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.