No matter what political party we support, and no matter what our position may be on the wars being fought by our young men and women in the service today or in the past, I think it’s a sad statement of our times that we take such insufficient care of those who return home severely injured physically or mentally. The monetary compensation awarded to them and to their families as well as the medical care given them is often all too little and all too inadequate. For those who have lost their lives fighting in the name of democracy and in defense of our nation, even the traditional observance of this one day of the year, Memorial Day, is no longer what it once was. And I do feel it’s regrettable that for so many it has become just another long weekend (originally it was just this one day, May 30th) to take advantage of sales and to barbeque, with little, if any attention paid to those who died in too many wars fighting for our country.
Some of you may not even know the history of Memorial Day. Perhaps you’re too young to remember the pomp and ceremony afforded it years ago. Perhaps you’ve never read about it in your history classes.
Yet, I can recall being taught – from the earliest days of attending elementary school – that Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day in memory of all the southern women who decorated the graves of soldiers killed in battle even before the Civil War ended. In fact, when I was a child Memorial Day and Decoration Day were referred to interchangeably.
There are still cities which host yearly parades. Politicians and family members are afforded the opportunity to speak, thereby remembering and honoring their loved ones. However, it is also true that there are many today who have either forgotten or never actually knew the meaning of this day. I’ve read that several even believe that the day is for honoring all who are dead and not just those who have died in battle.
When I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s (at least in the 5 boroughs of New York) there was a yearly assembly program which the entire student body of every public school was required to attend. We would stand, sing the national anthem, and then lower our heads respectfully – as we were told we must – to honor all who had died fighting for our democracy, the greatest nation on earth, the United States of America.
It was a meaningful though somber and dramatic day.
For me, though, it was a day in which I wasn’t able to truly celebrate my birthday. Just as today is officially Memorial Day, it is also my birthday … and, though I know myself to be a patriotic American, I also remember a childhood deprived of experiencing the joy one likes to associate with happy occasions.
In fact, had this day fallen on any other day than the day of my birthday, I undoubtedly would have appreciated it with the appropriateness it deserved. But, because my mother was sick so often – suffering as she did from bouts of severe depression – she was unable to host parties for me, and the best I could hope for was to celebrate with my friends in school. Yet, even there, in the one place where I so longed to experience happiness outside our “four rooms,” the one place where I sought safety and solace as a child, even there my birthday was diminished by a gray cloud of national mourning.
I stood – as everyone else did – and participated in the school assembly, wearing the birthday corsage my friends had made for me. As was the custom then, we girls made one another corsages every year. Each was intertwined with pretty ribbons and pinned to the shoulder of the birthday girl’s dress. When I was ten, my corsage was made of lollipops. Other years it was gum drops, tootsie rolls, bubble gum, life savers, and sugar cubes – always sugar cubes – for one’s Sweet Sixteen. So, yes, the good news is that I did have my corsages and I did have my friends. But, instead of being able to feel carefree and able to smile and laugh, I wore the face of sorrow as I honored the dead.
I am not sharing this so to evoke any degree of pity. I’m writing this to reassure anyone who grew up in a family such as mine – where chaos and confusion were the norm – that it is natural to seek comfort outside one’s family.
Those fortunate enough to live in healthier families where children are celebrated daily and where there is time and energy for fun and laughter would probably not have felt as deprived as I did or as conflicted about having to share Memorial Day with anyone, let alone people whom I did not know, and who were, furthermore, dead. Illness and the possible loss of my mother was an ever present and frightening threat hovering over me during the day when I was awake and in the nightmares of my sleep. It was a threat of which I did not need to be reminded, especially on my birthday.
Today, however, as I am being feted by family and am most grateful to my daughter Keren who is hosting the festivities and my daughter Mia who has kept me laughing throughout the days leading up to today, I am more than able and very proud to share my birthday with all those families who unfortunately are recalling those whom they have lost in war.
My hope is that we who continue to advocate for mental health will live to see a time when services are readily available to those suffering the wounds – physical or mental – of war, as well as those born with predispositions for mental illness. All of us (children, in particular) deserve to feel cared for. All of us deserve to feel safe and have the capacity to be spontaneous and to enjoy all that there is to enjoy in simply being alive.
I need to have that as my goal, just as I need to advocate for my patients when I feel they need me to do so. I’ve been where so many of them are, and I’m here to say the road traveled hasn’t always been easy. Yet, I’ve fought hard at every turn to interrupt the cycle of dysfunction, to offer unconditional love – as imperfect as I am and as incomplete as it may be – in the hope that my mother’s suffering will never be experienced by the generations that follow mine. And I encourage others, like myself, to find ways to do the same.
Today then is, as it should be, an official day of remembrance, a day we call Memorial Day. It is also happens to be my birthday and the birthday of all who were born on May 30th.
We all deserve to be remembered and honored, and our fallen soldiers deserve no less.
So, with thoughts of all those who are remembering loved ones, I also send birthday wishes to those who share this day as their birthday. May you celebrate in whatever way gives you the most pleasure and may the year ahead be filled with good health and much love.