It started with a warm, affectionate hug, the embrace of a friend I hadn’t seen in many long months. We both lit up after bumping into one another.
You know the moment — you start by saying how good it is to catch up, then you eagerly want to know what you’ve missed since the last time we met.
But then … I froze. My expression vanished, and in it’s place, a blank stare – serious, concerned, somber. That was totally intentional. My tone turned soft, almost hushed. And I stood there, quite still, no longer seeming excited or animated, as my dear friend shook her head, and asked me if I’d heard the sad news that her son had died.
I had known he was sick, but word hadn’t reached me that this dear woman, now 78, had taken on the agonizing task of outliving and burying an adult son. I suddenly felt very awkward trying to figure out the best choice of words in a delicate situation like this. My friend, though, seemed almost relieved to have the chance to talk about what she’d been going through … the many difficult days since his death. It was like having a shoulder to lean on for a moment after too many lonely days in an empty home.
I had dinner with her that night, and it was even more difficult for me to listen as she talked about her best friend in the world, a 13-year-old cat, that’s been her loyal and faithful companion for years. What am I ever going to do, she wondered, when I lose him?I’m not the kind of person who readily talks to friends when I’m experiencing grief; I tend to bury my emotions deep inside me, and cope quietly, on my own, in a solitary manner. My father was the same way and probably passed on this trait — the sense that open expressions of sorrow and mourning are perhaps in bad taste, sort of like the person who shows up at a party and ruins it by trying to sell timeshares to his friends when everybody just wants to get drunk.
But I know others, like my edlerly friend, who seem to cherish the opportunity to air their feelings, to share a few words about the stumbling blocks life has tossed in front of them recently. Maybe it’s therapeutic, or cathartic, I don’t know. I just know in moments like this I feel like I’m stumbling for words. I become a good listener, but not much of a talker.
On this Memorial Day, I understand why so many rush off to the myriad of barbeques, drinking parties and other social events that this tourist-friendly region is well known for. If you live in Orlando and feel bored here, chances are you don’t have much clue what’s right beyond your front doorstep.
Taking the time – even a few precious moments – to think about the soldiers we’ve lost in the line of duty, may not occur to most people.
It could also be that we’re one of the least mature nations on this planet when it comes to coping with death. It’s a fine subject for movies about zombies or ghosts, where the dead rise up to haunt us another day. But as a culture, we studiously avoid thoughts or reminders of mortality, rather than view it as a fact of life that we can’t change and need to accept.
As a culture, we’ve created hundreds of escape routes to divert our attention from the subject. So it doesn’t surprise me that on Memorial Day, designed to pay tribute to those we’ve lost in the defense of our nation, there are plenty of ways to find happy diversions.
It may also be that we feel awkward when that reality intrudes on us. Last Friday, I stood in front of the Orlando VA Medical Center, watching the Timber Creek Air Force Jr. Reserve Officer Training Command Cadets hold a ceremony in recognition of one of their own, Corporal Patrick Deans, who was killed last December by a suicide bomber while serving in Afghanistan.
The young cadets taking part in the ceremony placed his boots in front of a makeshift tomb, part of a reenactment of the Guarding of the Tomb of the Unknown. His rifle was placed upright, and his helmut – the one used to protect him in battle – was placed on top of the rifle. And then, in what may have been the most heartbreaking moment in the ceremony, Corporal Deans’ photo was placed in front of the tomb. He looked every bit like a 22-year-old kid, the kind you’d see with a scateboard at the local mall. It’s impossible in a moment like this not to get swept up at the heartache of losing someone so young. At a moment like that, it’s easy to understand why others would prefer watching game shows on TV to taking part in a ceremony like this.
Later that day, I met a 27-year-old Marine named Matthew who had already served several tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. The military was prepared to send him to Libya, but this third-generation Marine opted to return to Orlando to help his family get through some difficult times. He was a tall, towering figure, his USMC tattoos plainly in view, but he spoke in a soft, gentle voice. I asked him how he planned to spend Memorial Day, and he responded that he would probably stay home and drink some beers.
I looked puzzled. Wouldn’t he be attending any ceremonies in honor of our troops?
No, he shrugged. That would bring back too many difficult memories.
So I told him that if no one else had said this to him, I wanted to personally thank him for having served this nation in the Marines, and having fought to defend our freedoms.
He stood there silently, looking a bit awkward, even embarrassed, like he wasn’t sure how to respond to a statement like that. Curiously, he never did.
The price of freedom is not an easy subject when it means talking about the ugly cost of war, the agony it brings to the families and friends and loved ones back home when we lose another life in the conflicts. We all, I suspect, tend to act the way I did when my friend told me about losing her son. We try hard to be sympathetic and supportive but we secretly wish the moment would pass, and quickly. Let’s get back to talking about light, fun stuff, okay?
It may not be a mature way of coping with mortality, but again, we’re a society that masters the art of the sweet-tasting diversion. But not always.
My friend and collaborator at Freeline Media Orlando, Dave Raith, has faced a very difficult year in 2011, but he’s nevertheless demonstrated a tremendous amount of inner strength and resilience that I’m not sure I could have mustered if I’d been in his place. I asked him last week about the freedoms that he wanted to protect and defend when he served in the U.S. Marine Corp. He didn’t hesitate to respond, “freedom of speech, all the things that are protected under the Constitution. The freedom to do whatever you want to do, to be who you want to be without being chastised. You’re a homosexual, Mike — you’re free to be one here. In some countries, you couldn’t do that.”
Freedom is an easy subject; we all cherish it and support it. What it sometimes takes to maintain those freedoms is a far more controversial subject, one we’re likely to continue debating for decades.
But I do know on this Memorial Day, as the deals at the malls and the parties at the clubs and the kegs of beer lure us away from thinking about the sacrifices that have been made in the defense of those freedoms, I’m very thankful for people like Dave and Matthew, who didn’t shy away from those conflicts, and who recognized that there are no freedoms in this nation that are not worth standing up and fighting for, no matter how great the risk to their own lives may be. They deserve our gratitude, and our constant appreciation.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.