Every Memorial Day, I think of my father.
Dad was in the Marine Corps during World War II — Okinawa and Guadalcanal. He brought home Malaria and Dengue Fever — 6 feet tall, 120 pounds. He recovered, regained strength, lived.
My father rarely spoke of the war, and I was a young adult before I realized the impact of his experience. I called on Memorial Day, when I was in my early twenties, and asked if he was thinking about people he knew who died in combat. There was such a long pause that I thought we lost our connection. Then he answered with a single word: “Always.”
We talked for three hours.
I learned the name of his closest friend during the war, the taste of sea spray as his ship cut through the ocean, the crack of a bullet hitting his helmet. I learned the intensity of bonds that form under circumstances nobody should know. I learned the impossible stillness and chaos Dad felt as he cradled a dying marine. I learned that my father pointed his gun at soldiers fighting for Hitler, and once at fellow marines who were about to rape an adolescent in front of her grandparents. I learned that my father – a screenwriter – chose the pen over the sword as he rebuilt his life, post war.
Our Memorial Day phone conversations became a tradition. But I knew – and Dad knew I knew – that the majority of his experience would remain unspoken. Living in combat, day-to-day, is so specific to the situation, so incomprehensible to those of us who have never known first-hand the ravages of war – that the most powerful way to honor my father for serving his country was to respect that I could understand only a fraction of his experience.
My father died in his nineties, decades after his service ended, and I carry with me those Memorial Day talks — every story, every word, every inflection. Once a year on Memorial Day, I sit quietly, and think about Dad’s friends, people I never met, who died in the war. I silently honor them for protecting and preserving the world I would be born into.
This year, Memorial Day arrives during the coronavirus pandemic. As we all face a time of extreme uncertainty, I have no idea what lies around the next corner. But neither did my father as he entered combat. In this moment, as we battle a different kind of enemy, I take strength from those who served. I know from their history that we humans continually surprise ourselves with our capacity face the unknown, to adjust in ways we never imagined, to rebuild our world, to thrive in a new frontier. Sure, I’m scared, and sometimes my fear stops me in my tracks. Then I hear my father’s voice. I close my eyes and breathe his experience, the unbreakable bond with those who lived and with those who died. Does that take away my fear? Nope, I’m still scared.
I’m also ready.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a novelist, blogger and mother of three grown children. Amy wrote her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a rookie psychology intern through her first year of training. Amy blogs on a variety of subjects including parenting, LGBTQ+ ally support, gender equality and a Rolling Stones concert. Amy also collaborates with educators who use her books in their curriculum.
Amy’s Author Page On Amazon