What we remember on Memorial Day

Decoration Day, the predecessor of Memorial Day, was established in the years after the Civil War to honor Union soldiers who died in combat. Since then, the holiday has become a time to commemorate all those who died in military service to the country. It is also, more broadly, a day to remember all loved ones who are no longer with us. Here are some remembrances in honor of the holiday.

The soldier left behind
David Bloom

I first met Cheyenne Willey at the U.S. Army's Civil Affairs Requalification Course at Ft. Dix, N.J., in early 2005. We were both 35, a little over the hill for warriors. We had both served in the military -- I in the Marines, he in the Army -- and had both felt called to reenlist after 9/11 to help with the effort in the Middle East. At Ft. Dix, we were trained to work on projects aimed at rebuilding Iraq and winning hearts and minds.

One month after school ended, Willey and I found our names on the same roster of soldiers headed for Iraq to help rebuild schools, repair the power grid and pass out Beanie Babies. We trained together every weekday at Camp Roberts and Ft. Hunter Liggett in California, and then at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, and we often saw each other in town on the weekends in the three months before our deployment. He had grown up in rural Illinois and was an easygoing sort: He liked everyone, and everyone liked him.

On the night before we deployed, I ran into Willey at the Applebee's in Fayetteville, N.C. He invited me to join him and his friends. We all knew we were heading to a violent place, and we were nervous. We knew we would see battle, and we were unsure who would win.

Our civil affairs contingency arrived in Baghdad in June 2005 to find a country in shambles. The electrical grid worked in most neighborhoods for a total of six hours a day at best, and local opinion of the U.S. was dropping daily. Our patrols often seemed designed mainly to draw fire and thereby locate the enemy. Each roadside garbage bag we passed sent a chill through our spines.

Two days before Christmas, Willey and Sgt. Regina Reali were sent to pick up hot chow for their fellow soldiers. They didn't make it back. The armored Humvee they drove was hit by an explosively formed projectile, which penetrated the vehicle and killed them. I later heard that Willey's last words were to tell the medics to stop attending to him and work on the driver. That's the kind of guy he was.

I was told that my father's biological father died on a World War II battlefield. My uncle died in Vietnam. As a child, on Memorial Day, I always thought about them and wondered about the circumstances of their deaths. I still think about them when the holiday rolls around. But since my safe return in 2006, Memorial Day has not passed without my also taking time to honor the friend I left behind.

David Bloom is a public information assistant in local government, a civil affairs sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve and commander of American Legion Post 206 in Highland Park.

A farmer's life
David Mas Masumoto

Dad was a farmer. We grew savory peaches and sweet raisins on a simple and small 80-acre organic family farm. I don't recall him ever saying he loved us; he was a stoic farmer who spoke through his actions.

Emotions were implied and unspoken, and clear in my memories. I remember him picking me up and carrying me when I was a child after I tripped on a vineyard wagon tongue and split my lip and broke a tooth. Or when I was a teenager, how he quietly rescued me without getting angry when my tractor got stuck in mud. During his final years, he wore the public stolid face of an old dying farmer. We all knew he still cared about life. He spent hours looking out the window at his farm. A family farm.

As he gradually declined and could not work in the fields, Mom gave me a stack of his work clothes. The first time I wore them, I could still smell a hint of his sweat -- a gentle yet sweet aroma, a working-class scent. Work was his life, and in the end, as I walked our fields, I realized his spirit was now part of the farm.

The final years were a challenge for all. Death would probably be easy; dying was the hard part. Dad knew he had become a burden. He struggled with his own sense of worth. Part of his dignity was lost, although we sometimes found meaning in the little things that had become the hardest to endure. Dad loved getting a bath. He looked like a kid, scrubbing himself with his good left hand, smiling as a stream of warm water danced off his head.

This spring, I stayed up with my father the last night of his life. Some claim that at the very end of life, there's a burst of energy. That night, Dad sat up and wanted to stand.

I helped him, and on shaky legs, he rose for a few minutes. Then he could no longer hold himself up and sat, leaning on the side of the bed. I was next to him and told him it was OK. Exhausted, he leaned on me. Silently, we sat in the dark. Later, he lay peacefully as I watched him sleep, as he had once watched over me. Now it was my turn.

The next morning our daughter flew in from graduate school to see her grandfather. Her intention is to take over the farm one day. One of Dad's final acts of life was to see his granddaughter, to grab hold of her hand. He gave a soft laugh, patted her hand and rolled over. Perhaps somehow he understood and was passing the farm on to the next generation, the next farmer who would work these fields of gold.

I had made a promise to keep my father on the farm as long as I could. Over a decade ago, while recovering from his first stroke, we made a pact: I'd bring him back to the farm, and he would never leave. In the end, with family gathered around his bed, he died in his farmhouse. Promises made, and, gratefully, promises kept.

Death was not a passive act; we were all witness to his life at that moment. It will take years to process it all, but I sensed both a loss and an opportunity.

I no longer have a living father, yet I will always remember him. With the gradual loss of warmth in his body, it was OK to miss him.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer; his most recent book is "Wisdom of the Last Farmer." This is adapted from a longer column published by the Fresno Bee.

Where are you, man?
Marion Winik

In August 1994, at the age of 37, my husband Tony died. He was a hairdresser. I was a tech writer. We lived in Austin, Texas, with our 6- and 4-year-old sons. He had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, had been healthy for seven years and sick for two. At the end, he got himself released from the hospice to die on his own terms at home.

The loss we faced seemed too big to grasp. Hayes and Vince would grow up without a father. Tony would miss their lives. And I would bumble through parenthood alone, all my inadequacies unmitigated by their father's strengths. If I wasn't careful enough, or patient enough, or gentle enough, Tony's care, his patience and his gentleness, would not be there to take up the slack.

And I often came up short.

In the beginning, frustrated and desperate, picking out head lice, driving to the emergency room, stopping the boys from killing each other, losing them in the grocery store, racing from doctor's appointment to teacher's conference to back-to-back carpools, I would roll my eyes and think, where the hell are you, man?

But you know, after a while, I got used to it. I got used to doing it myself, and I got used to asking for help. My mother. Tony's mother. The guy I dated after Tony died, and the brave soul I was married to while the boys were adolescents. A host of everyday saints: relatives, neighbors, other kids' parents. And what didn't get done perfectly got done somehow or another. I learned the home truth every single parent knows: It's amazing what you can do when you have no choice; amazing what you'll call dinner when no one's watching.

As time passed, when I had problems with the kids, I stopped wishing for Tony's help. On the contrary, I was glad he wasn't there to see it.

What I wished he could see was who his little boys were turning into. Today they are tall, handsome, interesting young men. They have beautiful girlfriends; they have their own apartments; they have bank accounts. This month, Hayes graduated from Georgetown University. He will leave for a month in South America, then move to New York to take a job as an investment banker. Vince is a sophomore at college in New Orleans. His band played at South by Southwest in Austin this spring. Watching that show in a club on Sixth Street was one of the high points of my life. Tony would have loved it.

I also wish he could see what stand-up guys his boys have become. When my mother died, when my second marriage ended, they were my rock. They are my rock.

So where the hell are you, man? Well, in some way, you're still here. Of the tens of thousands of gay men who died of AIDS during the epidemic, very few left two boys who look just like them when they sleep, who mysteriously inherited many of their father's tastes and so much of his sheer coolness. Whatever miracle happened when I walked into that French Quarter bar in 1983, it was a doozy. Tony changed his whole life for me. I've never been loved the way he loved me, and all these years later, it moves me to think about it.

A few years ago, I gave each of the boys a pair of Ray-Ban Balorama sunglasses, which any sane person knows are too expensive for teenage boys. But Baloramas were Tony's sunglasses. He wore only Baloramas, and he wore them all the time. So when Vince graduated from high school, he kept his Baloramas on throughout the ceremony. Hayes carried on the tradition at the Georgetown gym. When I saw him cross the stage in those glasses, it hit me hard. "Are you crying because you're happy?" Hayes' 9-year-old half-sister, Jane, whispered. I didn't know how to answer. I was happy; I was sad; I missed my mother; I missed his father. I even missed her father. I was overflowing.

It's not laundry or carpools that make me ache for Tony now; it's these milestones. The joy I can't contain. The things I can't say. Most important of which is, thank you.

Marion Winik is the author of "First Comes Love," a memoir of her marriage to Tony (marionwinik.com).

All that Lisa missed
Amy Goldman Koss

I never think I see Lisa driving past me in traffic anymore, or moving ahead of me in a crowd, and it has been years since I've dreamt about her. Time heals, but it erases more than just the pain. In my case it has erased Lisa's laugh and her voice, and way too many details.

I suppose when I can no longer remember the emphatic way she shook her head or the impatient flick of her thin wrist, I'll be free of the last twist of pain. But I dread that comfort.

Lisa and I were the same age once, but now I'm so much older than she is. I know she'd think that was interesting. Lisa thought everything was interesting.

One time I went with her to the hospital to see whether her swollen arm was caused by a blood clot on its way to her heart or by her cancers metastasizing to some deadly new place. A TV yammered away in the room where we awaited the test results. Already on edge, the noise annoyed me beyond endurance. I wanted to hurl something through the monitor, but Lisa was actually listening to the news report. Her eyes bugged and she leapt to her feet as the Challenger space shuttle blew up on screen. It boggled my mind that she cared about a spaceship full of strangers when her own, one and only life hung so precariously.

An investigative reporter to the end.

Lisa had no patience with the "disease acceptance" the wellness community was touting at the time. She detested any suggestion of God's will or a larger spiritual plan. And she never had anyone her own age to talk to, even in support groups. Her disease left her spitting mad and terrified and, in spite of all of us, utterly isolated.

She was alone, even at her wedding, where her groom, the rabbi and all the guests knew that "till death do us part" wouldn't be very long.

Lisa would have loved the Internet as a bottomless well of information. Even as she drifted in dream soup near the end, she made me read the newspaper to her -- still caring about the world that would continue to turn without her.

But Lisa never got to see a woman run for president or an African American get elected. She never talked on a cellphone, listened to an iPod or used a digital camera. She missed the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. She missed 9/11, and she never held my babies or read my novels.

I no longer expect Lisa to call. Fewer and fewer things remind me of her. But I hope that as long as there's anything left of me, Lisa will be here too, even if it hurts.

Amy Goldman Koss' most recent book for teenagers is "The Not-So-Great Depression."

Generations
Amy Wilentz

Losing your parents makes you feel old; I got old early.

My mother died in 1989 when I was still in my 30s, and my father in 1996. I was a fully grown adult, or so I thought. It should have been just a normal rite of passage. You grow up, and then your parents die; that's what happens. But I wasn't ready.

When my mother died, I wasn't married, wasn't sure what my work would be, hadn't yet published my first book, hadn't provided any grandchildren.

When my father died seven years later, the reminders of this double loss were everywhere. By then I had children, and I felt a stab of jealousy every time a friend invited Nana and Gramps to a baby's first birthday party or asked Gigi and Poppy to admire a cute new dress. Someone's mother, I would hear, was taking the grandchildren on a special trip, and I ached for my own and my children's loss.

Right from the start, I made my children live with my mother's ghost, incorporating her character and her sayings into the daily mother-child chitchat. One day my eldest son, born two years after my mother died, turned to me -- he was about 14 by then -- and said: "I knew Grandma Jackie, right?"

Sometimes I dial the number for my parents' New York apartment, just for the feel of it. Sometimes I call the house on the Jersey shore where my father lived after my mother died. Maybe he'll pick up and lecture me about the grammatical mistakes in my last published piece. He loved to take a pencil to my work.

But I don't really need to call them because they live in me. I am split down the middle, half of me her and half him. I see it most in my attitude toward my children, whom she never knew and whom my father barely met. Half the time, I am warm and kind, connected, protective (my mother), a little pathetic (her too). The other half, I am distant, stern, critical, removed (him). Sometimes I like to eat hot dogs from the pan with beans and a beer (her). Sometimes I drive too fast, listening to loud classical music and wishing I didn't have to see any other human being for a year or so (him).

Even now, after dark when my children are in their bedrooms and I lie awake, I can go right back to the late nights when my father paced the ground floor of our house, working and playing the piano and making everything seem safe in his domain. Or I go back to my mother's side of the bed, and to our desultory conversations in front of the nightly news, her beautiful feminine hands so unlike my own, her earring plucked off before she'd pick up the phone.

Even though it takes nothing to jar my memory, I retain certain literal aides-memoire. I can still smell my mother's perfume, because I have a bottle of it from her closet; I have my father's last can of pipe tobacco. And (the best memory awakeners of all) I have my sons, who are unconscious restatements of my long-lost parents, and who, with their own particular twists and flourishes, carelessly carry past into future. This has been my solace.

Amy Wilentz's first book, "The Rainy Season: Haiti -- Then and Now," has been reissued with a new post-earthquake introduction.

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