I graduated from High School on a Memorial Day Sunday. The weekend, like most of my graduations, was a blur of activities. Strangely, what I remember most was the dogs running away. Smokey Joe and Lucy Patty decided that they needed some alone time and took off. So in between parties and other activities we were searching for the two.
It was one of those things that could have ruined what would have otherwise been a really nice time. But Smokey had this tendency, and since he was joined by Lucy these trips got longer, and they always turned up. And eventually they did. I could not help but laugh when I sat down to write this week’s letter and that was the first thing that popped into my mind!
But I think when I think of Memorial Day I think there is something iconic that is connected to the fear of something bad happening to the family dogs and trying to continue to live. In 2011 I bid farewell to my dog Calvin. Calvin had been with me since I had started in the ministry; well, technically beforehand. She was not just a companion and a friend, she had a very important job: to keep me alert while driving. At the time I got her, I was serving a yoked parish in North Carolina where the churches were an hour apart.
She did her job and then some. She also never ran away! Though she played me often running just so far that I could not catch her but not far enough that I could not see her. She loved that game, I did not. When Calvin died it was at a streak of a lot of people who passed that I dearly loved. As a pastor, when people allow, you can get very close to members and over the year-and-a-half prior to Calvin dying, I had lost the largest number of members I ever had to death, many times while sitting at their bedsides or consoling their families.
Every time someone died I felt the pain and that gut-wrenching feeling that overwhelmed me. Thankfully, I had a role and a job, and I dutifully followed and most of the time even made it through services without crying, a skill that, for the record gets harder, not easier with age. When Calvin died, I was numb, more than any surgery or anything that I had ever felt before.
I called up a counselor friend and asked what I should make of the fact that I was grieving so much for my dog, and this is what he said: “You are grieving for Calvin, but you’re also grieving for a lot of other things including everything and everyone you have lost before, and because we’re not taught to grieve we really don’t deal with it well.” He went on, but I immediately understood what he was saying. Often we are taught to grieve and move on. Unfortunately, that means that often we are left hollow inside and sometimes even afraid of accepting the loss and death itself.
This brings us back to Memorial Day. Originally it was a day to remember the lives lost in the Civil War (then called Decoration Day). Its purpose was to allow people to remember the lives of those who were lost at war. Later becoming Memorial Day, it is set aside to remember all of the military who have died while serving. However, today while many have forgotten any connection to the loss of life, others, especially in the the Christian community, make it to be a day like All Saints Day when we are called to remember all who we have lost, remembering the meaning of their lives.
I think this is a good thing, because it is important for us to remember those who have come before us. Especially the sacrifices they have made so that we can have the lives we have. But more than that it is important to remember the important people in our lives, because they are all a part of who we are, both good and bad.
Thinking back to that Memorial Day, I feared the loss of my dogs, but I was well into college by the time they actually passed. I miss them, granted, but not in the way that I miss Calvin, and definitely not in the way that I miss all of the saints who have touched my life. When my Grandmother died last year it was hard for me to adjust, made more difficult in many ways by various situations. What was easy was the attempts to block it out, but that only served to cause other problems. Since the beginning of this year I have spent time thinking and continually giving prayer of thanksgiving as I remember her life, and the lives of all who I have lost.
Interestingly, as I have brought these people back into my life I find that I am not as sad, but I am joyful for the role and witness they all played, especially the ones I was closest to. This Memorial Day I will ask that you take a moment for yourself and remember the important lives of those you’ve lost. Let yourself cry, let yourself laugh, and most importantly remember the importance of their lives by accepting them back into yours.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen