For many of us, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. The older folks among us mark this as the first day where wearing white shoes and carrying white purses is permissible. Personally, Memorial Day has always been a much-needed break from the busy end of school testing and activities. All that changed when my 92-year-old grandfather died on Memorial Day weekend in 2012. His death meant the end of a long life. Cancer had taken over, and rather than fight, he opted to peacefully head on. He lived a month after his diagnosis.
What really struck me, though was his service, which we scheduled for the day after Memorial Day. My grandfather was a World War II veteran—he spent three years in the Pacific. I have a picture of his strapping self he sent my grandmother in the forties. He’s grinning like a catbird, and he signed the photo, “love from Okinawa.”
He wouldn’t talk about what he saw or experienced out there.
Instead, he spent his later years working on watches and radio equipment. He did tiny, precise work bent over a dusty wooden workbench in his basement. A lightbulb with a chain switch swung overhead, accompanied by an adjustable desk lamp lit an otherwise dark cubby hole.
When we were little, my cousin and I would creep down into the basement and try to get him to tell us war stories while he worked. He would change the subject, or simply not answer. He would always grin at us—he wasn’t unfriendly or ugly about it, but he refused to tell us.
Grandmama would tap her feet three times on the kitchen floor to signal us to come upstairs for lunch. We would try again to start the conversation over grilled cheese sandwiches or Red Baron pizza.
He would change the subject.
As I grew, I figured he wouldn’t tell us anything about the war because we were girls. When my stepson was about ten, he had to do a school project where he interviewed a war veteran. I sent him eagerly to my grandfather, hoping to find out some information. The boy got about three paragraphs worth, and I had to help him BS to round it out so his report was long enough.
My stepson was delighted, though, because he got to hold the one souvenir we had from the Pacific—a rifle my grandfather had shipped back from Japan. My uncle, born nine months after my grandfather returned from the war, has the gun, and he brought it over so our boy could see it.
My stepson got one quote out of him.
My grandfather told him, “My commanding officer told me to do what he ordered, and we’d all come back alive.”
None of us know what that officer instructed, and now, we’ll never know.
As more and more veterans return and open up about the horrors they’ve seen in war, I can only wonder what my grandfather held in. No matter how much my grandmother begged, he rarely left the house. He stuck to a rigid schedule. Maybe he was just quirky. Maybe he was suffering from terrible nightmares he wanted to keep hidden from us. Maybe he was trying to protect us.
We’ll never know.
As I stood by my grandfather’s grave five years ago this weekend, I finally became okay with not knowing. As I listened to “Taps” and as the memorial rifle shots rang out, I looked at the young men in dress whites. What were they remembering? Who were they trying to protect? Who would listen to and keep their stories?
My stepson stood beside us in his cadet dress uniform. He had military aspirations. He always wanted to serve our country, but he also wanted great stories to tell. For a second, I smiled. We’d listened to him talk his whole life. I knew he wouldn’t keep his narrative, however painful, to himself. His personality wouldn’t allow him to shut his experiences, and thus himself, away from the world. No matter how challenging his service became, I knew all the members of his huge family would somehow keep him talking in a way that none of us could with my grandfather.
As the final shot rang out, I said a prayer for the hearts and minds of all the warriors still fighting for us.
Every year since, I’ve sent up that same prayer. I remember the men and women we’ve lost, but I’m mostly thinking about the stories of the living. We must help our fighters share these descriptions of their experiences so we can help shoulder the burden of what they carry on our behalf. Each of us has a chance to help heal another. Our men and women in the military need us, even if they don’t realize it. This Memorial Day, ask the questions. Then be brave enough to listen to the answers.