05/27/2014 01:40 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Home of the Brave

It used to be that the words Memorial Day brought with them a lightness that came with the beginning of summer and the promise of long salty days at the beach. It used to be that the words Gold Star Families meant nothing to me. Now I know they mean your worst fears came true and your family will never be the same again. Over the years, as my involvement in the military community has became more personal, the Memorial Day weekend has become a time to pause and reflect, to acknowledge the losses I have born witness to.

It's 2008 and I'm back at a Memorial Day ceremony at Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial. I'm here because Sandra Aceves invited me to be her guest and Sandra is here because she was invited to be part of a ceremony for Gold Star families. The button she has pinned to her blouse shows her Fernando in his crisp white Navy uniform, an impish grin on his face. Fernando was a Navy corpsman, killed in an ambush in Ramadi, Iraq, on April 6, 2004 while trying to save a wounded Marine.

Sandra, who speaks in a rich Spanish accent and jokingly refers to herself as a Zapotec princess, has been unable to drive on freeways since hearing about Fernando's death. She now has a GPS that she has named Brunhilda, who speaks with an English accent and takes her slowly across the surface streets to where she needs to go. Still, sometimes, she has to pull over to the side of the road and remind herself to breathe.

The sky is La Jolla blue and although it's still early morning the sun beats down. There is no breeze. We wait for the ceremonies to begin.

The child in the row in front of me turns around and looks at me.

I smile at her.

"Do you want to see how a Marine salutes?" she asks. She's about five, blond, bespectacled. Little Miss Sunshine.

I tell her yes. She pulls herself up to her full height, makes her eyes go hard and flat and stares into the distance. She brings a small hand to her temple in a perfect stiff salute.

"Who taught you how to do that?" I ask, when she's standing back at ease, scratching at the Band-Aid on her elbow. I already know the answer. On the front of her pink Hello Kitty T-shirt she wears a large button with the photo of a solemn-faced young blond man in dress blues.

"My dad. He was a Marine and then he was in Iraq and then he was killed. I want to be a Marine but only in a game. Sometimes me and my friend play Marines in my yard, but we don't die."

A trumpet sounds. The ceremonies begin: the Color Guard, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star Spangled Banner, the speakers from World War II and Korea and the American Legion. The child in front of me stands when she is supposed to stand, sits when she's supposed to sit, sings the words she knows. Although the sun grows hotter and the seats more uncomfortable, I never see her complain or squirm. Her mother, who sits beside her, is young and wears her honey-colored hair in a ponytail. She keeps dabbing at her eyes with a wadded up bunch of tissues, completely encased in her grief, sealed off from even her daughter.

Next comes the part of the ceremony when Sandra and the child's mother get up and join a procession of Gold Star families. The little girl suddenly has an empty seat on either side of her. She turns around and looks at me, blinks behind her glasses.

"Can I come can sit by you?" she asks.

"Of course," I answer, patting the empty chair next to me.

She gets up and slips beside me. I sip from my plastic water bottle and she sips from hers. I offer her a granola bar, which she politely declines. Her feet don't touch the ground. She swings them back and forth.

When her mom returns she jumps up and goes to sit by her side again.

At the end of the ceremony we say goodbye. I bend down and give her a hug. She smells of sun and laundry detergent and her back is damp with sweat.

"Your dad would be so proud of you," I say.

"I know," she says, and for the first time she smiles. Then she repeats, "I want to be a Marine one day. But only in a game."

Just as they're about to walk away, Sandra goes up to the little girl's mom and asks her if she'd like a hug. Most of the young woman's hair has come loose from her ponytail and she is barefoot, holding her high-heeled shoes.

She looks at smiling Fernando on Sandra's button. Her hand automatically touches her own button with her young Marine husband.

"Yes please," she whispers.

I turn away as she falls into Sandra's arms and begins to sob.