Memorial Day 2020 and a Loss for Words

Updated: May 27

Memorial Day is an opportunity to educate kids about values and sacrifice, topics that transcend military service.

It has been four hours and my cursor blinks on a Word document like an EKG letting me know that the story is alive even though the document is blank and it has no words on it. I am sitting here in my office as I always do, trying to find the right words, trying to communicate, convey. I have started writing this post several times, but words escape me. I’m distracted. I have stories to tell, but no words to use.

Maybe I’m distracted due to the Memorial Day ads blaring on my television from the local car dealership. I shut off the TV. I stare at the cursor which blinks urgently reminding me that my editorial deadline is looming. Nothing. I click to another window to read some news and more ads attack my attention span, popping up and offering no payments on patio furniture if I buy this weekend. I disconnect.

We need milk and I need an excuse to flank this writer’s block, so I make a quick run to the market to pick up a few gallons. On the way in, store ads in red, white and blue remind me to stock up for this weekend so I can make my Memorial Day barbecue “one to remember.” Sunscreen, bug spray, flag-themed cupcakes and pillars of beer line the entrance. “Happy Memorial Day” one sign reads. I get the milk and head back to the keyboard.

Blink. Blink. Blink. My cursor waits. I’ve written about Memorial Day many times, but muscle memory is failing me now and I’m not sure why. Maybe I've been away from the military for too long, hiding out here in the burbs, fighting ant mounds instead of insurgents. I'm just a dad on the block. A cargo shorts-wearing, grass-cutting, sprinkler watcher who has donned a suburban ghillie suit and blended into the foliage, but I once walked amongst heroes.

I wrote one paragraph this morning about my father-in-law, a guy who set a high bar for who my wife should bring home and what a man and father should be. She clearly ignored that standard by marrying me, but daily I try to live up to that standard, not to try to live in his shadow, but to try, like him, to live a good, high-achieving life. As a man, I should be working hard, living honorably and trying to be the best dad and husband that I can be. I fall short to that giant of a man; a husband, father of five, an attorney, American Airlines officer, business owner and A-10 pilot for the Air Force Reserve. He died flying his A-10 Warthog. I’m not near as polished or as accomplished, but I try very hard to make the late Captain David Black’s daughter as happy as I can. I wrote about four sentences, read what I had written, and deleted it, unhappy that my words didn't do the man justice.

Capt. David Black in U.S. Air Force flight school.

I sit. More time elapses. I stare. I start a fresh paragraph. This time I write about the many men and women I’ve known who have died over the course of my more than two decades in uniform. Every time I got the horrific news of their deaths it was like a punch in the gut that left me breathless, still, and leaning against something. I crumbled, doubling over, as the pain came out of hiding from somewhere deep within me, gushing like my soul had been cut, hemorrhaging. The worst part was that there was nothing I could do about it, nothing, and I was left with a helpless emptiness that never goes away, and it is so tangible that I sometimes thought others could see it, thick and heavy. No matter how many years, it does not go away. How do I explain that?

And I tried, in different ways, to make sense of it but it is an equation with no solution. To remember those they’ve lost, I’ve seen people get tattoos, wear bracelets, carry pictures, and visit their graves. I’ve written about it, but I suppose I’ve done my share of avoidance too. I admit, I have been torn because sometimes I have selfishly wanted to forget them and I am ashamed to admit that. Sometimes the grief is so deep, so strong, that I wished I wasn’t burdened with it, but it is stuck to me, indelible. And then I look at a photograph or I visualize a memory and I realize that it is a momentary moment of self-preservation. I’m ashamed and I don’t tell anyone. I just can’t find words. Delete. Nobody will know.

I tried writing another paragraph. I start writing about who they were and how they all left in different ways, but tragedy is their common link and it keeps coming back to that. The sadness. Some were killed in car accidents on their way to a duty assignment. Some died of natural causes never waking up after falling asleep. Others were killed in training mishaps or in plane crashes. Some died battling the enemy on a battlefield and some died years after leaving the ranks, trying their best to rescue people in the Twin Towers 18 years after we partied in a barracks, partied as if there would be no tomorrow.

Others battled themselves and lost. I wasn’t there when my friend, one of the guys in my squad, turned his back on himself. I’ve tried to imagine for more than 30 years how alone he was when he didn’t even have himself. I’m always convinced I could have done more to prevent his death, not that I’m responsible for it, but more that I could have done just one more thing right. Any slight adjustment, could things have been different? More than 30 years later, I find myself every few months going to a photo album and checking to see if he is still in there, as if one day I will open it and find his photo is gone, that he has moved the proverbial boulder and is resurrected somehow. Or I look at my kids and ponder; would he have been a good dad, would he be a granddad by now, and then, I don’t want to think about it anymore. It starts to change my mood. I don’t want to do that to my family. Delete. I’ve got to find a better way to convey what I feel.

I start the essay again. I’m really struggling. This damn cursor keeps blinking. Let’s try this.

I don’t need a special day to remember everyone I’ve lost over the course of my military life. They come popping into my mind uninvited at my happiest moments and they sit with me when I’m still. It can be heavy sometimes, but maybe that’s why I was a part of their lives. Maybe I couldn’t prevent things from happening, but maybe I carry around that extra weight because that’s my responsibility. Maybe that’s my piece of all this; to keep the stories of my fallen warriors alive, to tell everyone about my friends when I can or to live a great life because they can’t.

I won’t be buying a new car this weekend. I also won’t be buying any new patio furniture. I will use my grill to barbecue some meat, I will float around in our pool, play some ping pong, cornhole, and horse, drink some beers and bask in the sun, like millions of other Americans.

And there will be moments when my memories will stir because after all, it is Memorial Day weekend, and those memories will manifest themselves into random hugs for my kids, and long, loving kisses for my wife because I have stories to tell and sometimes, I just can’t find the words.

Baghdad 2004. A few months after this photo was taken, this market was blown up by a suicide bomber killing five.

©2020 by Steve Alvarez, Burb Dad.