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“Thanks for your service.”

I’ve said this on occasion to soldiers in uniform that have crossed my path, and most of them seemed to appreciate it.

But I just found out that some veterans actually hate to hear those words, particularly on Memorial Day. Hearing the words, “thanks for your service,” conjures memories of fallen comrades.

In some cases, even saying, “Happy Memorial Day” to a veteran can strike a painful nerve. “It’s not happy,” said Rene Kicklighter, 37, who retired from the Army National Guard. “It’s somber. I try to flip the lens on the conversation a bit and gently remind them what it’s really about.”

Along these lines, a handshake is a friendly greeting that’s meant to be welcoming. The problem is, as this doctor reminds us, shaking hands is an effective way of transmitting germs, so he’s started a “hand-shake free zone” in his hospital.

We intend something positive and it ends up as a negative.

As hard as it is for those of us who want to express our appreciation, sometimes saying nothing is the highest form of respect. A nod to a stranger who has served, or a hand on the shoulder of a friend might be the best way to convey the message on this solemn, sacred day.

To those we’ve lost in the service of our country, I respectfully offer an homage with this moment of silence.

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For every cause, there is a backlash. Express dismay at the killing of African lions, and you will inevitably hear, “Who cares about lions? What about the poor?” Express compassion for immigrants, and someone in the crowd will doubtless pipe up, “Forget about immigrants! What about our veterans?” Whatever cause one takes up, whichever banner one chooses to fly, someone out there is ready to criticize.

As if there isn’t enough love and concern for everyone. As if human caring had limitations, a “use-by” date, or came in tiny bottles that could never be refilled. The truth is that God is love, unlimited love, and God courses this love through us and to us, to be sent out of ourselves and into the world in great gushing floods. There is no using up love.

There is also no limit on suffering. People suffer — children, the elderly, all races, all creeds. Animals suffer. The environment suffers. At times, it can seem overwhelming. That is where God comes in.

God has given each one of us finely tuned sensitivities toward certain sufferings. Some of us feel keenly for animals. Others feel a bond with those suffering from a particular disability, physical or mental. The point is, there are no wrong answers. Just because your neighbor chooses an interest in politics as a means of social change while you would rather help out at the soup kitchen doesn’t make either of you less than. All caring is important. And all means of caring — whether it’s hands-on or in the silence of prayer — matters.

Instead of chiding one another, why not celebrate the diversity of caring, the multiplicity of channels for the outpouring of love? In the end, we all have the same goal in mind: the betterment of the world. That’s good. That’s what our mission on earth is, as human beings. We are meant to love, built to love. And no two persons are going to do it in quite the same way.

And that’s okay.

I’m sorry. I’m writing to you today, not knowing where (or even if) you are living. I hope you are. I hope things turned out well for you, that you got clean, had a family of your own, sought help for your demons. I was just a child then, and I suppose I didn’t know any better. But I’ve been holding this apology in for a long, long time.

I remember when your parents borrowed my dad’s reel-to-reel cassette player. You had recorded a message for them from Vietnam, where you were fighting. You were probably just a kid yourself. Then, you came home. Neighborhood gossip said you’d picked up a heroin habit during your tour of duty. I watched you sit outside, on your parents’ front lawn, in your green flak jacket and play your guitar. And I was terrified of you.

I thought you might kidnap me and force me to take drugs, and then I would jump out a window to my death like Art Linklater’s daughter did. I didn’t know she was actually sober at the time, that Linklater had lied about her death because suicides can’t be buried in Catholic cemeteries. I believed in “Go Ask Alice,” and the “Blueboy” episode of Dragnet, where kids who took drugs just once ended up dead or burbling idiots.

You were just a young man who had seen too much, too soon, and if you shot up or smoked pot to cope, who were we to judge? Heck, you may not even remember me. Let me remind you: I was the little girl who, on her way home from kindergarten class, caught sight of you and immediately began running, as if you were evil incarnate. I’m certain I looked frightened. And what had you ever done to me? I remember dreading that you might be outdoors, scared that I wouldn’t see you until too late. You were my childhood bogeyman.

Would it have changed things for you if I had stopped and smiled? If I’d listened to your music? Did you notice me, and if you did, did it hurt you? For a long time, I’ve been sure it did. For that, I am sorry. You fought for our country and came home to an atmosphere that was solidly set against you. I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that you were just another kid trying to figure things out the best he could. I didn’t know how badly you must have been hurting, to use drugs as a coping mechanism. No one talked about PTSD in those days.

If you are out there somewhere, please hear me: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I’m sorry. I wish I had been kind to you.

Perhaps this apology means nothing to you or to anyone. But I needed to do it, for the good of my own soul. I’ve prayed for you many times since those days. Wherever you are, I wish you peace. Please forgive me.

 

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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