Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The true meaning of Christmas

Sometimes, if we are lucky, things happen to us and we know they have meaning as they are happening. This is not usually the case - typically, we understand the meaning of things much better after the fact (read: hindsight, y'all). The other night, as I was flying into Birmingham, the universe sent me one of these things. It was a big, huge Christmas package with a label that read, "Wake up and be thankful, Meghan."

First of all, it's worth noting that my flights home from NYC were not even remotely stress-free. The weather was shitty in the South that night, so flights into Atlanta - where I was catching my connecting flight - were delayed. I barely made it to my flight from Atlanta to Birmingham because my flight from NYC to Atlanta was so late. After running the length of the ATL airport at full speed, I made it to my gate and the air traffic controllers graciously agreed to open the plane door and let me on.

The flight from Atlanta to Birmingham is ridiculously short, and after we landed, the pilot came over the cabin speakers and informed us that there was a fallen soldier on our plane. It took a few seconds for the meaning of this to set in, then my hand shot up to my mouth and tears welled in my eyes. He asked us to please remain seated out of respect for the soldier and his family. Then something bizarre happened. I started crying, and I couldn't stop.

I hate crying in public. In fact, I hate crying in front of anyone. If I cry in front of you, it means that we are somehow intimately involved. You are either my mom or my dad, or my boyfriend, or my best friend in the whole world. But when I looked out the window and saw the soldiers lined up at attention, saluting and waiting for the flag-covered casket to roll out of the belly of our plane, I stopped caring that a bunch of strangers could see me. Something clicked in my brain and I was suddenly very aware that sometimes life is hard, and things are fucking sad, and emotions are inevitable.






















After we sat there for about five minutes, the pilot came back on and gave us the OK to deboard the plane. The casket still had not come out, but people slowly started gathering their things and making their way to the exit. I had been sitting on the side of the plane opposite the ceremony, so I crossed over and sat in a window and watched. I debated for a while whether or not to take (and then publish) photos of what was going on, because it was obviously a really personal thing I was watching. I decided to go ahead and take them, because I'm a blogger and that's what I do. I blog about things that affect me; and nothing has affected me quite as much as seeing what I saw that night.

It took a while, but eventually the casket rolled out of the cargo area of the plane. It was draped in an American flag and wrapped in plastic. I looked over to the family, standing to the left of what you see in the photo above, and a woman I assume was the mother had her hand to her mouth and was crying. A younger girl - the soldier's sister, maybe - had her arms around her. There were a few other family members there, too.





















As I watched all this happening, through a thick layer of tears and a couple layers of even thicker airplane windows, I realized I had never seen anything so tragic in my life. I felt like I was watching a movie, except that this was very, very real. This person really fought in a war - one of two that our country is currently involved in - and really died. And now the family really has to go through Christmas without him. And they will really never see this person again. This person made the ultimate sacrifice, and all I could ask myself as I watched the soldiers pick up the casket and carry it toward the hearse was, For what?

My dad is in the military. He has been my whole life. Luckily he ranks high enough to where he's not active in combat zones - and I thanked the universe for that as I watched the ceremony - but even with a close family member in the military, I still found myself asking, Why are our people dying over there? What are they protecting us from? What are these wars even about?

The thing that initially struck me about the fallen soldier was not the profound sacrifice he made to better the average citizen's existence in America - it was the even more profound tragedy that, ultimately, his death was mostly in vain. If it was my son or brother or father in that casket, I would not feel any comfort from the knowledge that he died for a good cause. I'm not saying I don't support the troops, because I do - I do support them, precisely because they need it more than ever, because they are fighting in a meaningless war that should have ended years and years ago.

When I got in bed that night, I started thinking about the soldier's family going home and holding each other, knowing that 2009 would forever be remembered as the year their son or brother or grandson died. I asked the universe, as fervently as I could, to please give my entire heart to that family, because I felt like I didn't need it anymore. I offered them every bit of love left in my heart, because who could possibly need it more than a family who lost their loved one to a fruitless war a week before Christmas?

And then, there in the palpable still of an Alabama night, I realized that this person had not died in vain at all. Everyone on that plane who stayed to watch the ceremony - we were all affected by the profound sadness of what had happened to this soldier whose name none of us knew. It made us all think and feel things we probably wouldn't have thought or felt otherwise, and be more grateful for what we have. Even in my darkest hour, I still give thanks that I am alive, and so are all the people I love. I came home on a plane, wrapped in depression and homesickness and exhaustion from a city that is beating me down, but I can be thankful I didn't come home wrapped in a box and a flag, symbolic of everything and nothing at the same time.

To my fallen soldier's family, and to all the families of all the soldiers who will come home in a similar fashion: My thoughts and prayers are always with you. Prior to last week, I'm ashamed to say I never really thought about the sacrifices you make; now, I will think about them everyday. You are not alone, and for as long as these wars go on - and as long as I am lucky enough to keep breathing - I will dedicate my heart every Christmas to the people who have made the ultimate sacrifice, remembering with acute clarity how I felt when I saw the family of my fallen soldier standing outside on a clear, cold Southern night.

29 comments:

  1. I think I would have reacted the same... Witnessing something so personal and tragic , brings everything into perspective.. and its a shame something like that has to give us a wakeup call ...truly humbling...

    ReplyDelete
  2. So amazingly well-written. This is beautiful...it's too bad his family can't read it. Or who knows...maybe one of them will.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This was a beautiful post that people needed to read.

    ReplyDelete
  4. In Astoria, I was walking to the gym one day and saw a flag draped coffin being taken out of a hearse and into the Catholic church that's on my way. I stopped and waited quietly until the soldiers had brought the casket into the the church. It was really, really sad. And yes, it brought me some much needed perspective at the time too.

    Beautiful piece, M.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I hope you realize how many lives you will change with this experience. I come from a military family and have had to live with the realization that friends will never come home again. That family and friends have given their lives for wars we shouldn't be fighting. Thank you for posting this. Thank you for being so openly honest about this moment in your life.

    ReplyDelete
  6. A nice contrast to the somewhat snarky (but very funny) post that precedes this. The story is intrinsically touching and beautifully told. I particularly like the line, "there, in the palpable still of an Alabama night..."

    ReplyDelete
  7. OH my goodness. I hope you don't mind, but I am posting this to my page on FaceBook.

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Nathanael-R-Bodon/219551653568?ref=ts

    I can't say how grateful I am that I made it home from Iraq alive. When I touched down in Atlanta, I actually got emotional because I was so happy to be home. My heart goes out to this soldier, my brother-in-arms, and his family.

    Thank you for posting.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I was wondering what you would think of this, Nathanael. I didn't want to come across like I don't support what you do, because I do. Just a very tragic thing all-around.

    I'm glad you liked it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. What a heartbreaking yet heartwarming post. Whether or not one supports the war, we should all support our soldiers and their families. If anyone is interested, I work with the people who made Perfect Valor, a film about the heroes who took Fallujah. You can find out more here: http://bit.ly/PerfectValor and God Bless that family this Christmas and all the other military families throughout the world.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Amazing post.

    Last year I was flying back from somewhere, eating dinner in the terminal. There were soldiers returning from combat, a crowd, family and others greating them. As they walked by, everyone in the restaurant stood up and clapped and said thanks. I tottally cried. I'm getting misty eyed now just thinking about it.

    ReplyDelete
  11. It is writers like you that made me want to get back into blogging. Thank you for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Stopping over from Nathanael's blog...
    As an Army wife who's been through 2 deployments, I want to thank you for posting this. You're right...this was an intensely private moment for that family but more importantly, you are shining light on their sacrifice. And you have 700 followers plus everyone who will link back to this post. That's a huge impact you are making - to bring this country's eyes back to what we are losing on a daily basis. I've always felt like we (the military families) are forgotten by those not affected. It's a terrible thing to see, but I'm glad you've chosen to share it. I hope you don't mind but I'm posting this link in lieu of a blog post today because I think it is just that important. We MUST remember our soldiers and their families.

    ReplyDelete
  13. What a beautiful post. I had an experience similar to JRM. Our family was waiting at a terminal when a planeload of Marines arrived. The gate agent announced that these men were returning from combat. They walked up one ramp and down another, in view but glassed off from us. One by one, people began to clap, and many stood...and it went on for a very long time. I was holding my grandson and I couldn't stop my tears. I am glad that this happens today; I recall too well what happened to Vietnam-era soldiers.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I'm here from Allyson's blog...

    As an Army wife who has watched her husband leave for Iraq three times, and watched him return all three times, I thank you for this beautiful post!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I just found your blog through Allyson's and I wanted to thank you for sharing this experience with all of us. You definitely have made me think about things in a different light.

    ReplyDelete
  16. A beautiful tribute to a fallen soldier. And wonderful commentary about our "mission" overseas. I teach at a school that is very close to the Pentagon, so many of our students are from military families. It's been interesting to me over the last 8 years to see the tide of opinion about these wars turn, even among those so close to the soldiers who are serving. If you don't mind, I'd like to post a link to this post tomorrow. I think you've captured, for all of us, the true reason for the season. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  17. To all: Thank you so much for the extremely kind words. I'm glad I was able to bring this experience to other people through my writing. That's really what it's all about for me.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Of all the things I've read about the war, this has touched me the most. You beautifully articulated how I (and many other people) feel about these, as you wrote, fruitless wars. I feel so sad for that family. It really is a tragedy.

    I'll be linking back to this on my Facebook page. I hope that's OK. I love your blog.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I found this post this morning from Ally and read it before work. I thought about it all. day. long. and had to write a blog about it. It's a beautiful, yet so tragic reminder of what Christmas should be about. Thank you for posting this.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hi again...I've linked back to you as well on my blog. I hope that's ok. :) This is just such a wonderful piece of writing that I thought it should be shared. Happy holidays!

    ReplyDelete
  21. Thank you so much for sharing this. I would have lost it as you did seeing this and experiencing this. (I can't even make it through the national anthem without crying). My cousin is due to go back over to Iraq early next year, and it breaks my heart. I am crying now from reading this. We are truly blessed, and I wish nothing but safe returns for all our troops but sometimes this is the cold hard truth. Again thank you for sharing this and helping me remember what this time of year is truly about.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Thank you so much, this brought tears into my eyes.
    Let alone the utter meaninglessness of this war, many people don't even realize that actual human beings fight and die there. It's amazing how strongly you captured this very personal element.
    People need to see that casualties aren't just numbers, in the both sides.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Ce billet est magnifique, Chacun de nous y Doit Réfléchir et souhaiter à tous que l'année 2010 Apporte Sagesse et de ce fait grand bonheur.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I'm visiting from Kallay's blog, and wanted to say thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, as well as for being respectful of the family. Your pictures show your experience without infringing on their grief, something that can be very hard to balance. Your words put me right there beside you, aching for this family. My husband returned from Iraq in September, and this was a fear I lived with daily until he was on U.S. soil. I can't think of a better tribute to this service member's memory than sharing his sacrifice for others to respect and remember.

    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Wonderfully written post. However, how can you make the claim that the solider died in vain? We are at war because we were attacked by cruel, vicious people who want us dead only because we are alive. I am so truly sorry for the families who lose loved ones, but I am truly thankful that we are fighting these wars. What we need is victory and a return home. Not surrender and run.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Thank you for your words. I just found this courtesy of http://magnoliasandmimosas.blogspot.com and it meant a lot (as heart wrenching as it is), because I'm the mom of a fallen soldier (Marine) that was KIA in Afghanistan Dec. 1, 2010 so to one of your readers that said she wished his family could read this, a gold star mom just did through thick tears as you had. It's been 14 months yesterday since I lost my only child and the hurt and loss is still so fresh and this renewed my faith in the human race that people are still paying attention and care that as of yesterday we are still losing our troops over there. Thank you also for your thoughts and prayers at Christmas each year. It is hard and I feel I can speak for this fine young man's family as well. God bless you!

    ReplyDelete