In the distance, men and women in khaki camouflaged uniforms began exiting the airport terminals. They wore heavy boots and carried duffels, backpacks, and empty water bottles in their hands.
We saw my cousin Johnny before he saw us. He’d shaved off his curly hair. My aunt began to cry and shout out his name. We waved and clapped and hollered, and someone from our family said, “We should have made a sign. Why didn’t we think to make a sign?”
When he saw us, Johnny ran down the terminal exit. My aunt ran towards him, too, until they collided in a vice-like hug. The rest of the family clustered around them. When I looked into Johnny’s face, I saw he was crying.
We all took turns hugging, and then we handed him the balloons we’d brought. He looked at them, so silly, so celebratory, so colorful compared to the desert landscape of war.
“Welcome home, soldier,” my uncle said, slapping Johnny on his back.
“Where’s my sign?” he joked.
“We forgot it,” my mother said. “Some family you’ve got. We’re terrible. We’ll never be forgiven, will we?”
That was the first time he came home from war. Johnny was deployed two more times. Thankfully, he returned home safe and alive each time.
But when Johnny finally left the army, he was damaged. He had lost too many friends, too many comrades. Shadows of his life in the army, in the war, haunted him. He had trouble sleeping at night. Being in crowds. Having fun like he used to.
He was scarred by loss.
He was filled with grief.
For most Americans—myself included—Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summertime celebrations and family get-togethers. Backyard parties, swimming, barbeques, fireworks, ring toss, and coolers full of drinks. Flags lining neighborhood streets. Maybe even colorful balloons or handmade signs.
But for my cousin Johnny—and countless others—Memorial Day also marks the feeling of grief. Rows and rows of white tombstones. The sound of a brassy trumpet carried over a national cemetery.
Originally established to honor the fallen in the Civil War, Memorial Day expanded to include all those our nation lost in numerous wars, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also known as Decoration Day, this holiday commemorates those lost by decorating the gravestones with flowers and flags.
This Memorial Day, loss is all around us. Though not a war, COVID-19 marks our nation as forever changed. And as a nation, we are experiencing we the emptiness and grief it has caused.
Social distancing practices are still in place, and holiday parades honoring the great sacrifices of military personnel and veterans are canceled. For some Americans, there will be no family dinners or backyard barbeques, their states still quarantined.
The losses we feel as a nation are not just physical or emotional, but financial as well. Our nation is grieving immeasurable, insurmountable economic calamity. How can anyone find financial wellness at this time when our nation’s leaders warn Americans this could be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to damage the country’s shutdown will cause?
As a financial wellness company that provides Earned Wage Access (EWA) to over one million workers every month, PayActiv wants to encourage employers and employees across America that they are not forgotten or enduring their overwhelming sense of loss in isolation. And though this Memorial Day might feel less joyous than holidays that have gone before, it is a chance to slow down and experience gratitude of what we haven’t lost—whether that is a home-cooked family dinner or being able to meet our bills on time thanks to EWA.
On this Decoration Day, our decorations might not be flowers or flags on graves. We might choose to honor loss in another way: volunteering at a shelter, supporting local businesses, and thanking military personnel, essential workers, and other heroes of our nation. As for myself, I will be thinking of my cousin Johnny, who is day-by-day overcoming the traumas of war, in part because of his wife and two daughters, and a freshly sprouted garden in the backyard.
Such small joys should be celebrated.
Perhaps with a handful of balloons or a handmade sign.
Much like those taped to our windows and created with sidewalk chalk during the COVID-19 crisis. Not quite the words, “Welcome Home, Soldier,” but the sentiment is still the same: “You are not alone. You are not forgotten.”