Mon May 29th, 2006 at 03:15:31 AM EST
I posted this last year at another site, and hope you don't mind me posting it here. It is Memorial day here in the US, and just the other day I found out I have a new name to add to my list of remembrance. So on this day, I feel I'd like to again share this story among friends.
Today we honor the dead, particularly those who have died in war. We are now, and have been for too many years, in a time of war. As casualties mount on all sides, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep perspective and not become overwhelmed -- one hundred; one thousand; one hundred thousand dead -- my mind cannot or will not understand these numbers.
I can only comprehend one.
One person whose life has ended, whose family is grieving, and who lives now only in memory. It is only through hearing the stories of each of these individuals that the numbers are made real, not as a lump sum, but as an accumulation of ones. We owe it to them and to our society to read, hear, and tell their stories.
I'm glad I don't have one of those stories to tell you. I count myself incredibly fortunate that no one close to me has died in military combat. But I have suffered loss and grief -- more than is natural at my age.
I've had loved ones die far too young of AIDS, drugs, and violence. I've seen some struggle with illness, hunger, and unemployment. Some have prevailed and others have died. Some fought until the end and others ended it themselves. Having witnessed the fights, I don't know which end took more courage.
But I'm not going to tell one of those stories right now. I'm going to tell you about my grandmother. There is nothing particularly unique or shocking or tragic about her life or her death. She lived to a good age and died of a fairly common illness. She served in the Women's Land Army in Scotland during World War II. She emigrated twice to the United States, once as a child right before the Great Depression, and again as a divorcee with a child of her own.
And yet her life was filled with struggle and hardship. She was a strong woman and incredibly hardworking. When I look back at her life -- at everybody's life -- the thing I know to be true is that life is never easy. Even the luckiest and most privileged experience pain. There is suffering enough without malicious legislation and a punitive justice system.
And even without war and violence, death comes as an unbearable shock. In such a world, mercy is to be cherished above all else and even the smallest act of kindness is a gift beyond price.
When my grandmother died, I felt stunned and humbled somehow -- inadequate to the task of grieving in any proper, fitting, or acceptable manner. She had been both the youngest and the last one left of a large, particularly vivid, brood of Scottish immigrants. I couldn't help but feel that the whole American, sanitized, Forest Lawn funeral experience was all wrong.
I felt that my gran would have liked to have been laid out in the parlor if we had one, and to have had a big, drunken wake around her. I think she would have liked singing and dancing and arguing. Perhaps a fist fight. Certainly she would have enjoyed a denouncement or two, and someone telling someone never to darken their doorway again.
Then, the next day, a tearful, hungover reconciliation over her grave. Simple words recited while clutching handfuls of dirt. Maudlin reflections and self-recrimination on the way home -- my gran's perfect funeral.
But I felt no urge to attempt any of this, merely noted that it should be so. These were my thoughts as I sat on the metal folding chair at the astro-turf graveside, surveying my family and quietly accepting that there were none of us left suitable to the task. We came to the New World and had no fight left in us -- the worst insult my gran's family could bestow.
Worse, it was August in Los Angeles and where we should have had sodden earth, driech sky, and the damp in our bones, we were itchy in our black and sweating in the glinting heat. I felt my shoulders becoming sunburned and was irritated that I had thoughts of the ozone layer and melanoma.
The only things that seemed proper were my crazy uncle -- standing off to the side refusing to sit or speak, trying to radiate his rage to the group -- and the bagpiper. We'd had the good sense to arrange for a piper to play Amazing Grace at the end of the service. This arrangement was specific with a set time allotted and a certain cost per song. We could afford the one.
Somehow a miracle happened. Perhaps the piper took pity on us. Perhaps he heard the Scottish accents of the old people giving the eulogy or was moved by the creaky, a capella version of a forgotten Scottish folk song that my family sang but, whatever the reason, the piper played Amazing Grace and then carried on.
He played the other appropriate hymns, old ones that Americans don't know, about death and dying on foreign soil and longing for moors and heather-soft hills. He went from there even further back to the traditional laments -- long, ancient songs with no words nor much melody. Keening, wailing songs played for centuries on blood-soaked soil.
For the longest time, the skirl of the pipes scourged the manicured rows of Forest Lawn, gaining in volume and filling the air with the primitive sounds of loss and rage.
It was perfect and I'll be forever grateful to the man. He salvaged the whole, dismal affair.
Of course, being Scots, we didn't tip him or thank him in any way. There was a brief discussion about this and it was decided that if he knew the auld songs, he might know the auld ways and no one wanted to risk insulting or cheapening his gift by implying that we thought it could be bought or that words were in any way adequate.
Someone mentioned that he was probably raised American and wouldn't know this, but someone else rejected that notion -- it would've been different if we could've offered the piper a wee drop or a cuppa but we were in Forest-bloody-Lawn and if he didn't know the auld ways he damn well had no business playing the auld songs and that was that.
Everyone trudged off quite happy -- our uncomfortable gratitude slightly ameliorated by a twinge of resentment at the piper for having put a grieving family in such a situation -- as if we didn't have enough on our plates without having to worry about the feelings of some bugger who made his living off the dead. Better, here was proof we had a little fight left in us. At least enough to get us home.
That piper gave us an incredible gift and he'll probably never know what it meant. In our endeavors here to end the war, change public policy, and draw attention to the issues, it is easy to lose heart. When we remember the lost and the fallen, let's not forget that a large part of honoring the dead is to provide solace and hope to the living.
In remembrance of my loved ones: Sarah, Magnus, Helen, Bob, Sandy, Billy and Margaret, who got to live their full measure of time on this earth.
And Tom, Paul, Courtney, Michael, David, Dennis, Paige, Rob, Shannon, Pat, Gerardo, Claude, Donnie, Kim, Rick, Mark, Craig, Tony, Cecily, and Alex, whose deaths were hastened, worsened, or caused by our politics.
If not for our drug prohibition policies, our willful ignoring of AIDS in its early years, our lack of medical care for the uninsured, and the absence of a safety net, some of these would be with us still.
With all my heart I wish them to be in a kinder, more merciful place.