Sunday 11 November 2007

Lest We Forget - An Open Letter to the Unknown Soldier

Dedicated to those who have lost their lives in the service of others.

To You Who Is Forever in Our Thoughts,

As your mother, I will always remember you the way you were when we were closest, when I could feel your head rising and falling against my chest. When you told me with glowing eyes of your accomplishments, and when you could not contain how much you hurt and the tears that welled up in those eyes spoke most of your need for me to soothe your pain. I cannot stand to think of the terrible things that have befallen you since the last time you were close to me; what you have seen and what you have felt would almost certainly break my heart, so I tell myself that, in those times when you were all alone and afraid, you could feel my closeness. I was there with you, and I still am. I would still give anything to feel that closeness with you just one more time, but my dreams still allow me, from time to time, to feel the warmth of your presence so intensely I'm sure I can feel your breath and smell your hair. Those are the moments that I cherish.

As your father, I remember the pride I felt when you began to think for yourself, and started to become the person you did, even as I knew that it would, in some way, begin to take you away from me. The day you left was almost unbearably difficult, with my wanting to tell you everything I'd never had the chance to, but knowing that to do so would be to risk telling you that I was giving up hope of ever seeing you return. I've tried since you've been away not to make it about myself, to avoid dwelling on the all the joy that I've been robbed of by not being able to watch you grow. There was so much I wanted for you that you never got to experience, and so much you've experience that I never wanted you to. All I can hope for now is that, before you left our lives, you got what you wanted.

As your sister, I feel this huge sense of responsibility to fix something that I know I never can. Not having you here has changed us all completely. Whenever we sit down all together for a family dinner, or gather in smaller groups any other time, there's this awkward compulsion that we have to acknowledge your absence, as we always do, but the more earnestly we do so, the more painful it becomes, so we probably don't acknowledge you like we should. I keep hearing that that's just the way things are, until one day it all just becomes another thing we do, like an oft-repeated prayer whose words no longer mean anything. But I won't let that happen to you, even if I have to keep open wounds from becoming scars. Your absence is a wound I won't let time heal.

As your brother, I wish I could have done something to protect you, to take you back to our days when every battle had as its counterpart a scar to be worn like a badge, and every wound had as its companion a good story that we'd look back on someday and laugh about. I know everyone says this, but, in so many ways, I wish I could trade places with you; I wish it would have been me. You seem so much better now than I ever was. All I can seem to remember now is those times I wished you ill, when I treated you badly just because I could. I sure hope that's not how you remembered me, because it would kill me to know that empty frame of guilt was a part of your last moments. I tell myself instead that you thought of the times we laughed so hard it made everyone around us laugh too. For your sake, and mine I supposed, I hope I'm right.

As your love, I remember how your presence filled the space we were in, the way a body fills a bed or a smile fills a face. I can still feel you touching me, not just with your hands and your lips and your skin but with your eyes and your spirit. Now it seems I have to force myself to feel things, to put effort and will into squeezing something tangible out of any attempt to reach me. I remember when you hurt me, and when I hurt you, when we said and did things to each other that made us so mad at the time, but I know now that the hurt that comes from your absence is so much deeper, and lasts so long. It's the one thing that can reach through and touch me when everything else is numb. Sometimes I think that if I reach back, blindly through that space that your presence no longer fills, my hands might find yours, and we'll draw together in an embrace.

As your best friend, it doesn't seem fair that I'm the one sitting here reminiscing. Remember how easy it was not to take anything seriously, and to leave all that bad stuff behind and just have a good time? What happened to those effortless days? It used to be that all we had to do to make the world go away for a while was to get together, and anything was possible. It's not like that now; you're never there when I turn around, reminding me sometimes that, for some things, there is no second chance. There's no chance to even talk about all those things we wanted to do together, let alone actually do them. Sometimes I wish you'd leave me alone, sometimes I even say it out loud, but then there are the other times, when I realize that you are with me, following me around like some shadow I can't see, and maybe it's not so bad having you with me, because you remind me to do my best with every moment because everything may change in the next one.

As your daughter, I miss being able to count on you when I needed to be loved and accepted without question, whatever I had or hadn't done. Whoever took you away from me couldn't have known how good you were to me, how you took care of me. People tell me I'm strong, and independent, and everything that a woman these days is supposed to be, and I suppose they're right to some extent, but they don't see what you saw. For you, I never had to perform, even though I always loved doing so. For you, I never had to prove anything, I just wanted to. I know there are people in my life that understand that, and really try to give me that, but you never had to try. That's just who you were. I guess if whoever took you had known that, that's who you'd still be.

As your son, I wanted to know you so much better. I wanted to hear about all the things you could never tell me because you knew I'd have never been interested. I wish there was some way that I could tell you that I'm interested now; I'm interested not just in hearing but in understanding what it was that made you the person you were. Most of all, I wanted you to see me grow into the person you always knew I could become, and see the pride you felt watching me put into the practice the best of yourself that you gave to me. I hear all the time how much of you there is in me, not just in how I appear but in how I do the things I do. Those who knew you well even say that, at times, the way I move through the world helps show them that you are not really gone at all. That's a nice thought to hold on to sometimes, but I wish I could hold onto it for longer, because when it fades, I'm left missing you that much more.

As your victim, I think this whole thing is completely unfair. Neither of us should have been there, doing what we were doing. Why did circumstances have to put us together like that, at that precise moment in time in that exact place? If you'd been from where I was from, we could have been family, friends, neighbours, or even just strangers. Either way, we both wouldn't have had to lose everything that we've lost, and to cause so much hurt to so many others. Maybe I'm supposed to hate you, but I don't hate you; how could I, I don't even know you. What I hate is whatever brought us together under those circumstances. I don't care whose fault it was, or who was right and who was wrong. I just hate that it had to happen at all.

As the one responsible for your fate, I know that you're not all that different from me, but, as you more than anyone can understand, it was something I just had to do. You know as well as I do how complicated it is, the frame of mind you're put in by the preparation you go through with those like you, and the comraderie you feel with them, and the need to step outside yourself into some heightened state of awareness. You know what it is to become someone other than yourself. You have to, or you'd never last even for a day. Of course I feel bad about all of it, I think about it all the time, but I'd never last a day either if I thought about it too much. If you didn't understand that as well, I'd probably feel much worse, but I know you do. We can't be that different.

When all is said and done, it hardly matters why you were taken from us, or what you were doing when you were. It's about what you meant to us when you were with us, and what you continue to mean to us now. The talk around this time of year is of valour, and service to a higher good. That must be important, but it is not uniforms and trumpets that, for us, embody your particular sacrifice. Neither is it the tangible sadness, nor the unfillable emptiness that memorializes your affect on us all. Rather, it is the ghost of your presence, refracted into manifestations everywhere by some barely discernable strand of light, that winds through and around us when we speak, when we act, while we live and love, and joins together our whole experience of you like the first ray of sunshine that parts the clouds, illuminates the earth with all its inhabitants beneath, and heralds the rainbow.

Yours eternally,

Those Whose Lives You've Touched

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