find ways to get through, with tears and hopefully with smiles. Yes, smiles.
My Gold Star family connections wish each other a “Happy” Memorial Day. We tell each other and ourselves to do what we can to find the joy in our memories, capture the smiles through our tears, because that is truly what our loved ones wanted above all else.
They served this country, were willing to go off to far away places in defense of our way of life. Ask any serving member of the military and they will tell you they want their families and friends to remember them, know there will be sadness, but don’t wish that sadness on those they leave behind. They go, willingly, risking everything they are, everything they ever could be and if they don’t come back, it is the totality of their lives they want remembered, not just the fact of their death.
This is not the same as saying “Don’t be sad, don’t cry. Your (insert relationship here) wouldn’t want that.” This is often delivered by well-meaning but clueless friends and relations who are uncomfortable in the face of the overwhelming grief that is the reality of Gold Star families. And is the quickest way to piss me off.
There is no one on this planet who knows better what my son wanted, would want for me. I know my sadness would make him sad, but he would understand that great grief is the price we pay for great love. I would willingly take on a thousand lifetimes of this soul-crushing sadness to have experienced the great joy and immeasurable love I was privileged to have as his mom. Even had I known what was in store the day he was born, I would do it all again.
That is what Memorial Day is and should be about. Yes, somber reflection on the great loss. Yes, recognition of the sacrifice of so many tomorrows for our todays. And yes, celebration that what they lived for, died for, is our today.
This year, I will not participate in any parades or organized Memorial Day activities. I may attend, stand on the sidelines and get choked up as Old Glory passes by. But there will also be smiles along with the somber reverence in my heart as I do the things my son loved.
Saturday night, I attended the Blackhawks game. I clutched his dog tags against my heart as I and twenty thousand others gazed at the flag while Jim Cornelison sang. My son loved hockey games, but he loved the roar of the Madhouse on Madison. I was out of my seat, screaming in joy as the Hawks scored again and again. I was very aware at all times I was there at that game because I wrote a piece on the receiving flowers on Mother’s Day as a Gold Star Mother from the USO of Illinois and was their invited guest.
I remembered his first Hawks game when he was barely four years old. Our seats were so high up he said it was like being a bird, watching from the top of the trees. I remembered the look of awe on his face as he searched for the source of the sound that shook the rafters that appeared to be just inches from our heads. I remember most of all his smile, ear to ear, lighting up his face when he understood that sound reverberating through the building was the people, cheering for our flag and our National Anthem. I still smile when I think about the conversation we had; he thought the Blackhawks were the national team, and that is why everyone screamed so loud.
Sunday I will go to Irish Fest at Gaelic Park. My son loved Celtic music, bagpipes in particular and an Irish Festival was the first fest-type activity he remembered attending. Certainly, we had been to the local carnivals every summer, and to Great America and Disney World, too. But, it was the Irish Fest at the Irish American Heritage Center that we went to when he was three that he remembered as his first.
On Monday, my VFW, Cantigny VFW Post 367 will hold a series of remembrances at local cemeteries where veterans are buried. At 11:00am there will be a ceremony at the Post, and I may attend. There will also be a ceremony with thousands in attendance at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery where my son lies, a place I visit so often I can tell you the groundskeeper’s schedules. I may be there as well, not to be a part of the ceremony, but simply to witness the throng who come out on this somber day to pay their respects to their, and all of our loved ones.
And I will smile through my tears. I will be sad, but happy too, when I smell the BBQ’s of my neighbors, and may even fire up our own. My sadness is that he is gone; my joy is that what he loved, what he lived for and died defending goes on.
So, yes, I wish you all a “Happy” Memorial Day. I hope you have fun, enjoy yourself in whatever you do. You have this day because so many have been willing to guarantee your right to live, pray, love and laugh as you choose. I only ask you remember your happiness is not free, but the price was paid for you by someone else and continues to be paid in the heartache of those who loved them. Remember them and smile.