I blinked at him from across the desk, realizing that my protests would do no good. The decision had been made. The General Sales Manager for the dealership informed me that for the first time in the fifty-year history of the company, we would be open on Memorial Day.
I couldn’t tell if my feelings were of sadness or anger. And it wasn’t about having to work on Memorial Day. It was about capitulating to the commercialization of the holiday when the nation honors its fallen soldiers.
And for the first time in my life, one of those fallen soldiers had a name.
Michael. We met when I was in fourth grade and he was in third. We went to church together in a small town, and several of us became quick friends. Sure, we went through that kid “going-out” thing in sixth grade, but then I broke up with him the summer after my sixth grade year because I was going to be a big seventh grader and was clearly more mature than he was. As we grew into teenagers and adults, that was always the running joke.
Despite his family moving to Kansas my tenth grade year when his father became a pastor, we kept in touch through both high school and college. He fell in love with the girl he would marry, and they wed just one week before Matt and I did. He and Caleb – my best buds growing up – were ushers in my wedding. And that was the last time I saw him.
Michael, who always had a love for all-things-military, continued in the Army after he graduated from college. A second lieutenant, he was deployed to Iraq in early 2004.
It was a hot August day and I had just pulled into my driveway. After having been on the most perfect Caribbean cruise, Matt and I were greeted by my mom and my mother-in-law. I thought it was odd that they were welcoming us back, and I could tell by their somber looks that something wasn’t right.
They told me Michael had been killed. The minutes after are etched in my memory, as are many of the events in the days and weeks afterward.
His memorial service was packed to overflowing in our former home church. Above his casket was the stage where Caleb and I sang Friends before Michael moved. The pews where his extended family sat were the pews we sat in together when it wasn’t cool to sit with our parents anymore. The steps to the stage were where we listened to the children’s sermon before heading to children’s church.
I was moved to tears when people stopped on the side of the road and saluted while the processional went through. I think the processional was longer than our entire small town. I heard Taps for the first time with meaning. I still can’t hear it without crying.
Michael was so dearly loved by so many. But as his childhood buddy – and a married woman – I felt alone in my grief. But truly his death was the first time I had experienced grief in my young 24-year-old life. He was like a brother to me.
He was the first to call and congratulate me when my beloved Braves won the 1995 World Series. He showed his witty sense of humor when he wrote me a silly poem years after the sixth-grade break-up: “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue; I wish I was as mature as you.” He taught me that we shouldn’t say we love baseball or anything other than people because that cheapens the word. He showed me by example how to believe the best in people. In his last email to me from Iraq he shared that he was trying to share Christ with a comrade.
So when our dealership opened for the first time on my first Memorial Day after Michael’s death, I was angry. In fairness to the company, though, had we chosen to open the year before, I know I would not have felt the same. In fact, just a couple of years before, I was creating Memorial Day advertisements for the local newspaper without blinking an eye.
Before Michael died, Memorial Day was a day for family and grilling out. It was a day to be on the lake or in the pool. And of course the cursory remembrance of faceless fallen soldiers.
Not anymore. Every Memorial Day I tell my kids about Michael. I show them his photo in uniform and at my wedding. I want them to think of him every Memorial Day for the rest of their lives. I want them to enjoy the family day, the grilling out, and the swimming, knowing that we can enjoy it because of men and women like Michael who sacrificed their lives fighting for or protecting our freedom.
August 15, 2014 will be the tenth anniversary of Michael’s sacrifice. A street in our hometown will be renamed in his honor. Follow updates on the Facebook page created in his memory here.
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