Once upon a time, I lived a life where Memorial Day weekend marked the beginning of summer, with backyard barbecues and three days off from work and school.
I was always touched by the parade and cemetery services in that small town.
But I’ll admit the holiday fun only actually began after that “depressing part” was over.
I remembered what Memorial Day was all about, but I didn’t know.
This year I know.
Pulling up to the front drive a lump formed in my throat. I immediately saw three mothers navigating parking and check-in with young children at a hotel just outside our nation’s capital. I, myself, had just managed to navigate a large rental vehicle from the airport through detours and traffic all while my three children asked questions along the general lines of “Are we there yet?” and “Why can’t we listen to my radio station?”
As we pulled up to the hotel my children cheered.
“We’re here!” they exulted.
Their mother fought back tears at the paradox of my children’s happiness to return to a place where everyone was gathering to come to grips with grief.
On March 21, 2012, my husband, Captain Michael R. McCaddon, lost his life due to complications arising from his service in the U.S. Army.
He had untreated (and largely unrecognized by his leaders and peers) depression. The lack of available time and access to care, as well as a stigma in the military regarding mental illness, were (in my opinion) definite contributing factors to his suicide.
But, were he still here, he’d be the first to defend the way things are handled in the military. He and I would have to respectfully disagree on that point. However, I have always known he was first, and always, a dedicated soldier. He loved to serve and did so willingly for nearly 20 years.
Memorial Day now has a whole new meaning for me and my three children.
However, I’m not sure we would know what to do with this new meaning if it were not for having others who understand so specifically what we’ve been through. This year we will not participate in our small town’s parade.
Instead, we are once again joining with nearly 2,000 other family members in Washington, D.C., to remember our loved ones at the National Military Survivor’s Seminar and Good Grief Camps generously provided to us by TAPS — the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
I’ve written before about how amazing this organization is. They have been a lifeline for my children and me since the early hours after my husband’s passing.
Never once has my husband been referred to here as anything other than the amazing man he was. Never once have my children been treated as anything other than the heroes they truly are. We are recognized as important parts of the military family. We are encouraged to remember, celebrate and share our love of Mike, and take the time to grieve and heal amid a community of friends.
Thursday night, we met with old and new friends for dinner. On our way back to our room I was introduced to a father who lost his son the same month Mike died. He greeted me with a hug and then said “I’m terribly sad to meet you.” Not for a moment did I question his greeting.
To make a friend here at TAPS means that you know they share in the depths of your loss. As I pulled away from my new friend I said “But, I’m so glad to know you too…” He commented on the friendships forged here. I am among people who have become my family.
Yet I don’t doubt that any one of my new pals would relinquish our friendship if he or she could only go back to when their loved one still walked this earth.
We share deep bonds, but we know deep inside we wish we never had reason to meet.
Earlier Thursday, I met a widow who is here for the first time.
I recognized the bewildered look on her face because I was wearing it last year. It is at once awe-inspiring and overwhelming to walk into a lobby full of smiling, hugging, cheerful, grieving people.
When I introduced myself, we discovered we had much in common. A new friendship spontaneously combusted amid tears and traded phone numbers. “You are not alone here,” I told her, with the conviction that comes only from have walked that path before her.
True, living as a military survivor “out in the world” can be very lonely.
We never forget our loved ones. We often feel slighted when others carelessly forget the 1% of our population selflessly defending the rest of us– and fail to recognize that we have many friends still serving, still deployed, still suffering the physical and mental injuries of war.
Many of us start to become a little sensitive as Memorial Day plans are discussed and involve more plans around boating and beer than they do about cherishing those who have lost their lives in service to their country.
This weekend my children and I will not be alone. We will celebrate and remember the life and love of a man we called husband and Dad. We will think of his parents, sisters and friends. We will honor his service and have pride in the part we played to support it.
We will do this arm-in-arm with too many friends just like us.
Even if you have never lost a loved one to war or in service to our country, I humbly ask that you remember, too.
Have that barbecue, but raise a glass in silence to remember the brave and selfless. Recall that the reason for this holiday is to thank those who have already paid the ultimate price, so that we can enjoy such holidays and the carefree summers they herald.
And reflect on the families left behind. For us, every day is Memorial Day.
Leslie McCaddon of Massachusetts was one of two widows Time featured in its July 2012 cover story on the surge in Army suicides.