Happy Memorial Day

I’m not going this year.

Down in the valley, valley so low, hang your head over and hear the wind blow across Tahoma, the nearest national cemetery where a friend I failed to meet lies under the green, green grass near home, no longer waiting for anyone. His family will go there today, regardless of his attention. I know this because I’ve gone, years past, leaving trinkets of memory atop his stone only to see them disappear more promptly than graveyard staff could account for. That was me, stalking the already stopped.

But not today. My desk – stained through and leaking grief like battery acid – is full, drawers slammed; not yet safely accessible. A couple of years sounds like ample time, but these past two encompassed losses of both parents and my bighearted bitch. I’m not caught up – falling behind, in fact – and the longer I quail away from looking, the harder it gets to open that drawerful of overdue bills. Now I just wait, avoidantly anxious, for the whole recording edifice to rot through its bottom and slew out across the floor. When it sucks off a shoe midstride: that’s when I’ll deal with it.

Should be fine.

In the meantime, I’m out here in the gym. Or shop. Or garage. Whatever you want to call it, other than “man cave.” I don’t hide out here. Everyone’s invited.

Most keep their distance. Not sure why.

Gym is where I bury memory, like bones for later, including the memory of gyms. No sense to that. Let me explain.

I know the bar is the same weight it always was. The plates are the same thickness, diameter, density, specific gravity… yet somehow managed to become heavier. On chest days, 225 is my max set, not my middle set. The body in my mirror is bigger, but also fluffier. My hair is longer than it’s ever been, which still feels new, but it’s also thin over my forehead. That doesn’t feel nearly as new as it did five years ago.

When I’m in there, grinding away not as hard as I should, I randomly remember faces from long ago: Looch, the motor sergeant from New Jersey with Mafia ambitions; Willy, the angry redneck who never served; a gorgeous black sergeant I once pulled CQ with, whose name I’ve forgotten and whose lips I never will (she went on to date my roommate and break, if not my heart, at least my ego); Hisashi, at least the second-smartest kid in school and that was pretty impressive, considering Alyson; the literally evilest woman I’ve personally known, whom I’ve never entirely managed to fall out of love with; a couple of one-legged Marines; a tiny terp with the heart of a lion; shop and music teachers; a magic store owner; the buxom minion of a disgraced pol, who went on to help tear down American democracy; murderers and saviors and geniuses and dumbasses and all of them – every last one – a dot of paint soaking into the canvas of time, fading like the color of whiskers in my mirror. I still wonder what they’re doing, but also I pause to wonder whether they’re dead.

Or maybe how dead they are. There’s an age beyond which statistical inevitability comes in like the tide. You can stand and drown, or retreat up the beach, but eventually there comes a high tide for every cohort and we’re the grandparents now, most of us – in chronology, whether or not in genealogy. We’re touched by cancer, by heart disease, by tremors and cachexia and diabetes of one number or another. We’re on hormone treatments or anti-hormonal treatments, beating back that tide with whatever stick we can grab.

My stick is a 45-lb. bar, which just happens to weigh about 65 lbs. now, but that’s okay. Unlike an increasingly significant number of my fellow motorcyclists, service members, tradesmen, minor criminals, writers, farmhands, circuit designers, and instructors, I’m still pulling breath for now. It’s a great privilege. I’m trying to enjoy it and, at long last, mostly succeeding.

I’ve been bitter about Memorial Day before; confused, too. In the midst of life, we are in death. Why don’t those idiot DJs and marketers understand the somberness of this day of remembrance? And then I remember that one of my unexpected privileges was the chance to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, precisely one day before the raucous, nationwide party that is Independence Day, in a country that’s fought about a dozen wars despite being no older than our air force.

In the tide of death, we are in life. I don’t have enough energy left to lavish it out on resentment. My mother went to her grave resenting lost opportunities and those who failed her in one way or another, certainly including yours truly, and I just can’t envy that. These days we have, my friend, and they will surely end. We’ll sing and dance… and then we’ll go away.

This weekend, I got to roll around in the grass with my four-year-old granddaughter, pretending to be a monster or to flee a monster (it’s not entirely clear which). I got to look at real estate with my best true love, and make plans for an uncertain future that we keep betting on together. I got to help plan and invite dear people to a memorial for my mother, because one of her best lessons was that memories matter. Life is made of them: both the memories, and the people who make them with you.

Sacrilege in America is wishing someone a “happy Memorial Day.” This is a sacred holiday, built on grief and purchased with pain, and there’s no shortage of scolds and hall monitors to remind you of that. Yes, their numbers have included me, but no matter how true that was, it doesn’t describe the me I’m coming to know.

Today, while running through the PT assignments for a disintegrating hip, I remembered that I’ve meant to respond to an invitation to my high school class reunion. It’s set for September, which certainly feels appropriate for a 40th graduation anniversary. If someone has a sense of humor, our 50th will be held in November, perhaps at a Golden Corral with extra charging outlets for our power chairs, and our 60th in a funeral home for the general convenience.

High school was a horror show for me. I’ve never felt bullish about revisiting it, but my classmates – several of whom haven’t made it this far down the scroll of years – weren’t responsible for my disaffection with the world around me. They were in it, too. They went through it with me. I’ve no need to hold it against them that some appeared to enjoy it.

I mean, they’re not gonna talk to me, anyway.

Memories are tricky tools, useful for ordering the world around you but dangerous when misused. Today, on our nationally appointed day of remembrance, I choose to remember the gift of the lessons I’ve gotten from the people I’ve known well and poorly.

I choose to believe that there is order and purpose beyond my ability to parse it. I choose to stop blaming others for not instructing me better. All of us are slogging through it the best we can, with muddy goggles and swollen feet and bigger loads than we should tote. I no longer expect that our kids will understand that before we die, but I pray that Mom understood it before she did, and that the kids’ll understand it before they do. That’s timely enough to get the joke.

And to whom do I pray this? That’s none of your business. Apparently, it’s not mine either, but on we go, heedless and hopeful as ever.

So today I resolved to send in my box tops (wait… HOW much? Get off my lawn with those inflationary prices!), and sign up for “my” class reunion with folks I hardly knew then and will surely be embarrassed to meet again. I mean, it ain’t like I’ve changed the world. Some days, it seems like I’ve barely lived in it, but if I’ve learned one social trick in my little life it’s simply to ask as though it mattered, which it always does:


“How are you doing?”

At the end of things, an end no longer theoretical, everyone has a story and all memories matter. What did you learn? Where did you go? How did you fare?

Tell me your story. Write yourself a fresh chapter, even if it’s slow. Celebrate your life today. Memorials restricted to death are terrible deceptions. Don’t apologize for making memories with this life, the only one you can be even remotely sure of. In fact, go out and make some today.

Our dear people in the ground hold no resentments. Some had a fair go and others were cheated, and that shouldn’t leave you with guilt but with resolve. The song is always shorter than we expect. They took their turn, and were as surprised at the end as we surely will be when the music suddenly stops and there aren’t any chairs left.

Friend, do not worry. After our butts hit the floor, we’ll ride the high mountain roads together on bikes light as supernovas. We’ll loop clouds, fueled by endless promise. We’ll jump far out into clear running rivers. We’ll hoist buckets of beer at Fiddler’s Green, laugh about it all, and I promise that I will see you. I’ll finally see you true.

At our reunion.

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  1. May is the month for the poppy flag with ‘Lest We Forget’ at my house…

    Peace and Strength, my friend!

  2. Howard Crangle says

    Thank you for your reminder to make memories, written as only you can write. Thank you for the therapy through prose. Thank you for your service. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Carl Lincoln says

    Oh man! You nailed it. Again. As my Africa Twin gets heavier and taller every year; here’s to steppin off that ride and not be flung off. Cheers to my new ride; A 1982 Silver Wing with 232 [!’] miles on it, put up by a widow 40 years ago, and sold at auction to yers truly. We’ll see how this goes…..Keep em comin you rock as ever……C

  4. Marlon R Balkstra says

    The world through your eyes Jack, priceless! It’s great that we have a holiday that allows us some time to think about those who went to battle before us. Did they lose because they were taken from their loved ones before that had time to create more memories? Maybe, but I’m inclined to believe that they left behind a great legacy for their loved ones that could be hard to recreate for most. I appreciate your words Jack, they helped me to remember what Memorial Day is really all about.

    Peace brother…

    • The universe inheres in every raindrop, and all of time in a moment.

      Perhaps because I need to hold tightly onto the idea, I firmly believe that a life spent — a life lived at top speed, even for a moment — is never wasted.

  5. We are grateful for the gems discovered in the debris that your machete creates as you hack away at the jungle surrounding your desk. Your pen is like a trials bike ridden by a world champion; fascinating, inspiring, even healing as it reminds us of what we are capable of. Use that momentum to hop to the next memory boulder. Thanks for this one.

  6. You see true my brother. You see true. Thank you.

  7. Jean Maybell says

    I love reading all that you write! You inspire me to think – yes, even at this age! Thank you!!

    I encourage you to attend your 40th high school reunion. My brother, also named Jack!, went to his in 1994, and encouraged me to attend my 40th reunion a few years later. I did, and it was amazing! My husband Jon didn’t care to go, so my son John escorted me. In high school I was a ‘loner.’ I knew a lot of my fellow students, but I didn’t have a lot of friends. At the reunion, here were all these popular folks: “How are you?” “It’s so good to see you!” “What have you been doing for the past 40 years?” Back in school, these same people never would have given me the time of day! It was very interesting, and John and I had a good time. And I enjoyed sharing my experience with my dear brother Jack, and comparing notes!

    I hope you enjoy your reunion, and that you know you have influenced other lives! Thank you for influencing mine!

    • You are always kind, Jean. Thank you for being who you are.

      I went ahead and sent in my reunion registration. Pretty Wife is coming along with me. One way or another, I’ll have someone to talk with.

      Definitely not planning to golf, though.

  8. Mr. William M Treadway says

    “Live it like you stole it” because those who came back did.
    Steal it, that is.
    Nicely done.
    Re-reading your Motorcyclist stuff and giggling uncontrollably while flying home.

  9. Dustin Kassman says

    As ALS drags me closer to the big ending (or most likely in my case, the not so big ending) your words remind me that I am not dead yet.

  10. John Stockman says

    It’s a great privilege for me to still pull my own breath so I can read what you write. And make and remember the amazing memories I have. Thank you Jack!

  11. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to begin to understand my Gram’s favorite bible verse. Upon examination, it feels close to equally valid and useful for agnostics, Jew, Christians, and Muslims. It’s Psalm 118, which Gram preferred in the King James version:

    “This is the day that the Lord hath made
    Let us rejoice, and be glad in it.”

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