I Almost Forgot about Memorial Day

by Kohleun

I remember the first person I lost. She was in her thirties, I was ten. Her name was Betty and she was the mom of my best friend Jenny. Of course at ten years old you don’t tend to think of how much your friends’ parents mean to you until they’re gone. Until you’re checking out books from the library on aneurisms. Until there isn’t someone there to hug you and put Sesame Street Band-Aids on your blisters after you walk three miles, barefoot, in central Arizona, during July. Until you’re holding your best friend clinging to a casket and hoarding peach roses for her, because those were Betty’s favorite. Until encountering one of the most common names in America brings back a flood of memories every single time you pass a grocery store comic book or watch an episode of Mad Men.

A couple weeks ago the main street in the little burgh where I live was lined with American flags. Since Newberg tends to express its patriotism with fewer outward symbols, a moment of panic ran through me as I walked to the grocery store for more limes (my culinary obsession). I quickly texted my friend: What’s with all the flags? Did I miss something? Is it Memorial Day already? I was surprised to feel like a bad American for those few adrenaline-juiced seconds, and more surprised that forgetting Memorial Day would induce an adrenaline response. Rarely do I feel like a “good American,” since “good” comes with multiple definitions depending on who you ask. The moment passed and the mid-April surge of nationalism still remains a mystery.

Just yesterday I made lunch plans with a friend and suggested we meet up this coming Monday, to which she reminded me that Monday is Memorial Day and most businesses are likely to be closed. I had forgotten again.

I tend to blame my occasional forgetfulness on flakey 20-something preoccupation or on the fact that I read a lot of books (work on that logic), but I think I know the real reason I forget Memorial Day specifically.

I have no close friends or family serving in the military to personalize this day. To me, Memorial Day comes down to remembering people as exactly that: people–fathers, daughters, brothers, and aunties–which is why going to war is something for which I struggle to find clear justification. The reason I consider myself a pacifist is not that I can shoot down all the just war criteria but because I wouldn’t be able to face myself or my god if I ever were responsible for taking another person’s life or was the reason another person’s life was taken. I admit that I am somewhat isolated from issues of U.S. conflict, but to be fair American culture is isolated from its own conflicts, and I’m grateful beyond words that my siblings are not in the military and that instead they are going to school, going to work, and with their families. They could have chosen a different path just like anybody else, but they didn’t. And I’m proud of them.

I am a pacifist who offers sympathy to those who have lost those they hold dear; I feel that sympathy for the families of soldiers and the families of suicide bombers alike. Loss is universal. It knows no borders or nationalities. It doesn’t wear a uniform or carry a flag. It speaks a language easily lost in translation. Because of this, Memorial Day is a solemn day for me, since no matter how we do the math, we have to face the conclusion that everyone has lost someone they love (to death or otherwise).

You probably won’t find me playing volleyball at a barbeque and stuffing my face with strawberry Jell-O tomorrow. Instead I might be thinking about the grandpa I never met, who said, “I’m a cook” and threw down the rifle when his superior officers tried to offer him a weapon. I might finally process the loss of my grandpa who died a year ago while I was on another continent writing research papers. And I might be at lunch with my friends, creating and sharing anecdotes over sun tea and sandwiches.