Memorial Day is more than just a holiday

May 25, 2012

Faith Outdoors

As I went on my 3-mile walk last night, I walked past an American flag at Cretin-Derham Hall High School, just a block from my home in St. Paul. I’m sure I’ve seen it before, but it caught my eye on this occasion.

It got me to thinking about Memorial Day. This particular day has special meaning for me in two ways: 1. My dad is a World War II vet; and, 2. My first wife, Jennifer, died on Memorial Day in 1995.

My thoughts – and emotions – vacillated between these two realities as I took my paces in the evening twilight. The month of May is always hard for me, and this was no exception. I found myself silently saluting those who have paid the ultimate price in military service. I’m glad my dad was not among them, or I wouldn’t be here.

Though Jennifer never served in the military, she is forever linked to this day for me. Perhaps, it’s fitting she died on Memorial Day. I believe she gave everything she had in being a nurse, mother and wife. Many people, myself included, consider her a hero for the way she tirelessly and fearlessly cared for the many cancer patients in her charge, during the time she worked as an oncology nurse. She treated them with respect and dignity, and was not afraid to ask them how they were preparing for death when that reality was imminent in their lives.

One story stands out. On our wedding day in February of 1990, she had invited a terminally ill teenager named Melanie to our wedding and reception. Melanie was a standout track athlete, and beautiful on top of that. Sadly, the cancer ravaged her body, and quickly. In just a matter of months, she wasted away to the point where she looked like a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp.

Amazingly, so close to death, she managed to come to our reception. Seeing her come into the hotel lobby, Jennifer rushed to greet her, seeming not to notice her gaunt condition. I, on the other hand, was taken aback by her appearance, and thought she might die right there in front of us.

Jennifer cheerfully embraced Melanie and thanked her for coming, as her mother stood somberly behind the wheelchair. After a few minutes, Jennifer leaned over to say goodbye. She said that she wasn’t coming back to work for another week, so she wanted to say goodbye.

She knew she would never see Melanie again, and was offering her final farewell.

Jennifer was right. Melanie died a few days later. I often wonder if the two have met in heaven. I know Jennifer is there. I hope Melanie is, too.

This will be a hard weekend for me, as it always is. But, as I like to tell people, it is not a grief without hope. So, as I prepare to shed the tears I always do on this weekend, I humbly ask for prayers. And, I offer this simple message to my dear, departed wife:

“Jennifer, I will always love you. I miss you, and look forward to seeing you again in the fullness of God’s Kingdom. I salute you and your dedicated service to the Lord and to all of those who suffered with cancer whom you lovingly ministered to throughout your nursing career. May you rest in peace.”

 

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About Dave Hrbacek

Staff photographer and writer for The Catholic Spirit. Also, avid outdoors enthusiast with a passion for hunting, fishing and photography. Married to Julie and have four children, three boys and a girl.

View all posts by Dave Hrbacek