In April 2011, my then-fiancé Dominic and I stood on a dock in front of our closest friends and family. We exchanged rings, “I do’s”, and a kiss, and I switched out my title from “ROTC fiancée” to “Army wife.” A few weeks later, it was Memorial Day, and I remember being so grateful for a few days off. I was finally done with college, and we had extra time to move my belongings into our newly purchased home in North Carolina. We were starting over with a new place, a new state, new friends, and a new life in the military.
I’ll admit that even after getting married to a recently commissioned soldier, I never gave much thought to Memorial Day. My dad was retired Army, but our lives never revolved around that. It was just his job; it was something cool to say. “My dad was an Army broadcaster in Germany for close to a decade. What does your dad do?” Even as an adolescent, Memorial Day just was. It was a four-day weekend — and for that, I was grateful.
I’ve found that Memorial Day means different things to different people. For some, like me several years ago, it’s a day of freedom — a day to relax, to sit by the pool with an ice-cold beer or a margarita, to appreciate a three- or four-day weekend. It means one less exhausting Monday morning to spend in your cubicle, or one day off of teaching. You work hard, and you’ve earned this break. Nothing would please you more than sleeping in and grilling out.
To the others — the ones whose lives are heavily invested in the military, like me — it’s something different altogether.
Memorial Day means remembrance. It means remembering those friends, family, and acquaintances who died fighting for our country. It means thinking of them, thanking them, and whispering a prayer for their loved ones, their significant others, and their children.
It means remembering the children who are growing up without a mom or a dad. The ones you only know from Facebook photos of them sobbing over a headstone, their mothers at their side, while clutching an American flag in their tiny hands.
It means honoring the friends you’ve lost—the men and women who were left behind. It means celebrating them and appreciating the time you had together. It means looking at your spouse and just thanking God you have one more day of playing, kissing, laughing, and loving.
It sometimes means breaking down. It means overwhelming sadness and thoughts for the neighbor you knew whose helicopter went down in 2012 or the man your husband used to work with whose truck was blown up by an IED. It means remembering the day you found out, the ache you felt down to your soul, and the look in their loved one’s eyes.
It means being angry, and sometimes irrationally so: At the military, at your spouse, at the enemies who have made deployment and war a necessary evil.
But most of all, Memorial Day means being thankful. Grateful. Appreciative. Elated. For the memories you have of the men and women who have fought and lost their lives when they made the ultimate sacrifice. For the men and women who came home after devoting months and years of their lives to protecting our freedom. For the protectors you have at your side — your husband or wife, your mother or father, your brother or sister, your best friends — that they are alive and well, home and yours.
It’s okay if you enjoy the pool and that ice-cold beer this weekend. Really, it is. But in between sips, think of the soldiers who are no longer with us — the ones who died protecting you and fighting for you now and over the years — and thank them. Pray for their families and loved ones, take a moment of silence, and memorialize them forever.
(Featured image via, all images courtesy of author.)