Saturday, May 23, 2009

Honor our Everyday Heroes

Memorial Day is a time to pause and think about heroes and to honor those who have died in our nation’s wars. At least, that was the original purpose.

It stands to reason that we would use the day to also honor other loved ones. My Grandma Whittle called the holiday “Decoration Day.” She and Grandpa loaded up a picnic lunch and went to Big Rock Cemetery to decorate graves.

After Jim and I married, we made our annual pilgrimage to the cemeteries where our loved ones were buried. Sometimes it was a strain on our budget to buy the flowers to decorate the graves, but it brought a sense of peace as we continued the traditions of our youth.

Our first stop was always Mt. Carmel. From there we went to Big Rock Cemetery, stopped at Stover Cemetery, and then drove back to Sedalia to decorate graves at Crown Hill. We made a complete circle and headed home with a heart full of memories.

When Jim first developed dementia, I drove our usual route while Jim placed the flowers on the graves. When Jim went in the nursing home, I went alone. Decorating graves without him was not an experience I cared to repeat.

Memorial Day 2005 was the first time I participated in the ceremony at the Missouri Veterans Cemetery at Higginsville. I haven’t missed a year since Jim’s death.

I was a little bummed about a conflict this year. My granddaughter is graduating kindergarten Sunday. My youngest son’s family lives in the Lake of the Ozarks area, the opposite direction from the cemetery. I told my older son, Eric, that I was going to the graduation. “I’ll miss the Memorial Day ceremony,” I told him.

I was disappointed, but I know Jim would have never chosen a ceremony for the dead over one for the living. He often wondered aloud what good it did to make someone a hero after they died. Jim always said, “Dying doesn’t automatically make you a hero.” Instead, he would tell our sons when they were small, “You are my hero.”

Jim never considered himself to be a hero. He was tightlipped when it came to Vietnam, and I never knew Jim had received an Army Commendation Medal until he could no longer tell me why he received the award. The commendation was nowhere to be found, and the Army couldn’t produce it when I asked.

“Why would you miss the ceremony when the graduation is Sunday and Memorial Day is Monday?” Eric asked.

“I don’t know why I thought Memorial Day was Sunday,” I said. “After all, it’s always been Monday.”

On Memorial Day, I’ll drive to Higginsville cemetery to place flowers in front of Jim’s niche. I’ll be there with my sister-in-law, Ginger, and with other families to think about and honor our loved ones. When we pause to honor our fallen heroes, we should honor our everyday heroes too. We all know people who face life’s challenges with bravery.

I think about how Jim told our sons they were his heroes, and how prophetic his words would become. They truly became his heroes when they cared for him with love and respect as he faded away.

For most people, decorating graves is an afterthought as they travel home from a weekend at the lake. Others spend the weekend shopping at Memorial Day sales or pigging out at backyard barbecues.

I always thought it ironic that Memorial Day has become a party weekend, not a somber occasion to remember the dead. Maybe it makes more sense to use Memorial Day as a time to celebrate life and honor the living as well as our fallen heroes. After all, we are surrounded by everyday heroes who deserve recognition for facing life with courage.

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