A few flowers for the grave of Celia Yap-Banago, please. At 69, approaching her retirement date at a hospital in Kansas City, she feared that her workplace had become unsafe in the nation’s scramble to meet the foe. She plunged in anyway, eager to help, because that is what nurses do. The pandemic virus killed her on April 21.
A mournful bugle, please, for Lorna Breen, 49, an emergency room doctor in New York City — “truly in the trenches of the front line,” as her father put it. Breen continued her 12-hour days of combat until the virus was teeming through her own body. Then she took her own life, another casualty of the war, on April 26.
“She said it was like Armageddon,” Breen’s sister recalled. “She said, ‘There are so many sick people everywhere.’ ” Her father said, “Make sure she’s praised as a hero, because she was.”
One of many.
On the Christian calendar, the day of the dead, All Saints’ Day, comes in the darkening of the year, when the harvest is in, the fields lie broken and dreary winter starts up the lane. We hear the rustling of ghosts in the fallen leaves skittering behind the last children of Halloween. We feel the chill breath of shortening days.
On America’s official calendar, the day of the dead, Memorial Day, comes with the full flood of springtime, when the seed of the world so thickens the air that eyes sting and noses run, Nature’s lust for life bursts out in every bud and flower; the grass is greener, the sky is bluer. What a marvelous notion. A commemoration of lives lost — at the moment when every fiber and filament is saturated with new beginnings.
Some people are scandalized by the way we mark Memorial Day. Appalled by the lack of solemnity, by the barbecues and baseball games, the beer drinking and suntanning, the flirtations and frivolity, the shrieking toddlers dashing through lawn sprinklers, the music blaring through the windows of parked cars long after the sun goes down. This bacchanalia seems disrespectful to those we claim to honor.
But those who die for comrades and country do not die for the sake of mourning. They must have thought in their last days and hours of ballgames or cold bottles of beer, of love and passion, of laughing children or stirring music — of something joyful. “Life is real! Life is earnest!” as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote. “And the grave is not its goal.” We honor them in part by honoring their happiness as well as their pain, their gains as well as their loss; how they lived, not just how they died.
On this Memorial Day, we have new memories to honor. The pandemic takes its toll on nurses and doctors — not infantrymen. On EMTs and orderlies, not bomber crews. Their real and earnest lives, given in service to the nation, point to a goal beyond the grave.
Abraham Lincoln, on the Gettysburg battlefield, said memorably that the goal of so much death was “a new birth.” The origins of Memorial Day reflect this idea, that we honor the dead by more fully living as one nation, one people, one community. In one of the holiday’s many roots, the women of Columbus, Miss., went in the first post-Civil War springtime to decorate the resting places of the fallen, Gray and Blue alike. When he learned of the gesture, a lawyer and poet in the North named Francis Miles Finch embraced this new beginning. “They banish our anger forever / When they laurel the graves of our dead,” he wrote.
This covid war has become a source of division (though hardly as divisive as that one). All wars, even the noblest, strain our bonds and test our unity, because wars involve uncertainty, uncertainty creates mistakes and mistakes invite recriminations. But when we remember those who gave the last full measure of devotion, we do so together. Memorial Day is an affirmation that what we share is worth even the greatest sacrifices, that a nation worth dying for is also worth living for. Remembering isn’t an end but a beginning.
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