11/11/2013 08:17 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

To Serve

I miss my grandfather. He would have been ninety-seven; he lived to almost ninety-two. For all of the patriotic swerve and swagger today, the parades and the pomp, I can think of nothing else but him. My family is no great military dynasty with a long tradition of service - just another one of many whose minor history was caught in the web of World War II. I know that there are millions of families with men and women serving right now. But on Veteran's Day I can only see my grandfather, standing on a cold November street, holding my small hand as we listen to the sound of "Taps" on an old man's bugle.

It is a luxury of being young to miss our family only when we need them. Before or if we have our own children, there is a sense of unshakable stability and continuity that family brings. It tethers us back to ourselves if we should ever go too far. Veteran's Day reminds us that millions of people, for reasons big and small, put that sublime safety in jeopardy. Veterans and their families live daily with the hard knowledge that they may never see their spouses or their children again.

So the experience of watching an old man die safe in his bed may seem trivial and small compared to these sacrifices. But my grandfather was my only veteran and will always shape my view of them. He was calm, dependable and balanced. He was strength without meanness. He was like many men both of his time and now - reserved, perhaps to a fault, keeping his emotions carefully controlled.

He was not a great hero, but he was well-liked and well-respected. He served as the town manager upon his return from the war. As far as I know, he spent most of World War II in North Africa, listening to bombs rain down on his supply warehouse, praying they would miss. He wrote postcards home to his mother saying how he missed "peroxide blondes."

But this was not the man I knew. The grandfather I knew slowly withered away from Alzheimer's. I visited him at a Veteran's Affairs Hospital, which was overcrowded and sad. They had taken rooms built for two and curtained them off until they fit eight. There was barely room to stand next to his bed. I watched my parents struggle to negotiate the bureaucratic morass for his medications, and later the nursing fees and the hospice care. There was nothing about any of it that was easy.

I saw him pass. In his will, he left me just enough money to cover my first and last month's rent on an apartment in Cambridge, which allowed me to complete my Master's at Harvard. I wore his old fedora to my first day of class and remembered.

As a nation, the sad truth is that we are not good to our veterans. We stick them in nursing homes and leave them on the streets. We do not find them jobs. We lionize them in ways that are harmful. We hide behind hollow ideals.

But for today, I can't focus on these things. I can only think about my grandfather and how much I wish he were still here. I hope that you will reach out to those around you who are suffering losses both big and small and remember that we all sacrifice, and we all hurt. It's how we choose to mitigate that pain that makes a nation either great or small.