Having lived in the Pacific, born of islanders who witnessed the horrors of the greatest war, I’ve found myself many times in my youth walking the memorials of sacrifice, both large and small—some in the shadows of massive granite and marble edifices, and some but a square of earth without as much as a brass marker, easily passed without a thought.
I’ve walked upon the rows of headstones at the National Cemetery of the Pacific overlooking Honolulu. I’ve laid upon the sands below the guns of Battery Randolph, a shore battery on Oahu’s south coast near Waikiki Beach. I’ve crouched in the corner of a pillbox overlooking the eastern shore, imagining the many pillboxes that dot the entire Pacific Rim and the soldiers whose jobs were to defend the coastlines from these tiny concrete forts.
I’ve driven the hills above Pearl Harbor. Looking down, there’s no mistaking the solemn slow drift of naval vessels, American and not, all hands on deck, an austere gesture of honor as they pass the USS Arizona Memorial—where sailors and marines who went down with the ship are still entombed under water.
I’ve made my silent saunter through marble crosses at the American cemetery at Fort Bonifacio, Philippines. I’ve imagined myself as I sweat around Singapore’s War Memorial Park, transported back in time as one of my forebears, a scared local as imperial Japanese forces advanced on the island colony.
When I moved to Chicago, I found myself surrounded by memorials to earlier American sacrifices—Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Graceland and Rosehill cemeteries, names etched on brass and stone in suburban town and village squares.
Cemeteries amplify the real meaning of Memorial Day. At its core is a commemoration of death.
Here, among the crosses, the Stars of David, the crescents of Islam, the ranks, the names, is death.
Magnified at these burial grounds, traipsing through the rows of stone, you’re forced to face the individuality of sacrifice. Each plot of earth is one person. Each plot of earth is one life snuffed.
For each man and woman felled by war, someone at home had to wait to hear of the felling, to hear the words that dares conclude a life.
There are two breaths at this moment. The breath of our lives moving ahead as God intended, followed by the breath from which is stolen an essence of someone who is part of us.
It is within these two breaths, that gasp between, where the sacrifice is paramount.
That gasp is where the horror is most real as the finality of someone’s death is handed down—and the realization that sacrifice of one has become the shared sacrifice of many.
That gasp is what I choose to commemorate this and each Memorial Day. It is the gasp that reminds me that the loss to war is more than the sacrifice of one, but rather affects us all.