My son’s body came home on Memorial Day in 2007, I hate Memorial Day, and I have to admit, it drives me nuts when people see it as the start of summer instead of what it is: a day to honor our fallen. My husband and I go to the local military cemetery and an honoring for all, then I go home and cry.” — Candie Glisson, Gold Star Mother of Sgt. Jason Schumann, KIA, May 19, 2007 in Ad Diwaniyah, Iraq
Rewinding the Memories
Before my son, Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Kristoffer Domeij was killed on his 14th deployment in Afghanistan, I never ‘dreaded’ Memorial Day. As a child and teenage Hoosier, I looked forward to the Indianapolis 500, the church picnic, and the hilarity of the greased watermelon race. As a twenty-something wife, I worried about my Memorial Day bikini body exposed for all to critique at the beach with other California friends.
As a thirty-something overwhelmed single mother, I looked forward to a free day home alone with my sons. Sleep in. No rushing. No demands. Let the little warriors play and squabble. Play referee or time-out captain. I never celebrated the ‘holiday’ with a barbecue, because firing up the BBQ seemed like just one more burden on my endless list of chores.
My only stress on Memorial Day? Knowing this brief breath of freedom ended tomorrow at sunrise — with a reality slap in the face by summer’s grind — juggling several jobs and securing summer childcare.
Playing the Memories
Once upon a time, I didn’t fully grasp the suffering, the struggle, and the deeper meaning of Memorial Day. Six months after my son was killed, the devastation of my shattered heart declared the true meaning of Memorial Day — honoring the sacrifice of Our Fallen. I grappled with irritation toward others. Glib “Happy Memorial Day” comments on Facebook dug into a longing for others to understand what this day truly means. Don’t you get it? People died for you and for the freedoms you take for granted.
Every April, tension builds inside my heart anticipating the upcoming holidays. Mothers Day, May 10. Bam! A reminder that my precious 29-year-old firstborn is gone far too soon. Memorial Day, May 25. Whap! A reminder of how my beloved son was killed. Father’s Day, June 21. Bam! Another punch in the gut. July 4. Boom! Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, my son died for others’ freedom to fight or to do in their own eyes whatever is right. The first time I heard The Star-Spangled Banner after Kristoffer was killed, like a piercing wail of death, our national anthem doubled me over in pain, enraging me to my core. Now when I hear the tune or the words, the mourning song of my heart streams liquid down my cheeks.
Long before my son was killed, I befriended a military widow whose husband died during state-side training, so the significance of the day was not lost to me. Weeks and days leading up to Memorial Day, she shared about losing her husband. Even though I didn’t comprehend the depth of her loss, I sent her a card or acknowledged her loss each Memorial Day. After a number of years, and mainly because she was a major trauma-drama mama — 24/7 — I wondered, Why hasn’t she moved on? Assuming her husband must have been her one true love, at least I had the good sense not to say aloud, “Enough already,” or “Get over it.”
With a few Memorial Days now under my belt, I remind myself, “Scoti, the emotional build-up to Memorial Day is always more stressful than the day itself.” However, when I attempt to alleviate the stress, an invisible titanium wall rears up in my mind rejecting my attempts to rationalize this reality. When I feel undone, my subconscious memory disturbs my body — my throat, shoulders, and chest tighten from the pain emanating from my heart. At night, my hips and knees tense up and ache as unconscious thoughts invade my sleep. Can’t seem to do enough CrossFit or thrift store binge shopping to dull the hurt this time of year.
No one drafted-against-their-worst-fear into the Gold Star Family wants to re-live the harsh reality that Memorial Day represents. Trust me. I wouldn’t wish the mourning mayhem on anyone — not even my worst enemy. Well, except for maybe one truly evil person I know. Now I duel between attempts to enlighten or extend patience toward those who, for whatever their reasons, appear to give little or no thought to sacrifice or to appreciate the privileges and responsibilities of their freedom.
Pausing the Memories
Each year I receive invitations to attend Memorial Day remembrances to honor our children’s sacrifices. I feel my brain’s attempts to block out the reality of his death and I think, If I don’t attend, maybe I’ll avoid triggering more pain. Or, will it lessen my pain if I ignore these activities to honor our fallen heroes?
My I’m-so-tired-of-hurting mechanism resists R.S.V.P.ing to invitations until the last possible minute. Good thing I’m adrenaline-deadline driven. Even then, my left brain can’t seem to pull up from my memory bank one important fact: Did I R.S.V.P. for sure — or not?
When I reply, pain breaches denial’s levee and floods my mind. Why am I emotionally re-crucifying myself by attending these events? I want all of this horrible reality to just go away. I want my life, my son, my family back before ‘the news’ delivered on my doorstep near midnight. I don’t want my son to be dead. I miss my son. I long to hug him and to hear his voice.
Then the chilly creep of the shadow of guilt and self-shaming infiltrates my thoughts. “After my son made the ultimate sacrifice, how can I even think about myself or entertain thoughts of not attending events honoring and remembering my son?” Ranger up. “My son is dead.” I don’t care if Kristoffer is in a better place. I know he’s at peace and feels no pain. So how do I deal with being left behind and the agony on Memorial Day? “Am I trying to forget him?” Never. Will my heart ever stop waging war with my new ‘normal’.
Memorial Day once again rips away the delicate shroud veiling my pain, laying bare my loss. This day of remembrance reinforces the demanding pain stalking my heart every day of my life. This can’t be my life, can it? As tears splash like heavy drops of mourning rain, I wonder about others held tight in my heart: What are my son’s buddies thinking and feeling? What are other Gold Star Families experiencing?