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The Duty to Remember


“Mama, did you laundry my new Skylanders pajamas yet?” queried Hazen, my five-year-old. He’d been asking me to wash them for a couple of days. To his disappointment, I explained that I only do laundry on the weekends because it requires a lot of time, and I work during the week. “But, guess whaat? I have an extra long weekend this week because Monday is a holiday” I tried to boost his pouty face with the hope of some extra family time. Weekends are his favorite thing.
His blue eyes did light and his mood did perk at the mention of holiday. In his relatively short memory thread, holidays usually translate to candy, gifts, costumes or visiting family. “It is?” he smiled.
I explained that Monday is Memorial Day, the day where everyone in our country remembers the soldiers that died for us. He looked puzzled “Huh? What do you mean?” And here I had to pause, a little stumped as my brain filled up with all the things that we are honoring on this one Monday in May. I was suddenly tasked with trying to succinctly and plainly explain war, sacrifice, honor, duty, brotherhood, patriotism… gah! Do I grab a history book and sit him down for a really long bedtime story?
“Sometimes we are at war, baby. Memorial Day honors the people who died for us in these wars.” He looked at me with wide, pensive eyes. My youngest son, while born in the midst of America’s longest war, has never experienced any of it. We do not have any immediate family serving. He’s not in school so doesn’t have any friends whose parents serve. His dad is a former Airman, but got out before he was born. He isn’t old enough to pay attention to news. The only wars he is familiar with exist on TV or in video games and involve giant space robots or Lego Darth Vader. He glanced nervously out the window, perhaps expecting to see a glimpse of this war which, until now, he had been ignorant ever existed. His wee mind was a little blown.
I tried to assuage his sudden fear. “Oh, the war isn’t right here. In the world there are always people at war, fighting, for things they disagree about. And some of these people don’t get to go home to their families. They are killed fighting.” Okay, this sound a little harsh when I write it down, but I have always been frank and honest with my children, two teenagers and this little guy. I talk to them in real words, about real things. I entrust them with knowledge of how the world works, so they can form their own opinions and find their own wisdom. So far, so good; my kids have empathy, intelligence and a strong sense of justice (and humor).
“Well, at least we don’t have it in our world, right Mama?” Hazen said. And with that I am reminded how lucky we are, insulated in our place, far removed from the wars of the world. As the littlest ones tend to do, he tried to fade himself out of this heavy discussion by wandering away. I started to clarify that “yes, honey, it is our world… even though we don’t see it happening, it is. Out there, sometimes very far away, people just like us go away to fight. Monday, we try to remember the ones who don’t come home.” His eyes shifted on to something else as he walked away, clearly finished with the conversation.
So maybe Hazen is too young to understand. Too young to untangle the quarrels of grown people which drive situations to wars and casualties. He can’t fathom why this man or that woman had to take up arms to defend our country or another. How do I help him draw a correlation between the sacrifices of others and his security and comfort?
As a child of so few years on the earth, war and death are just anecdotal concepts. He has not experienced the loss of a loved one yet; he’s only experienced the disappearance of a cat. He cannot fully grasp the concept of a parent who never comes home, or one who does come home, but tattered and changed. He just doesn’t have the practical experience to realize just how fortunate he is to have a mother who can only do laundry on the weekend, and a father who nags him to eat his dinner.
In thinking of all he innocently takes for granted, here is where my own practical experience dissolves into projecting scenarios and my heart breaks. My mind turns to those left behind. Children of soldiers are built of the same joy, wonder and innocence as mine. Yet through wars they cannot understand, and quarrels in which they had no part, they are drawn into a sacrifice for which they had no choice. They are made to fathom the depths of all the things my little Hazen can’t possibly understand.
On this Memorial Day we will dutifully honor a million brave service men and women, whether long buried and recently lost, with starched flags, tearful prayer and songs of praise. But witness the throngs of garland-bearing visitors who sojourn to hundreds of thousands of white headstones. This holiday is as much about those who remain, as those who are lost. So this Memorial Day, remember that for every fallen hero, there is a family with a giant unfathomable hole. As a country, we can honor the lost by honoring the living.
How you can help:
The USO, TAPS, The American Widow Project, and Our Military Kids are a few organizations who help the families of fallen and injured soldiers. I’m sure donations of time or money are always welcome. If you know of any others, please leave their information in the comments section.