Ever wonder who puts all those flags on the graves of veterans?
Like communities all across America, on Memorial Day our city holds a celebration to remember our basic values. A parade starts at the high school and ends at the cemetery where generations of citizens and soldiers end their life’s journey.
As the sun was beating down to the Sousa marches, our whole family, including my uncle John, was standing by the largest fountain, watching the parade of Little League teams, high school marching bands, Boy Scouts, and the politicians in their red, white, and blue ties.
The cemetery was beautifully prepared. The lawns were like carpet, the grass on the edge of the sidewalk was so carefully clipped, it stood at attention; the peonies, irises, and annuals colored the grounds with reds, pinks, purples, and whites. Everyone was feeling damn patriotic.
Everyone, except Uncle John. He turned to me and said, “I wasn’t always handicapped.”
“What?” I know I raised my eyebrows and wondered where this was coming from. I mean, Uncle John was never a happy person, but since he had a stroke, he was a weary soul. We hoped this celebration would lift his spirits. After all, who doesn’t like a parade?
Uncle John explained, “You know, I was an electrician. I was important, I contributed, and I worked in a great hotel for 30 years. Now I just sit here and watch life go by. I’m handicapped and useless.”
Not exactly a cheerful parade conversation but I couldn’t resist. “Uncle John, having a handicap isn’t the end of the world. Can you enjoy the parade? Look at those little kids jumping up and down on their decorated wagons.”
“You just don’t understand,” he said. “I’m not like him,” eye-pointing to Aaron.
Some Battles Can’t be Won
Since Aaron, my son with the label of autism, was sitting in the lawn chair next to Uncle John, I felt I needed to say something.
But I couldn’t find any words.
In silence, we were side-by-side, almost touching–yet thousands of miles away from each other–as we watched the veterans from the VFW pass by in antique cars.
The soldiers varied in shapes and sizes, men and women, veterans from Iraq, and Afghanistan wars to seniors of the war that would end all wars—but didn’t.
The sun reflected off the windshields, and I reflected that our society treasures antique cars which are worth more now than when new. The old model cars were spit-shined and decorated with banners. The old soldiers also wore banners, but many of their faces and bodies were worn. Did our society value them?
Some soldiers were younger than my sons, Aaron and Tommy. But, we all know their youth was shattered in the deserts and mountains of strange lands.
Some of the veterans in the parade carried the labels of “handicapped and disability.”
As the crowd cheered and waved, I had to wonder if these brave men and women would be truly accepted into our society. Would others, like Uncle John, say they were “useless”?
Would they only see the handicapping condition, would they consider these wounded warriors better than Aaron, because they were once whole? Because they were “damaged” fighting for our country?
World War II Story
As the speeches droned on, I remembered a couple of stories by Bob Perske. One where he talked about people with disabilities and the war (click here).
And another: Bob said after WWII, a family in London moved into a new neighborhood. Instead of saying their son had cerebral palsy and had the label of intellectual disability from birth, they told their neighbors, “He was gassed in the trenches of Germany.” And in a post-war era of grief and loss, that benign lie made all the difference. Instead of avoiding or shunning the family, the new neighbors welcomed their family into the community. Their attitudes were completely different.
Modern Day Attitudes
A soldier who used a wheelchair got some sort of award and the crowd clapped. I wondered if our community embraced his family, or did we just give him a token wall plaque on Memorial Day and then segregate, discriminate and ignore him the rest of the year? Would he get the support he needed to live, work and recreate in the community?
The same questions I often ask Aaron. Is one human more valuable than another? Is that what our country stands for? What the soldiers sacrificed for?
Disabled and Yet-to-be Disabled
Didn’t everyone understand there are only two groups of people in this world–the disabled, and the yet-to-be-disabled? If we live long enough, each of us will have a disability.
Being Useful, Proving Worth.
People with disabilities are not useless and just watching the parade of life go by.
And then being a good advocate—or the crazy person who doesn’t know boundaries or when to quit– I asked Uncle John if he noticed how beautiful the cemetery grounds looked.
I told him Aaron worked at this cemetery. He and the crew of people who did the landscaping had disabilities, but if they had the support they needed, they weren’t handicapped and “useless.” In fact, they were the ones who made the grounds look so beautiful.
I pointed to the rows of tombstones which each held a single flag.
I told him that for the last 2 days, Aaron’s job was to place a flag in the holders by each tombstone. And tomorrow, Aaron would go back and remove the flags and save them for 4th of July, when he would again put them out.
Was Aaron useless?
What I remember| Memorial Day:
It’s been thirty years since that Memorial Day parade. Uncle John died a couple of months later–old, bitter, and handicapped. He never hugged Aaron or saw what Aaron could do, only what he couldn’t do.
And, like the day of the parade when he missed the joy, pride, and purpose of the Memorial Day celebration, Uncle John also missed the joy Aaron brought to anyone who opened their heart.
I think Aaron and I will wave a couple of flags tomorrow to celebrate America.
And, I’m hoping that while Aaron was placing those flags in the cemetery, other people were seeing him as a competent, contributing member of our community.
Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best,
Come on, I know you want to share some memory of your own Memorial Day Parade, family reunion, and attitudes about disabilities, and “Handicapped.” Lots of good ideas, let us know what you are thinking.
Aimee Mullins and Survival of the Fittest