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.
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