Everyday is everything.
If today isn’t a holiday where you live, it might very well be in someone else’s part of the world. And even if it isn’t a proper, the-banks-are-closed, light-some-fireworks occasion, you can bet there are still a dozen smaller observances, in honor of cats, or tacos, or a type of cancer.
It’s always someone’s birthday, and someone always dies.
Here in the States, November 11 is Veterans Day. Since 1954, anyway. Prior to that, it was Armistice Day, which was kinda like Veterans Day but with a name like that, veterans of wars other than WWI felt left out. Prior to 1918 and the formal end of the War to End All Wars, November 11 was, I guess, just a nice early autumn day.
On November 11, 1991, this date ceased to be anything for me but heartache.
My mother’s mother’s brother — great-uncle to me — was a month past sixty when he died that day, at home, alone in the house he had lived in most of his life. He had been my babysitter, my daycare, and my after-school watcher, a grandfather in all but name to a boy who had none.
He was my moral pole star, though I don’t recall realizing that before he died.
Certainly I loved him. He was the relative I said I’d go live with when my parents or my little sister got on my last nerve and I threatened to run away. He was who I was excited to talk to about my day at school, or my newest action figure, or my plans for this year’s Halloween costume.
If I had wanted to grow up, he probably would have been who I wanted to grow up to be.
Everyone loves and everyone loses people they love, and any day can be a sad day when the pain wells up and the memories comfort you but also make you just a little angry because the world is cruel and the only fair thing about life is that it ends for everyone.
Any day can be a dark day, but I can’t avoid November 11.
I had stayed home sick that day in 1991, and I remember standing at the bathroom sink that evening, a wet washcloth growing cold in my hand, when my parents told me about the call from a concerned neighbor, and asked me to watch my little sister while they went to make sure everything was okay.
I knew then what they weren’t telling me, and the funeral followed three days later.
I can no longer distinctly remember 1992 or 1993. They blur together. I was home sick from school on one of them, and I walked through the day in a fog on the other, and on both I visited the cemetery in the evening and spent time at his grave.
By 1994, I was two hours away at college, the day fell on a Friday, and I drove home after my last class, in time to reach the cemetery by dusk because it mattered very much to me that I be there, that I see the cold gravel six feet over his bones, that I whisper a few words, as though the dead have ears.
I drove back that night, having not stopped to see my living family, or even tell them I had been there.
Through the rest of college, I responsibly kept to my school commitments and made no further pilgrimages, instead making it my habit that day to decline dinner or game night invitations, to be alone, to walk a wooded trail, to sit and listen at nature, to ponder the dead.
Over the years that followed, I sometimes walked alone in woods or through a cemetery near where I lived at the time, I visited his grave the brief years I lived back home, I never left my bed the years I got sick, and I loved my wife for leaving me to myself every November 11 of our marriage.
Once I assembled a desk, just to occupy my mind with a simple task.
Last year, I cooked a meal he used to make, following his techniques as best I remembered, down to cooking in cast iron and brewing teeth-achingly sweet tea to wash it down. I have since learned this is a custom on the Day of the Dead, and that unintended similarity is pleasing.
This year I write.
For the first time, I am able to put twenty-five years of mourning into perspective, by putting it into words, then putting those words into the world.
Every year is different, except every year I wonder whether this is the last time I will feel this.
A hundred people die every minute of every day. I can find no statistics on how many leave echoes, or how long those echoes persist, or whether it is my particular madness that every year I make myself listen for the echoes of November 11, 1991.
Quiet, now; I am concentrating.