Memorial Day

… moans could be heard, subdued by suffering and broken by sobs.

Hearing those moans Prince Andrew wanted to weep. Whether because he was dying without glory, or because he was sorry to part with life, or because of those memories of a childhood that could not return, or because he was suffering and others were suffering and that man near him was groaning so piteously–he felt like weeping childlike, kindly, and almost happy tears.

The wounded man was shown his amputated leg stained with clotted blood and with the boot still on.

Tolstoy, War and Peace

This morning the small sweet scrappy memorial day parade went by our house. People came early and set up lawn chairs. They lined the streets, waiting, with their early morning Italian ices. The band marched by, loud and raggedy and perfect, the ladies auxiliary drove by, the town’s veterans walked by, followed by a car-full of veterans of foreign wars. Doubtless some were remembering lost friends and loved ones. Everyone was grateful, for service, for sacrifice, for the chance to spend a sunny day with their family. Grateful for the time together.

This morning in Texas the first memorial services were held for 19 dead children. A memorial. A shared remembering. Remembering would be a searing nightmare, but forgetting an impossibility.

I read something the other day that I wrote the day after theSandy Hook shootings, in 2012. (I remembered, I remember). “I love to walk to school with Isaac. He holds my hand and lags behind slightly, and Clio lunges ahead after squirrels or any spiraling leaf. Isaac sings or tells jokes. His jokes are perfect, sweet and nonsensical. We start falling in line with his friends, and they form little shifting huddles, and then they all rush, joyously, to their doorway. Malcolm has gone ahead, because he’s on safety patrol, and it’s always a little hit of (relief, pride) joy to see him there. Miss Sandra, the crossing guard, greets everybody with good cheer, and leaves us all with a ‘have a good day,’ and you believe that she means it, that somehow the fact that she said it might actually help you to have a good day. All around the courtyard, happy excited children fly about, glowing like fireflies. They greet their friends and hug their parents goodbye. I’ve always thought that the amount of energy and love, spoken and unspoken, that radiates from a typical drop-off at our school shines so brightly it could be seen from outer space. It must be like that for every school in the country. Drop-off was emotional this morning. The children flew happily about like they always do, but the parents and teachers–and there were more of them around than usual–were quiet and thoughtful, full of concerns and anger, and hopes, and good wishes. Forming a strong web of good will and sympathy that must spread from school to school across the country and beyond.”

It’s a slender story, there’s not much to it. Just walking to school as millions of people do millions of times, day-in-day-out. And yet it seems worth saving. I think about those walking-to-school days a lot, I dream about them, I hold them in my memory for dear life. For dear life.

My boys are older now, I don’t walk them to school anymore, they’ve moved onto other things, and the cycle of memory, worry, hope spirals on. Whether you’re dropping your child off at elementary school or college or the airport, whether you’re letting them walk around the block or travel around the world, it’s the same leap of faith, the same giddy feeling of powerlessness in the face of unpredictability, the same impossible ridiculous bewildering gentle hammerblow of time passing. We remember. We can’t forget.

We can’t forget what brought us here, again, on memorial day. We can’t forget what causes the wars, what causes the deaths. We can’t let new sorrows push others out of our memory, in the relentless cycle of violence and cruelty, greed and evil. We have to work to hold each one in our memory and to share the painful burden of remembering. And we have to force others to remember, too. How can you take money from the gun lobby or the arms industry if you’re thinking about what it was like to drop your child at school, what it was like to comfort them when they were sick in the middle of the night, to watch them scared to try something new? How can you profit from death if you remember the vivid, poignant, near-painful joy of raising a child, or of being a child? If you remember.

Memorial Day. A day of shared remembering.

“Do you know, Lise, my elder told me once to care for most people exactly as one would for children, and for some of them as one would for the sick in hospitals.”

Alyosha, Brothers Karazov, Dostoyevsky

His very first, remotest recollections of childhood came back to Prince Andrew’s mind when the dresser with sleeves rolled up began hastily to undo the buttons of his clothes and undressed him. The doctor bent down over the wound, felt it, and sighed deeply. Then he made a sign to someone, and the torturing pain in his abdomen caused Prince Andrew to lose consciousness. When he came to himself the splintered portions of his thighbone had been extracted, the torn flesh cut away, and the wound bandaged. Water was being sprinkled on his face. As soon as Prince Andrew opened his eyes, the doctor bent over, kissed him silently on the lips, and hurried away.

After the sufferings he had been enduring, Prince Andrew enjoyed a blissful feeling such as he had not experienced for a long time. All the best and happiest moments of his life—especially his earliest childhood, when he used to be undressed and put to bed, and when leaning over him his nurse sang him to sleep and he, burying his head in the pillow, felt happy in the mere consciousness of life—returned to his memory, not merely as something past but as something present.

Tolstoy, War and Peace
Esther Bubley, Decorating a Soldier’s grave in Arlington Cemetery, Memorial Day, 1943

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