Last year, he was gone; across the sea & around the world. And this year, he came home. Just over a month ago, he walked off that airplane & back onto American soil. Which means many things, like Jason’s Deli & Downy fabric softener & the occasional Snickers bar & kisses from his wife. But really, it means one thing in particular: freedom.
He hasn’t talked a lot about life over there. Sure, the meals & the sightings & the sirens & the packages have come out in conversation. And I haven’t asked many questions. I know the stories will come out someday. He’ll see a watermelon & remember this one time, because, did you know?, apparently there is a lot of watermelon over there. But in the meantime, as we are adjusting to life together once again & basking in the bliss that comes after such a long separation, we haven’t forgotten. The friends. The fathers. The mothers & sons & daughters & children that are still over there. Still fighting. Still waiting for their this one time story to be told. Because for them that will mean American soil & freedom, too.
And this July 4th, as we tip our hats to Uncle Sam in the community parade; as we set up the slip-n-slide for the energetic little ones & feast on red velvet cake & freshly grilled hamburgers, as we eat our own watermelons, I’d like to remember them.
The ones that are still over there. The soldiers. The friends & fathers; mothers & sons & daughters & children that have left a spot empty at the picnic table, an extra shirt at the family reunion, and a rolled up sleeping bag at the yearly summer campout. The ones still risking, still sleepless, & still homesick.
And in the two souls that exist in this tiny little apartment, amidst the celebrating & ‘thank you’s’ & “WELCOME HOME!” signs, we haven’t ignored the presence of the chance that he wasn’t going to come home at all. I carried around a power of attorney, a contact list, & his burial wishes in my purse for an entire year, tucked lovingly right behind my monthly gift receipts.
And so I’d like to remember them, too. The ones who won’t ever come home. The ones who died yesterday, last month, last year, last century. The ones who fought brothers & crossed state lines; who sailed oceans & scaled beaches. Those ones. The friends. The fathers. The sons & daughters.
The ones who, instead of leaving an empty stop at the picnic table, left an empty hole in the family tree.
I forget about those ones.
And you know who else I forget about?
The people. The people in that place called ‘over there.’ The ones who grow the watermelon. The ones who are part of the this one time stories, who will never have faces or identities to me or you aside from the sporadic sightings on the nightly news, but who are very much ALIVE. Those are the others I forget about.
They don’t have community parades or slip-n-slides or Independence Day barbecue’s. They don’t know what it’s like, this freedom gig.
And so, this July Fourth, instead of just celebrating OUR Independence Day, we’ll be doing something a bit unconventional: we’ll be praying for theirs. That’s why they are fighting, after all. That’s why our fathers & friends & children leave, pack their bags, wipe their tears & trudge onward. That’s why we hold prayer vigils & light candles & wear yellow ribbons & post “Support Our Troops” on the billboards & posters & bumper stickers. It’s why Aunt June’s quilting ladies get together to organize toothpaste drives & Uncle Harold’s church sends boxes of used playing cards from 1965. It’s why first grade classes write letters asking if they’ve seen Santa and if their guns are real or if they just shoot marshmallows. And it’s why we, the ones they leave behind, stand & wave goodbye with tears & smiles & miles of prayer. They, the watermelon-growing-sporadic-appearing LIVES are why.
And that’s why,
over there is why,
watermelon is why,
WE are why some of them never come home.