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Memorial Day—Lest We Forget

At the very least, a brief thank-you is in order.

Memorial Day as we know it today began as Decoration Day in 1866, in upstate New York, after the cessation of the Civil War. First conceived as homage to those who had given their lives, it soon evolved to also honor those who had survived. Within two years it was renamed Memorial Day, and over time came to symbolize our community need to stay ever mindful of those who had sacrificed their lives for our freedoms. A tremendous amount has transpired in the intervening 144 years.

Currently, we are under potential daily assault by terrorists. We are also inundated with news about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we are still reeling from the cumulative impact of the events of September 11, 2001. We have been forced to re-examine how we live our daily lives, how we travel, and how we observe the normal events that swirl around our public movements. With all of this going on, the need for a Memorial Day is as important as ever.

With a few exceptions there has always been relative calm inside our borders. All of that came to a shattering halt on September 11, and has been amplified by recent events. But we must not overlook the fact that during that time there was Korea and Viet Nam and Iraq 1 and Afghanistan. Each of them produced a large number of dead and wounded veterans. We must remember to honor them all lest we miss the point of Memorial Day.

For millions of us, September 11 and subsequent events have signaled the end of our metaphorical Disneyland. Most of us were not related to or even acquainted with anyone who perished on September 11. But most of us heard the recordings of those phone calls made by people on the doomed aircraft that day. What we heard provided us tangible proof of what the real "bottom line" is for us creatures called human beings. In the heart-stopping moments before the ends of their lives, the people who could, contacted their most precious loved ones to tell them how they felt about them just before they died.

None of those calls had anything to do with mundane, day-to-day details. They had nothing to do with money and possessions. They had only to do with one combined thing, love and relationships. There was no time for small talk, or anything other than, "Thank you" and "I love you" and "Take care of yourself and the children." And, "Goodbye."

We were deeply affected by what we heard in those recordings and the reports of calls from within the collapsing buildings and doomed aircraft. It opened a place in our hearts, in an inward spiral, first for those who had died, then for those who survived them, and finally for all the people - past and present - who had affected our own lives.

Memorial Day gives us a chance to have those same feelings about the thousands of men and women in our military who never get the chance to call home as their blood and sacrifice pave the way for our freedom and our daily lives.

Our collective grief expanded our sense of love and connection to the single thing that stands out above all other things - our relationships with other people. That expansion encouraged people to be nice to each other. Strangers within neighborhoods got to know each other. People who might have argued over a parking space, deferred to each other. Courtesy abounded. Pleasant smiles and exchanges were the order of the day. Isolation and selfishness seemed to evaporate, and conversation, connection, and camaraderie took their places. This shattering wake-up call reminded us all of our essential humanity and provoked us to act the way our parents and teachers had taught us when we were little. And it was a good thing.

For a while, the impact of September 11 brought us together, at least in the ways we've mentioned here. But then we slipped back to pre-September 11 levels in our sense of relationship to those outside of our own inner circles.

And then came the terror alerts, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq 2, and the lingering aftermath.
Lest we forget, the equivalent of September 11 is happening every day in far off lands. We must acknowledge and thank the men and women who serve. We must acknowledge the families of the fallen. We must remember that the freedoms we assume are there were paid for along the way.

We must remember all the brave souls who created our freedoms: in our American world; in the larger world; in our cultural, religious and philosophical worlds; and in the heart of our most personal family world.

We could all withstand the pressure of smiling at a few strangers, of inviting a few people from the outskirts of our lives into the mainstream, and to defer as often as possible in the parking lot of life.
Above all, we must remember the real purpose of Memorial Day and make our communications as poignant as the ones we heard on those tapes.

To all the veterans who have served in situations beyond our comprehension, we say, "Thank you and we love you."

To all the veterans who have died for our way of life, we say, "Thank you, we love you, and goodbye."

Each day it would be wise to stop and acknowledge that never have so many owed so much to so few.

Every time you exercise a freedom, remember that someone in our military services hard-won it for you.

When you drive past a National Cemetery, at the very least, a brief thank-you is in order.