I hope your Memorial Day was a little sunnier than ours. We did get lucky in the end, though. After hours of on again and off again sunshine, the rain clouds blew through around 4:00 pm and we ended up with a perfect window of sunshine for the annual potluck at our neighborhood pool. Also on again and off again most of the afternoon I cooked for the potluck (sesame noodles, banana bread, pasta salad) and listened to many remarkable stories on NPR about soldiers from days long ago, and recent days, too. Stories like this one, and this one. I thought it was fitting, then, that I would tell two Memorial Day stories here myself--two stories about two students. I don't know how either one of them ends, but they have stayed with me for some time now. I'll pass them along to you now, so you can imagine endings of your own, and hope for happy ones along with me.
Setting: My office on a warm Friday afternoon in March, three years ago. The rain from the other night has blown away the clouds and all the leaves are accented in delicately drawn lines of light. It’s a perfect day—the kind of day that makes you want to slip on shorts and anticipate the long, warm days of summer. Student R. is seated in front of me. He’s tall, with glasses and has several tattoos on his forearms and upper arms. He’s polite, well-spoken—an earnest and sensitive young man. He feels strongly about religion and his mother, calling her the “strongest woman I know” and his face softens when he speaks of her. I mention the fact that he has missed many classes and he apologizes. He’s in the ROTC program and I often see him in fatigues with his name sewn onto the front of his uniform.
"I’m trying to make all my classes," he tells me. But, and he takes a deep, tired breath, "they’re deploying me in April."
There’s an awkward silence as I try and digest the news. The sight of his backpack, filled with pens poking here and there out of the pockets makes me suddenly sad--sad and angry, too. I study his face, looking for his feelings.
"I’m so sorry to hear this," I tell him. Then I worry: sorry? Was this the right thing to say? Should I clap him on the back instead, give him some brave words?
"I know, I know," he says. "I really want to finish school. I’m constantly out of classes for one thing or another—physicals, signing insurance papers, health forms. I keep telling them I need to get to class but they keep telling me this is more important."
"What will you do about college?" I ask him.
"They tell me I can finish when I get back."
I want to say, who are they to tell you this? But I bite my tongue.
After we talk for a few minutes I watch him leave, backpack slung over his shoulder, books under one arm; a student like all the others, yet suddenly so different, too. He turns the corner and vanishes--through the door, and out into the March sunshine.
Setting: Classroom, cool fall morning, two years ago. Student D. is of average build, broad shouldered, dark skinned, with hair so closely shaved you can see the creases in his skull. When he wears his military khakis he is the picture of order, pants tucked perfectly into his black laced-up boots, every inch of him washed and pressed and buttoned, not a stitch out of place. He wears two oblong disks around his neck--dog tags, of course. On one is etched his mother's name, on the other his military identification numbers. His mother passed away seven years ago from cancer, but he wears her name close to his chest. When he runs during training days, boots thudding into the dry ground, he feels the dog tags thump against his chest, like twin heartbeats, reminding him of what he has to live for, to do, to achieve, all in her name.
He is, like so many others, serving his country so he may serve himself; so he may one day walk across a stage and receive his diploma, and keep on walking, into his future, lying before him so glorious and filled with possibilities. Everything he does, he does for his mother. He misses seeing her face every day, and hearing her call his name; when she first passed away he couldn't imagine not having her in the world. He is respectful, and motivated, and determined. He will set his jaw and head off and fight in a war he says he doesn't really understand. He talks of his mother watching him, and feeling proud.
I think: please keep him safe, bring him back home again.