All Men Must Die

05/28/2013 10:09 am ET | Updated Jul 28, 2013

"Someday, perhaps, it will be pleasing to remember these things." -Virgil

My great-grandfather, Arthur, was a fatherless man. He was born black and Irish in the Deep South in the eleventh hour of the 19th century. He married Elizabeth, an immigrant from the Bahamas, and she bore them 17 children, among whom is my maternal grandfather. Although Arthur died half a dozen years before I was born, I have always been aware of his nearly seven score years of life through the tales his great family still heartily recalls well into the 21st Century. Two ghosts of those tales seem particularly relevant today.

My great-grandfather's father, the Irishman, died in a now century-old war before his son could ever know him. Arthur did get to know his own sons, however, and one of them was a man named Earl, who went to fight in Vietnam. Not unlike the grandfather he never met, Earl left a young family behind to serve his proud country. And also akin with that late grandfather, Earl never again saw his homeland, or the wife and young daughters he left there.

Today, most of Earl and Arthur's American family remains in Florida and Georgia, where they have lived for more decades than hardly anybody can remember. The Army brought my parents to the D.C. metro area years ago, and, occasionally, some of our kin will make the long trek up the South Atlantic coast for a visit. When the weather is glorious, or at least tolerable, my parents will take them to the National Mall to stroll through the grandeur of the Capital of the American Republic our forebears built. Although our itinerary may vary, a sense of rooted wonder always carries us to the dark marble wall that commemorates the fallen of Vietnam. We always remember to scratch Earl's name onto pieces of paper that we bring for this familiar ritual. Granny hates being in photographs, but she always submits to a few still-frames of time on these occasions.

We usually smile.

Growing up in the military, I learned that Veterans Day was meant to celebrate peace and those who returned from service to America and her values of liberty, justice, and honor. This November, I will celebrate my father, mother, sister, and brother for their service.

As a point of distinction, Memorial Day commemorates sacrifice and loss: the ultimate cost of freedom. In reflecting on the passing of warriors like Arthur's father and son, we remember that all men and women are born to die, and what matters is the how and why of our ineluctable departure. We remember that our free Republic was built upon the ashes of dreamers and is maintained upon the hallowed dust of sacrifices honored. We remember that our lives are never solely ours, and our deaths are no more the bookend of our stories than our loved ones will allow.

For as long as I can remember, funeral days have always nurtured times of celebration in my family. The former homes of those gone to glory become sites where the living gather to eat, drink, and merrily recall halcyon days past and grievances overcome. By celebrating life -- and all that has been done so that we might freely enjoy it -- we consummate the purpose for which our loved ones lived and died, whether in far-flung wars or quietly at home after untold suffering. It is for this very purpose -- the enduring happiness of those whom we shall someday leave -- that we now live and remember.

Happy Memorial Day!