My son just came into the kitchen as I struggled to edit this piece and said, “Mommy, my name is Marc. But…Marc died. But I didn’t die.” Then he went back to playing.
Children have an uncanny ability to remind you where to begin.
Memorial Day matters in our household. But the holiday hasn’t always meant the same thing to me – it’s evolved. In fact, I was born on Memorial Day, which as a young person, I found both special and sad. I loved the holiday weekend and American flags lining the streets but I knew the day represented loss – a loss I felt connected to but not one I deeply understood. In fact, I didn’t know the story of Memorial Day until recently.
After the Civil War, a Union General who led a veterans’ organization at the time, proclaimed May 30, 1868 the day to honor fallen soldiers; he chose the end of May because according to lore, that’s when all the flowers in the nation would be in bloom. Instead of “Memorial Day”, May 30th was “Decoration Day” because Americans decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and other items as a way of memorializing them. Some believe the tradition dates back even further. According to one powerful story, women in a town in Mississippi headed to the nearby cemetery to decorate the graves of their relatives – and noticed the tombstones of Union soldiers in great disrepair. A year earlier, some of those same men fought against their families in the most violent conflict in American history, yet the women couldn’t ignore the graves of their fellow citizens and tended to them as they did their own. Thus, a tradition began, and dozens of other towns across the country have similar stories that sprouted up separately but grew together – becoming very much a “grassroots” holiday. “Decoration Day” and “Memorial Day” were often used interchangeably until 1966 when President Johnson declared May 30th officially “Memorial Day”. And in 1971, Congress designated the holiday observed on the final Monday in May– and that’s how it became the “holiday” weekend we enjoy now.
But for so many, the act of memorializing someone who died serving our nation surfaces daily, sometimes purposefully and other times, in unexpected ways. And I confronted that reality a few weeks ago when I went to pickup my son from preschool.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something…,” my son’s pre-school teacher said to me as I gathered his things – he was lying asleep on the floor in front of us on his little shark sleeping bag. The classroom had already cleared out.
“It’s the gun thing,” she began. “He’s just so focused on guns. I’m concerned it’s going to become…an issue…”
And I knew exactly what she was talking about.
My 3-year-old, Trace, loves toy guns. He makes blocks, crayons, sticks into little toy guns. We visited the Alamo recently and now he loves Davey Crockett. As soon as he gets home he runs to get his coon skin or cowboy hat. He has “Old Betsy” – a toy version of Davey Crocket’s famed rifle – and he prowls around the backyard singing to himself, deep in an imaginary world.
Trace is actually “Brian Marc” named after his father, Brian Leif, and the first Navy SEAL killed in Iraq, Marc Lee – a man who shared my maiden name though we have no relation. My husband deployed with Marc and fought alongside him in the combat operation where Marc was killed; my husband was also shot, but not significantly injured. Trace received his nickname because he’s the third Brian in the family – but also because “Big Marc” was the machine gunner of the platoon, who laid down “tracer” fire, so “Trace” has dual meanings and it’s our small way of honoring his memory.
And just recently, Trace learned he has more than one name and naturally, he has a lot of questions. And I don’t know if we did a good job answering them.
How do you explain to him the story of his name?
And how do you do that with everything else that’s brand new in the universe? Like play-doh…or the Gruffalo (didn’t you know?)…or Lee Greenwood. Trace loves Lee Greenwood and sings “God Bless The U.S.A.” at the top of his lungs – randomly – and proudly. It’s hilarious. We can be walking through Target and he’ll run ahead yelling “I’m proud to be Americannnnnnnnnnnnnnn!”
But even that brought unexpected questions as it shuffled through a playlist of “appropriate” children’s songs we often listen to in my husband’s truck. Trace asked for it over-and-over again, around the same time we started talking about Marc. And because it’s the easiest lines to remember, Trace will repeat these lyrics most of all:
“And I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me.”
And these questions come up repeatedly:
Trace: Why did the men die?
Me: They died so we can be free.
Trace: What’s ‘Freeze’?
Me: It’s “free” – when you are “free” you can believe what you want and say what you want. We are free in America.
Trace: Oh. Big Marc died.
Me: Yes he did. He’s in heaven now.
Trace: But WHY did he have to die?
Me: He was fighting in a war.
Trace: How did he die? Did he get shot? (The photos we have of Marc often have him in uniform with all his gear, including his gun.)
Me: Yes. Marc was big and strong and very brave.
The apex of all these questions came a few weeks before this classroom incident. We visited Marc’s mother, Debbie, who started a charity foundation to honor her son. We don’t call Debbie by her name – We call her ‘Momma Lee’. I had never been to Mama Lee’s house, but we had planned to stay the weekend with her so we could support one of her charity events. We arrived, all 4 of us, discombobulated after a delayed flight. Momma Lee lives down a quiet road in a nice housing development in Arizona. You know her house by the flags flying outside.
Walking in the front door, you immediately notice two things about Momma Lee’s home: It’s a warm, organized, beautiful home and Momma Lee is clearly a patriot with red, white and blue draping the walls. And Marc is everywhere. A blanket lays over the couch with Marc’s image embroidered on it – posters, photos, flags, awards, books, dolls, stuffed animals – memorabilia is everywhere. I loved seeing the personal family photos and learning about Marc (who I never met) but also felt my heart in my throat most of the time. Especially when Trace would turn to Momma Lee after looking at a photo of Marc or hearing her speak about him and finish almost every sentence with a very factual interruption – “But he died…he was shot.”
You think as the years pass, I’d be more acclimatized to the sudden bolts of grief. But instead of growing a tougher skin, every year I seem to grow softer. Maybe it’s motherhood. But I think its love. As you fall deeper in love with those around you, your empathy grows. And the pain moves from an obvious dark emotion to one that’s more nuanced – grief in technicolor. As adults, we sit with this complexity and struggle, often in silence; children just state the facts. That’s what I did, gazing at my own son wondering what his fate will be, pushing the thought of him in combat as far away from my mind’s eye as possible. And that’s what Trace did, and expressed matter-of-fact: Momma Lee’s son was Marc. He was brave. He carried a big gun. And he was shot. And he died. And he’s in heaven. And he was fighting so “we can be free.”
And he’ll say these lines over-and-over again in different order, at random times – as he did to me in the kitchen while I wrote this and then return to playing, the mysteries of life and death and what happens in between fading into the background as he sifts through a huge pile of Legos. But even in silence, a child’s mind is very much working.
Several weeks after we visited Momma Lee in Arizona, we saw her again at a leadership conference my husband’s company hosted in Washington D.C. We were in a taxi heading home after the event and suddenly, Trace got really sad and teary-eyed out of nowhere, and said with his little voice shaking: “Mama, I don’t want Big Marc to be dead.”
It was the saddest moment. I put my arm around him and said, “Neither do I. But Marc would be so proud that you have the same name.”
He looked out the window as we crossed the Potomoc, the Washington Monument in the distance: “But mommy, I still don’t want him to be dead.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
His pain is real – palpable. How do you take that pain away? How do you make “loss” less confusing? It IS confusing and painful. And it’s very lonely as a parent navigating this space, and lonely is how I felt speaking to the pre-school teacher as she cited her concerns about Trace talking about guns.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, “I think this gun talk has a lot to do with what’s transpired over the last few weeks,” and I attempted to summarize all I just wrote. “My husband is a veteran; Trace is named after one of my husband’s teammates who was shot and killed, and we’ve been talking about him a lot. And I think that might be part of the reason why this is coming out – It’s a lot to process and it was probably too early to have that conversation…”
I was grasping at a human moment to connect.
And it didn’t happen.
The teacher didn’t hear what I was saying because she simply couldn’t; she had no way of relating to it and I completely understand her limitations. In many ways, I was her a few years ago. I never understood the loss of someone in war and how, if you’re a military family, it’s a part of your life every single day. It doesn’t excuse bad behavior; I don’t want my son misbehaving in school. But it does explain why my 3-year-old is talking about someone getting shot, while other 3-year-olds are not.
I gathered Trace up, got into my car, and tried hiding my emotion from my kids as I got choked-up on the ride home. I was so deeply upset. I never thought I’d have that conversation – not in central Texas – not in preschool – not ever. I wasn’t so much frustrated at the teacher – I truly don’t think she had bad intentions. I was sad – sad for my sweet son, who has this incredible lineage that for the first time I saw as a burden – it separates him from others for good and it isolates him as well because so few will really understand.
I didn’t send Trace back for his final day of school. But we did pick up his things and gave gifts to all the teachers who had worked hard all year long. My son ran right up to this same teacher and gave her a big hug. The children received a little end-of-the-year gift bag. In the gift, a sand pail, some bubbles…and a toy water gun.
Though just today, my son now only wants his light saber.
War brings a lot of debate. Why? Why did we fight? Who fought? How? What really happened? What’s the truth? I don’t have all the answers for all of that. Like Trace, when we speak about war, we often try to speak briefly and directly – it’s easier. I’m not resentful my family has to confront this – I’m deeply proud of my husband’s service and honored to be a part of this tribe of military wives, who I admire more than words can express. But I’m worried I’m not equipped to teach my children correctly about it. We want our kids to be courageous and strong and brave – But we also need them to be children, playful and imaginative and untethered. The endless task of balancing that – honesty and patience – seems to be the seesaw of parenthood.
But often times the best lessons are in the stories we come back too. This is why I am passionate about being a journalist; this is why I started SmartHER News. This is why I write. This is my sliver of service. We must protect our stories. We must tell them, accurately and compelling, so we don’t forget. I don’t have a mother or a grandmother who confronted what I am as a wife of a veteran, and mother of a son named after a soldier killed-in-action, so I turn to the women who came before me and who surround me now for guidance – great American women. The women in Mississippi decorating graves – they knew so many others just like them – their grief bonded them. Women like Momma Lee who decorate their homes and who likely are the only ones in their neighborhood to know what it means to set a blanket down on your couch that has the image of your son because he can’t sit there himself. Don’t you find it incredible that separated by more than 150 years these American women, who experienced the greatest loss possible, turned to the exact same tradition? They honored, they memorialized, by decorating. Maybe this Memorial Day that will be our new tradition too – to return to what we use to do. We can decorate with little flags, or embroidered blankets and picture frames, clean the tombstones and lay flowers, dust off our stories, tell them anew, and explain them fully WITH the reality of guns, sweat and tears – and the softness that makes us smile, celebrate and feel “proud to be American because at least we know we’re free” in a nation that’s worth dying for. Because for our children to be big and strong and brave, they’ll need to know both. And for them to know both, so do we.