It was the November after September 11th and my husband, Mike, and I were arguing in a parking lot. I was 6 months pregnant with our first child and somewhere between the short drive from our apartment in Mesa, Arizona to the movie theater in Chandler I had decided that a movie theater was a very dangerous place to be. My side of the argument was that seeing the new Harry Potter movie was not worth risking our lives in the event the Chandler Mall was the terrorist’s next target. My husband’s side was…well…reason.
We were in a stalemate. Right up until my husband’s head fell. I knew he was remembering the seven years he’d just finished serving active duty in the Army before we were married. Now, a full-time student at ASU, there wasn’t a day that went by that Mike didn’t first and foremost identify as a Soldier. As he tenderly looked back up at me, he said words that have stayed with me ever since: “What am I even doing with my life if you won’t live as if you are free?”
Just two months before we walked hand in hand into that theater – I had blocked my husband from walking out of our front door, begging him not to reenlist after the news broke that our country had come under attack by terrorists. We had negotiated a truce then as well – one where he agreed to join ROTC instead of returning to his old unit, and I agreed to four more years in the military. With him, I tried to convince myself, safer.
As an ROTC cadet, Mike was now non-deployable. Shortly after he signed with ROTC, his former unit deployed to Iraq. During their deployment, Mike’s teammate was killed – the one he was slotted to be team leader for. He never forgave himself.
Our “just 4 more years” turned into many more after my husband decided to attend the military’s medical school in Bethesda, MD. Reluctantly, I learned the role of military spouse. And I learned to shepherd our three children through the many moves, goodbyes, adjustments and heartbreaks involved in military family life.
In 2012, everything changed. It didn’t change overnight. Looking back, we had signs for years. So many signs that I had resorted to asking anyone and everyone in authority in the Army to please help my husband. What happened, instead, was we lost him forever.
On March 21, 2012 – like too many service members before and after him – my beloved husband died by suicide. Overnight, my children and I were deemed “surviving family members” by some and “Gold Star family members” by others but no matter how you cut it, we were left without a husband and father. Now, on the outside of the military community we had grown to know and love.
Two months later, on Memorial Day weekend, we found ourselves at a large event in Washington DC for military surviving families. For the first time in my life, I think I actually recognized the words of the holiday – “Memorial.”
For the past decade, around this time of year my Facebook feed looks very angry. I am friends with hundreds of military surviving family members. Every year starting in mid-May the reminders to the world begin: “If you wouldn’t say Congratulations at a funeral, don’t say HAPPY Memorial Day.” It is clear we are a community of people who are fed up with how easy it is for the world to forget that every day is Memorial Day for us. Can we please, for the love of all, have one day that our country has a Memorial Day with us?
For the first few years, I was angry too. It didn’t seem fair that so many of my friends were headed to the lake on their boats or planning their summer kickoff BBQ, while the kids and I were attending grief seminars and ceremonies at Arlington cemetery.
Although I highly recommend no one ever utter the words “Happy Memorial Day,” ten years of grief and reflection have taught me that there is a tender balance to Memorial Day that I want to honor.
The scales weigh on one side – remember the ones who have served and died. The scales on the other echo my husband’s tender admonishment – “live as if you’re free.” Because if we don’t, what did they die for?
A decade into our grief my kids (now 20, 18 and 16) and I now choose to spend our Memorial Day away from the grief seminars and pomp and circumstance of Arlington. Our grief is still there, but we’ve learned to fold it into something pocket size that we carry with us.
Whatever we do on Memorial Day, we’ve learned we want to honor Mike fully. This means, we take the time to remember him, his service, and his service-connected death on Memorial Day. We’ve found many ways to do this, but one of our favorites is the flag ceremony at Disneyland. We’ve also taken long walks on the beach where we inscribe his name near the water and watch as the tide comes in. We’ve visited local military cemeteries — but on our own time. Our favorite thing is that so many of Mike’s old Army buddies take a moment to send us texts with pictures and stories.
But it is Memorial Day—not Mourning Day—so our family has chosen to take back the American traditions of it all too. We ride roller coasters or BBQ or build sandcastles. Whatever we do, we remember that we are welcoming summer in a country that is free because of all the men and women who have served and died to keep it that way.
Though we may smile over Memorial Day weekend, we never say “Happy Memorial Day.” Because, just like a funeral can be a celebration of life, the funeral itself is not something we want to celebrate. It may seem a small distinction. But it makes a world of difference to the families and friends of those who have never forgotten what the holiday is really about.
From our family to yours we wish you a Memorial Day of remembering – the loss and legacy of those who have died in service to our country and the amazing lives we enjoy because of them.
By Leslie McCaddon
Gold Star Widow and Outreach Director, The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at VVSD