Last fall my brother-in-law died unexpectedly when routine knee surgery went terribly wrong. He was healthy, in his fifties with a wife and children in college, a solid career coming to full bloom and a lot to look forward to. Until suddenly there was for him no tomorrow.
His death was shocking as all sudden deaths are and his family was upended. At his service we wept and remembered and even laughed that kind of nervous, relieved laughter that often erupts at funerals.
At the reception that followed people shared stories and memories and pretty soon it was really more of a party than a somber occasion, with cousins, family and friends for the most part so glad to see each other, if sorry for the reason.
This is not unusual; throughout history parties have broken out in some of the saddest of times. Broken hearts seek healing and this happens most often though companionship and love.
Memorial Day holds the same tension, the same ambiguity. It is the official beginning of summer, a three-day weekend when the grills come out, baseballs are thrown, tomato plants lean towards the garden, mattresses go on sale and cookouts with family and friends abound.
At the same time it is a solemn holiday, begun after the Civil War to commemorate both the Union and Confederate soldiers who had died. Through the years its breadth extended to all who had died while serving in the military and then, more generally, simply those who had died. A lot of people will spend time in cemeteries this holiday weekend. They will remember fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and dear friends. It is a day to pause and recognize the cloud of witness that somehow hovers over us all.
The holiday’s origin as a time to remember those who died in battle, suddenly and before their time should not be forgotten, nor should the grief and anguish experienced by their families.
As a nation this year we have had our empathy exercised as we have wondered with incredulity how the parents of the children lost in Newtown possibly go on, how those wounded in Boston can begin again, how the people in More, Oklahoma can go on with not more, but some with seemingly nothing.
The truth is that they and we frame our futures in light of our pasts. We gather with friends and family to remember those who have died but also to affirm life in all its complicated, tragic, breathtaking and fragile beauty. This observance may take place at a cookout or on a solitary walk through the woods; it may be a communion with friends or simply with the verdant, blooming, radiant- and soaked- landscape we are so lucky to call home.
As the petals of the lilac and apple blossoms waft to the ground, nourishing the earth, so too have the people we have lost nurtured our spirits and souls.