Celebrate the lives of the fallen today, and take a moment to understand that, for many families, every day is Memorial Day. I wrote this as a short story, which you can read below, based on the real stories of so many gold star families. Honestly it was hard for me to write, and I’m not an emotional person at all.
For those of us who have lost friends, we spend the day celebrating them. Tara and I make plans with our friends from the Teams, and we share stories about the fallen, we toast to them while their pictures hang from the wall.
It’s a personal day for us. For the guys, and these gold star families, no one talks politics, no one talks foreign policy, and no one gets riled up if others just “don’t care enough” about the significance of this day. It’s our day to reconnect and bring our brothers back to life in some small way.
Memorial Day 2021
THE STORY OF A GOLD STAR WIFE
She wakes up from a pleasant dream, for once. Usually, they are nightmares. He was in it this time, as if nothing was wrong and life was just as it was. Boring. Perfectly boring. They were laughing about something, watching TV together just as they used to. For a split second she is still in the dream as she reaches her hand across the bed to touch him. But he isn’t there.
She remembers now. And with that realization comes the gut-wrenching wave of grief that she is all too familiar with. Tears well up. She squeezes her eyes shut and clutches her fists tightly in front of her face. She wants to scream but she knows from experience it doesn’t really help, and it scares her son who is still too young to understand what’s going on. His dad was killed in action a year ago, when he was just 2 years old. He misses him, she can tell, but it’s obvious he doesn’t know how to process death yet.
By now, the calls and friendly check-ins have mostly stopped. It was amazing at first, when the community pulled together in the most incredible of ways. She was grateful. She truly didn’t have to worry about anything, whether it was groceries or work or even money. What the military didn’t provide was made up for by his fellow SEALs and their wives.
But eventually people move on. They don’t forget, per se, but they go back to their routines. They come over and try to make conversation. She isn’t good at conversation anymore, so she tells them that she’s doing fine, even though she isn’t. They figure they should come by less and less. Only a couple still check in occasionally. She used to be close with his family, but grief does strange things to people, and they don’t talk much anymore except to arrange visits with her son.
To miss someone profoundly is to wonder what life would be like if they were still there. To know that every moment would be better if they were back in your arms. Every morning would be normal, instead of a crushing blow to the soul. Every evening would be full of laughter, instead of just…empty. Even some marital bickering would be welcome. What she would give, even for a fight over the obnoxious way he loaded the dishwasher.
For those of us who have lost our brothers to war, we grieve. We miss them. We never forget. But we are not broken by it. We know this is the life we chose, to be on the front lines, to serve in the most dangerous of ways. Crazy, maybe, but true nonetheless.
But for the Gold Star widow, she never pursued war. She was asked by her husband and her country to remain behind and remain strong, often not knowing whether or not her soulmate was even in danger. She learned to get through the nights while he was on deployment by imagining what he was doing, picturing him bored and playing Call of Duty instead of prepping for a mission. She had practice, given they had been through four deployments together.
But now, his brothers in arms have moved on to the next deployment, and she is the only one that wakes up alone each morning. She gets no reprieve, no rest from the grief. She is the one who must endure.
Another year goes by. She begins to function better and starts a foundation in her husband’s name. He was passionate about horses, growing up on a ranch, so she raises money to get disabled vets and special needs kids trained to ride. It helps a little, and it keeps her busy. It keeps him alive, in a small way. Being around the horses reminds her of him in a pleasant kind of way. She finds herself searching the horse’s gaze for some kind of sign from him, as if he might speak through them somehow. She still hasn’t cleaned out his closet. The smell of his clothes is all she has left.
A couple more years go by, and she goes on a few dates. Nice guys, but no sparks fly. Not like the first time she met her husband. At first, she thinks she should date outside the military completely. Seems to make sense. But it’s impossible. These guys don’t get it, on any level. They are intimidated by her, never knowing what to say. Losing hope, she reconnects with an old teammate of her husband’s for drinks, and for the first time in a while she remembers what a connection feels like. It turns into more, and a year later they’re talking about marriage.
She will always be her late husband’s wife, a reality that only her late husband’s teammate can understand. They marry, and she’s beginning to remember what joy feels like again. The pain is finally dulled, but it never really goes away.
This is the real Memorial Day. It is the day that never goes away, with no real beginning and no end. It isn’t one day a year, but a constant ache deep down in the soul of those who understand what real sacrifice is. For everyone else it is only once a year, a time to recall that these sacrifices happened at all and that we should remember them. For too many, it’s just a day off work, a day to slash prices, a day to throw a party. For the Gold Star families, it’s a day they observe with a mix of gratitude and dread: grateful the country remembers, grateful for the opportunity to speak openly about their loss without getting an awkward look, but dreading the culmination of emotion the day brings with it.
On this Memorial Day, may we hope that more Americans will remember, and understand what this day means for those who can’t ever forget.