“You Working on Memorial Day?”
I’ve been finding myself at local hospital morgues nearly every day for the past month and today was no different. I parked my car behind the hospital in the little parking space that they have set aside for us funeral directors … a space where the dead are out of view from the living. I backed up to the ramp, put my car in park, pulled out my stretcher, punched the passcode into the security lock and parked my stretcher in front of the morgue door. From there, I took the long walk from the back of the hospital, through the halls and to the front, where I happened to pass the security guard. Usually he’s in his office, but today I must have caught him returning from fulfilling one of his many duties.
“You’ll be seeing me in a moment”, I said as I pass him along the hall. He’s responsible for opening the morgue and – if he’s feeling up for it — helping me with the transfer.
He’s about 35 years old. Nice. Professional guy. Takes his job seriously.
He stops the conversation that he’s having with a pretty nurse, turns around and starts walking with me to the lab that holds the paper work I have to fill out to officially release the body from the care of the hospital.
“I’ll let the lab staff know that I’m aware you’re here so they don’t have to page me.”
He lets them know, and starts his walk back to the morgue while I fill out the necessary paper work for the release.
I walk back and he’s at the morgue door waiting for me.
“Do you want some gloves, sir?” he asks.
I’m 30 years old, but I look more like 25ish. He’s probably 35. “Why would he call me ‘sir’?” I think to myself. This honorific was so natural for him too Pondering it a little more I suspect I know why, so I probe.
“You have the weekend off?” I ask.
“Yup.” He replies.
“You working Memorial Day?”
“Nope. Sittin at home, by myself, remembering.”
Feeling pretty confident that I’ve figured out why the whole “sir” thing was so natural for him, I ask my next question based on an assumption: “Are most of your co-workers ex-military?”
“Yes, sir.” He says. “Our boss is ex-army and hires us veterans.”
I reply: “Going from military to security is probably an easy transition for you guys.”
“Not for me. I was trained to take lives not save ‘em.”
At this point, the conversation moves from small talk to real talk. He’s starting to get personal and I can tell he wants me to know who and what he is.
“I’m an ex-marine. I was on the front lines of the first wave of infantry when we invaded Iraq.”
Out of the blue, without me probing, he say, “Lost some good fuckin friends.” In the morgue, in the context of death, he felt comfortable enough to show his raw emotions. It’s a sad testament to the difficulty of serving in the military when a young man of 35 feels this comfortable … this at home around death.
I lost a great uncle in World War II (who I obviously never knew), I lost a childhood friend in Iraq, but I’ve never served in the Military. I’ve attended a hundred military funeral services, some at Military Cemeteries and a half dozen at Arlington Cemetery, but I’ve never lost a close friend. My dad and cousin have blown taps for hundreds of veterans at their interment, but none of those veterans were my immediate family.
I know enough to know that while Memorial Day has significance for our nation, it doesn’t have the same significance for me as it does for this young man.
We pulled the body out of the morgue. I looked him in the eyes as I draped the cover over the corpse lying on my stretcher and I asked “What are you doing on Monday?” Tears started to well up in his eyes, so I pulled back any more questions.
He paused. Gathered himself. Looked at the ground and shook his head. Years removed from war, his emotion was still raw, and he struggled to constrain it.
I knew what he was saying. I’ve heard it said a thousand times. No words, but enough to say what you’re feeling.
After he gathered himself, and I listened for a couple minutes, it was time for me to go.
He helped me down the ramp to my car. I reached out my hand, shook his hand and said, “Thank you for your sacrifice.”
“I’d do it again”, he said.
This Memorial Day I’ll be remembering him as he sits in his house and remembers the ever haunting ghosts that will torment his life. I will remember and memorialize the sacrifice this young man has given as he carries the burdens of those who passed before their time.
We should remember that military deaths can also take the lives of those left alive.