Each year I dread the month of May. The first two weeks are all about the upcoming holiday of Mother’s Day. As soon as that is over, the focus shifts to Memorial Day. For me, neither of these days are ones to embrace.
Mother’s Day is when I get to try to remember that I was once a mom and in my heart, always will be. But no one will ever again call me by that title. The closest I get is Gold Star Mother. Mother’s Day is at best a bittersweet day.
Memorial Day is the one day a year when the rest of the nation remembers how I and all the others who have this Gold Star recieved it. Memorial Day too is at best a bittersweet day.
It’s been four years since my perspective on these dates has changed and keeping myself from drowing in these thoughts gets both easier and harder. It’s harder because I hold on to the false hope that somehow, this year it will be easier to breathe when I wake up on the second Sunday in May than it was last year. It’s easier because having lived through it before, I know I will again, even if I don’t want to when I open my eyes.
To gird myself for the ordeal this holiday has become, I spend a lot of time either on the phone or online with that wonderful, remarkable group of women I call My Only’s. Each of us has buried our only child because of their decision to enlist in the military. Without their strength, love, wisdom and laughter, I don’t know how I’d get through this day. Or so many other days.
Last year eighteen of us were graced with the wondrous gift of a place and space to come together. For many, it was the first time we met in person though each of us could tell the life story of the others; we’ve spent uncounted hours together online in our own, private Facebook group. The memory of that week together, of the love and support we shared strengthens each of us still in our everyday lives. But the biggest impact for me has been all about this worst day of the year.
In that special, secret online community, the conversation of late has been tips, self-deluding tricks and loving encouragement on how to get through this most dreaded holiday, Mother’s Day. Have I mentioned these are some of the wisest women I’ve ever known?
One piece of wisdom has struck me to the core. It has profoundly impacted how I and the rest of the world views not just my loss, but other's as well.
My Only sister-friend Lisa told the story of her lifelong friend, also the mother of an only child. Lisa and her friend raised their sons together but the boys took different paths in life. Lisa’s son Michael joined the military and was killed in action on December 31st, 2010. Her dear friend stood by her side as Lisa received the community and the thanks of a grateful nation at her son’s wake.
Tragically, Lisa had the opportunity to show her support in the same heartbreaking way for her friend. Just six months after Michael was killed, she was the one standing by the side of a mother as her only child was laid to rest. But that is where the similarities end. While Lisa’s son was hailed a hero and the entire town came out to pay their respects, the death of her friend’s son was largely ignored because he died of a methadone overdose.
Both of these mothers lost their only child. Neither mother's heart was more or less broken, but one mother was largely left to grieve alone. Whether it is right or wrong, the circumstances of their deaths impacted the type and depth of the support they each received. But both mothers needed it equally. More than four years later, I wonder how many people still recognize that her friends son even lived.
Lisa and I are friends not just because both of our sons were killed in action in Afghanistan almost exactly two months apart. The similarities in our lives and outlooks go way beyond being Gold Star mothers of soldiers from the same unit, the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles. She is one of those people whom I've been graced to know and will still be friends with when we are old and gray. Or, older and grayer. It kills me to say that anything good has come after my son's death, but her friendship is one thing I would not hesitate to put in the plus column. Another is the deeper perspective I've been granted through her sharing of this story.
In the past four and a half years Lisa and I, like many Gold Stars, have struggled with being honored for our son’s service and ultimate sacrifice. Many of us have said to those who want to thank us that we didn’t do anything, our child did; any thanks, recognition or honors go to them for the choices they made in their lives. Yes, we raised men who chose to enlist in the military in a time of war. Yes, this decision on their part was something we supported. Yes, we’re grateful for their having grown into the kind of person who would choose to put his own safety, comfort and security second to their beliefs. Yes these were ideals we instilled or hoped to while they were young.
But ultimately, as every parent knows, the choices of our adult children are something we delude ourselves into thinking we can control or even affect. They will be who they will be. Sometimes it is a choice which makes us proud. Sometimes it’s not.
My dearest sister-friend Lisa, thank you for making me a better, more compassionate person. On this Mother’s Day, be as gentle and loving with yourself as you are to the rest of us. Embrace your memories of Michael, as I will of Andrew.
To all my Gold Stars, I wish you have if not a happy Mother’s Day, at least one of peace. To all the mothers who have buried a child, I wish you peace as well. I hope and pray all of us will be able to smile this Mother's Day as we remember our child who is no longer here. I sincerely hope and pray that all those who have lost a child has someone who will reach out to them this Mother's Day in remembrance of that child.
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