One week ago was Veteran’s Day. I decided since I live in Washington DC I should visit Arlington Cemetery. Arlington is our nation’s cemetery for all those who have served in the armed forces, and it is where my grandfather lays. For as long as I can remember, Veteran’s Day, for me, was just another day off of school. I’d never celebrated it for what it represents, for whom it represents. Both my father and grandfather served for our country, as I’m sure so did many others in my family’s history that I am unaware of.
I am not at the top of the list of the patriotic, but I can appreciate what it means to be American. My life in America has meant the freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion (which I choose not to have and no one cares, it doesn’t matter), equal rights, a good education, being raised in a family that can support me because they enjoyed the same privileges I do. I understand this is not the same for every American. Growing up in America, for me, has never meant growing up as the 1%. I don’t need to be in the 1% to enjoy every amazing opportunity that has been presented. I have been given so much. I’ve never struggled. I’ve never needed. I’ve never been hungry, homeless. Living a good life in America does not mean existing in this percentage that people have made out to be the mega monster capitalists of the world. I’ve never even thought about those who have so much more than I do, because I’ve always had enough.
Focus. I am getting off topic.
To be an American, means that I appreciate that there are people who are willing to risk their lives for my freedom. People my age who die so that I may live. People who sacrifice their own opportunity at college, so that they can protect the freedoms that are guaranteed to me in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. I don’t agree with many of our country’s policies, foreign and domestic, but our country’s policies are not what Veteran’s Day is celebrating. It honors those who have dedicated their lives to protect a country. A country that I can live in and where I can freely express my opinions. They fight for my freedom of speech- so that I can say, “I fucking hate that we’re fighting other nations. I fucking hate the act of war. War is disgusting and destructive and it’s pathetic that this is the best solution the so called ‘smartest creature on earth’ can come up with.” Veteran’s Day is about individuals. It’s not about war. It’s not about America. It’s not about democracy. It’s about people.
The range of emotions that I experienced those hours spent at Arlington were so scattered. It was as if a child dropped a bag of rubber balls. Every ball representing a different emotion. Bouncing off into a different direction. A scattered spectrum. I felt Pride. Anger. Privilege. Guilt. Despair. Happiness. Confusion….. But most of all, I felt sadness. Rock bottom sadness.
After visiting my grandfather’s grave, I walked over to the area that was designated for all those who have lost their lives since 2001. Row after row after row of graves marked for people who should be alive. People who were a year older than me. People who were younger than my little brother. Row after row after row. Mounds of fresh dirt. Lives lost so recently grass hasn’t had time to grow, head stones haven’t been made. This is my generation. They don’t belong in the ground.
Parents sat before their children’s graves, posted up in folding lawn chairs, scarves, mittens and blankets in their lap, braving the crisp cold Virginia morning air, to spend Veteran’s Day with their sons and daughters. I saw one father wiping down his son’s grave, while his wife rearranged the flowers at the base.
While walking through a grave yard as massive as Arlington it’s easy to be overcome by the sheer size of it. The perfectly aligned rows of polished white stone. Each with the same lettering engraved upon the face. The exact measured distance between each row. It’s so overwhelming. So impersonal at moments. You forget that bodies separate each row. Thousands and thousands of people lay beneath the earth you walk on. A sense of distance is created in a graveyard when you walk though the rows, and you think of the people as those whose lives have passed. Those who have been under the ground long enough for their body to be reclaimed by the same earth that gave it everything it needed to live. But when you see that fresh mound of dirt, the one where no grass grows, the distance collapses. This is new. This just happened. Someone just lost the person they love most in this world. The presence of the parents, distance collapses. These soldiers are children. They have mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. They’re not just soldiers. They’re not just faceless men at war, fighting in a far off land. A land you and I talk about, read about, which only exists for us in college lecture halls, on the tv, the internet. A place so fucking familiar, yet you and I will never go there. We’ll never know.
It really hit me in those moments that those gravestones aren’t just names and dates. They’re your neighbor, your best friend, your girlfriend, your fiancé. Your child. Your child. Your CHILD. I kept coming back to the fact that all these graves were children. When I say child I don’t mean in the sense of a little kid. In the eyes of their parents, these were their children. It was the presence of all the parents that hurt my heart. It destroys the rule of nature, of decency, of logic, of everything that should be right in this world, to know that a parent buries their child. That a parent feels the pain of losing who they created. That’s not fucking right. Ever.
Seeing parents hug one another, comfort each other on this national day of loss, created that feeling within me. That one really heavy feeling that starts behind your belly button, and rises with pressure up through your chest, shoving against your rib cage, jamming itself against the bottom of your throat until that lump rises. Until tears flow. I kept trying to swallow, to resist the temptation to cry over people I had never met. Never would meet.
After wandering by myself for a bit I met back up with my friend who was speaking with a woman. I approached them and I heard her ask him to make a toast. She pulled out a Dixie cup, poured me a shot of Crown Royal, and we toasted to her son. I didn’t say anything. Language failed me. I couldn’t open my lips. Within minutes of meeting her I was choking back tears. They toasted to James, and then she told us the story of who he was, where he was, how he died. All of the details. The pain in her story was unlike anything I’d ever heard. The words she used to describe how amazing, brave, talented, intelligent and missed her son was. She said he knew he was going to lose his life. How he called her and told her he felt it was going to happen soon and he just wanted to come home and never return again. How when it happened, in his last moments of life, he was still giving commands, making sure that those he lead and those who were hurt were taken care of. The story of someone’s loss, a mother’s loss, was unbearable. Her confession that things haven’t been right since. She hasn’t been the same and nothing makes sense. She doesn’t make sense to herself anymore. What it means to lose your child.
I had resisted writing about this for the past week because I didn’t know how. I didn’t know where to begin. The most important thing she told me was that her son asked her that if he were to die, that she would make sure that he was never forgotten. “Just remember me.” That he would continue to live in people’s memories.
I am not going to retell the details she told me. Her sharing of his life is something that will remain forever stored in my own memory. Rather, I’m sharing my experience with you, and the pictures, because it allows us to share a common, if general knowledge. A knowledge of lives lost. Children gone. For you and I. War is fucking awful and dirty and it takes people away from one another. It erases individuals who should be here. Be present. That is Veteran’s Day. Not forgetting.
“To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death beings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. All around you things are purely living, and you are among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self- your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by the force of wanting it. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. You are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.”