Memorial Day Confession Of A Gold Star Wife
It’s here again – Memorial Day.
Stores are advertising sales, communities are announcing events, Washington DC is preparing to host thousands of families of service members who have passed away, and people are posting patriotic pics on social media. And I am torn between the reality of what Memorial Day means to me now, 13 years after my husband Lt. Louis E. Allen died in Iraq, and long ago, when I was far removed from the military life.
As the widow of a soldier, Memorial Day has a profound meaning to me.
This meaning is enhanced by the memory of kissing my husband goodbye for the very last time, 13 Memorial Day Weekends ago.
While most of the country enjoyed barbeques and parades, my husband flew to Iraq, and I battled fear-induced nausea as all around me, the ceremonies reminded me that people die in combat zones like the one my own husband was flying to at that very moment.
This is the 12th Memorial Day for me as a Gold Star Wife. The 12th time my husband is included among names read at ceremonies, and a flag is planted in the dirt on his grave. It is the 12th time Memorial Day ushers in the season of my own family’s sacrifice.
Grief rang my doorbell at 6 a.m. on June 8, 2005. Fathers Day came with a swift cruelness, right on its heels, followed by July 20th, which is Lou’s birthday, his father’s birthday, and our son Sean’s birthday. In between those days, we have graduations and July 4 celebrations we must celebrate without Lou.
Over time we’ve learned to manage the pain, but it never leaves.
Memorial Day is the first annual gateway to these old memories and new realities, so I am especially vulnerable to its meaning and the potential to experience a biting anger when people fail to properly honor this day.
If any three words have the power to sting, “Happy Memorial Day” are among the most stringent words that could be uttered this weekend.
These three words spoken together can only be voiced by someone who has never held a folded flag in their arms instead of the person they love. In the world of Gold Star Families, you may as well spit on the graves of the people we loved and lost, if you post or speak that phrase.
If a business advertises it is “celebrating all veterans” with a sale, it will out itself as a false prophet of patriotism, for Memorial Day is reserved for the fallen.
People who dare capitalize on sales or indulge themselves at parties, without pausing to note gratitude to those who paid for those perks with their lives, can irritate the shit out of me – unless I remind myself of the following:
Once upon a time I, too, enjoyed this “holiday” unencumbered by true awareness of its meaning. In my childhood, it represented a reprieve from school, where I was viciously and mercilessly harassed and abused by girls whose sole mission in life was to torment me. In college, it was often one of my first weekends home.
When newly married, it meant one day my husband had off from his job to spend more time with us – and we always hosted or attended a barbeque if I wasn’t working. Sometimes we’d jump into a store and try to find a special deal.
Once upon a time, I rarely paused to purposefully reflect on the enormity of the day itself, or those it represents. I may even have raised a glass, or a bottle, and toasted to a Happy Memorial Day.
Once upon a time ended for me the day I kissed my husband goodbye.
It was real for me then. Six months previously, I’d attended the wake of a young soldier from Lou’s unit, who’d been killed in Iraq. Lou had presented a folded flag to that widow, and I had begged him to promise me he’d never “do that” to us. It was the only promise he ever broke.
I imagine my own appreciation of Memorial Day would have evolved deeper even if my husband had not died. I imagine my gratitude would have magnified, although it would have been more of a gratitude that I could go to a BBQ with my husband that day, instead of bow my head as his name is called.
I imagine a lot of things about if he’d never died, but that fairy tale was not written for me. Instead, I have begun rewriting my own happy ending.
This happy ending had a lot of rough drafts. They’ve been shredded, and my new life is a best-seller in my eyes. It has new love and light and hope and laughs and patriotism. It also has a new perspective.
Do I still cringe when someone says “Happy Memorial Day?” Yes, but inwardly, because I realize it is not heartlessly hurled.
Rather, it comes from a place of ignorant bliss, from people who have never consoled their grieving children during a flyover at their father’s gravesite, or hit their knees as TAPS plays. It comes from people who live their lives with an assured certainty that they will never bear that cost of freedom – and that’s okay. It comes from people like I used to be.
I realized one day that my anger at people celebrating this day is born largely from envy. I realized it is not upon anyone else to make me feel anything. I realized it is up to me to determine how I will feel, and I realized it serves no purpose to be angry anymore.
That people all over this country will gather together this weekend with friends and family, and celebrate this extra day with the people they love, means my husband’s sacrifice matters.
Lou didn’t volunteer to serve and deploy, or give his own life, conditionally. He didn’t ask for a contract ensuring people would behave the way his grieving family would feel honors his loss. He understood patriotism and gratitude may not come naturally to everyone, and he trusted that tide would eventually turn.
Would I feel better if more people paused to think about it before they spoke? Maybe. But then I would also be something of a hypocrite, as I’ve no true count of how many careless words have left my own lips.
I will again spend this weekend in the presence of people I love. I will notice how my boys carry their father in them, and I will notice how this country is blessed to have its freedom in spite of all those who endeavor to take it from us. I will be grateful for the military widows who have allowed me to walk this path with them, the veterans who have stepped forward to comfort families like mine, and for the new love who confidently stands by my side now.
I will have a happy day, on Memorial Day.
My sadness will no longer deflate me. Rather, it will enhance my awareness of all that matters most, and the enormous debt owed to those who sacrificed the rest of their days, for my every day.
If you choose to do something to honor the fallen, please do so not with sadness but with hope. Please find your own way to be of service to others, and please live your own life to its fullest, because that is what my husband lived and died doing, and that is what he would want for you.