My experience with this type of loss is limited, and I cannot expand on the words of a Military Wife and Mother as she describers one of the most famous modern pictures of the grief of a widow as she stays with her husband’s body on the night before his burial.
It is the one and only photo that makes me cry each time I see it. What brings the tears to my eyes is not just the bereaved young woman, but the Marine who stands behind her. In an earlier photo in the series, we see him building her a little nest of blankets on the air mattress. Sweet Lord, I cry just typing the words, the matter-of-fact tenderness is so overwhelming. So soldierly. But in this photo — the one that lives on and on online — he merely stands next to the coffin, watching over her. It is impossible to be unmoved by the juxtaposition of the eternal stone-faced warrior and the disheveled modern military wife-turned-widow, him rigid in his dress uniform, her on the floor in her blanket nest, wearing glasses and a baggy T-shirt, him nearly concealed by shadow while the pale blue light from the computer screen illuminates her like God’s own grace.
I believe this photo has had such a long viral life not just because it is so honest but also because it is so modern. During a spouse’s deployment, your laptop is your battle buddy. Your sense of connection and emotional well-being is sustained via e-mail, Facebook, Skype and Instagram. It appears, per Lieutenant Cathey’s widow, that the same is true even in a time of loss. This heartbreaking — and groundbreaking — photo showcases the intersection of technology and agony.
That photo has an equally poignant companion in the same series, a view from the civilian side, wherein Lieutenant Cathey’s coffin is being unloaded from the cargo hold of a commercial airplane in Reno, Nev., as the passengers look on through the windows. You can practically read the thoughts on their solemn faces: “Who is that?” “What if that were my son or daughter?” “I can’t imagine what his family must be feeling.” “How sad” or “How noble.” I would bet you every penny I have that not one of them was thinking, “When the hell is this going to be over so we can get off this thing?” Two parents lost their son, a wife lost her husband, an unborn child lost his father, and a handful of average citizens saw just how seriously the military treats a fallen warrior’s final trip home.
On one hand, you could view this as a perfect representation of how the majority of civilians are cosseted from the atrocities of war — they’re in the comfy, climate-controlled cabin, untouched by tragedy and free to move on, to gather their luggage, head on home, and forget about it. On the other hand, you could view it as I do: a stunning moment that makes clear our connectivity. They all took that journey together, and on that airport tarmac, the much-discussed gap between civilians and the military was closed, a bond forever fused by the passengers’ bearing witness to the final stage of a sacrifice that was both foreign to them and for them.
I believe that the civilian-military gap isn’t always born of indifference, but rather, at times, a sense of helplessness on the civilian side. What can I do? If you do nothing else, you can remember those who have given their lives for their country. Our country. Remembrance, which may seem a modest contribution in the moment, is a sacred act with long-term payoff — a singularly human gift that keeps on giving, year after war-fatigued year. I don’t need to remind you that America’s sons and daughters are still dying in combat. I don’t want to browbeat you into feeling guilty for not doing more. Instead, I want to tell you that as the wife of a veteran, it is tremendously meaningful to know that on this Memorial Day, civilians will be bearing witness and remembering in their own way — that those who are gone are not forgotten. I also want to say that as you remember them, we remember you.
Lily Burana is the author of “I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love War and Other Battles” (Weinstein Books). Her husband, a former soldier, is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
I couldn’t edit a word from Lily’s powerful prose. There really is nothing more one can say.
Remember on Memorial Day 2012