My partner, Jim, and I watch very little television, but every evening we turn on the PBS News Hour for our daily update on the world. One of the rituals in our household (indeed we have very few inviolate ones) is to drop whatever we are doing -- usually preparing or eating dinner -- to stand in silence as the News Hour adds to its Honor Roll of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They've been presenting the Honor Roll for years, and we have been following the ritual of standing respectfully since the beginning. We look at each face on the screen and sometimes say the names aloud, to honor all of them.
Along with their photo, name, service rank and branch, their age and home town are shown. Sometimes we comment "small town," as a way of remembering that so many who lost their lives had looked around where they lived and not seen much opportunity there. The rest seem mostly to be from industrial cities hit hard by today's downturn in manufacturing.
When we first started honoring the dead, my attention was focused mainly on their ages (although I must admit that, regardless of any other fact, I feel a particular punch in the gut every time a woman's face is on the screen). I made particular note of the youngest ones, still in their teens. Beyond their serious faces, many look scrawny and lost under their huge dress uniform hats. Others are shown laughing and having fun with friends or doing something they loved. It takes my breath away to realize they have already had all of life they are going to get.
I am a historical novelist, the author of the recently released Penelope's Daughter (Penguin/Berkley 2010). I dedicated the book to "all the children left behind when fathers and mother go off to war," and I started a blog, "Xanthe's World", as a way of putting something behind that dedication. In several months of daily blogging, I have found my perspective on the PBS Honor Roll has changed significantly.
Before I started "Xanthe's World," I would see fallen service members in their thirties and think, "well at least they got to live a little longer," although I know that any life cut short is a terrible thing. Now, as I stand to honor them, I think, "probably had a family." I imagine the open doorway where the spouse is standing, looking at the somber, uniformed men that never bear good news. I picture the children in classrooms being summoned and sent home. I picture the funeral. I picture going home to a house forever changed.
There's grief on the prairies, and among the red rocks of the southwest, and the bayous, and the pine barrens. There's grief in Dayton, and Gary, and Bethlehem every day now because of those faces on the screen. And there's anxiety, dread, and depression in the families of those whose faces haven't appeared yet, but easily could.
I know a great deal about loss from the experiences of my own life, but I don't think we really can remember how grief explodes us from inside. We don't want to go there, and as with all searing pain, we can't, at least not completely. Once the News Hour has honored the dead, I go on as usual, because I am not part of the web of sorrow that every fallen service member creates. What's changed is that my peripheral vision has gotten a little better. For me, as for 98 percent of Americans, I am not living these wars, but at least now I have a little better sense of who is.