This Memorial Day – Vivian McInerny – Medium
This Memorial Day
My oldest brother is much younger than I am.
He was nineteen years old when he was killed in Vietnam. I was thirteen. Certain that the sorrow was too weighty to bear, I thought I would crumble. But here I am almost five decades later, standing on the precipice of old age while my big brother remains forever young.
I miss my brother, not every day but at random times and also during regularly scheduled programs like Memorial Day. The holiday was specifically created to remind us to honor those who died while serving in the armed forces. But, of course, this being the USA, the holiday has morphed into a weekend of shopping discounts and barbecues and also flag-waving and blind patriotism that further emphasizes the deep divide in our country.
I’m trying to use this federal holiday to remind myself of our most fundamental commonality: Our mortality. Maybe once upon a time we were united in death and taxes but it’s clear some people have finagled their way out of paying taxes. To date, none have managed to scam death.
Yet, most of the time we are masterful at pretending otherwise. Maybe losing a loved one when I was so young left a permanent mark like a physical scar that I cannot ignore. Maybe it created a different kind of wrinkle in my still malleable young brain that changed the way I viewed the world and my time in it. I’ve spent most of my life grappling with the inevitability of death. Like an eternal version of Elizabeth Kugler-Ross’s Stages of Grief, my thoughts continually loop through a mix of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance of death, over and over again.
When I first neared the age my brother was when he died, I wallowed in a classic existential crisis. Why was I here? What was the point? What was the reason for any of this? And by “this” I meant absolutely everything from war, famine, humans, the earth, the stars, the universe, and beyond. Even the stuff beyond the beyond that we didn’t know for sure existed, I wondered why we hypothesized its existence. Surely, the hormonal rush of adolescence added to the particular hot mess that was my interior dialog. The religion of my youth fell short on answers. It seemed to offer only a stay-within-the-lines coloring book when I suspected an infinite canvas was available. I rejected the one but had no idea how to access the other.
A gnawing restlessness crawled up from the hollow of my bones through the layers of my skin like an itch I couldn’t scratch. The only thing I knew for certain about life was that it would end, sometimes abruptly and at a tender age. I became determined to live life fully. I did things wonderful and terrible. I reached for the heavens and raised hell. I saved every penny I earned at the mall and a few weeks after my eighteenth birthday took off to see the world in search of something I couldn’t begin to define but was sure was out there and urgently needed.
I can’t say I found what I was looking for, only that I will never stop searching.
Whether we are out buying refrigerators or flipping burgers with friends this weekend, I hope we can pause long enough to consider those who died in war. But please, do not exalt them. Worshipping the fallen soldiers glamorizes combat and puts a mawkish Hollywood sheen on the horrors of war.
I choose to remember my brother as he once was; a paper boy, an altar boy, a boy all of nineteen years old when he died in service to this country.
Vivian McInerny is a journalist and fiction writer. Her first children’s book is forthcoming in 2021 with Versify, a new imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.