For a lot of Americans, Memorial Day is a chance to head out on a weekend trip, grill some burgers and hot dogs in the backyard, or take advantage of celebratory sales at the mall. But if you live in the DC area, it's impossible to lose track of the true meaning of the last Monday in May. This is, of course, the day that the United States commemorates the men and women who died while serving in the military. Between DC's war memorials and Arlington, Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery, our area attracts huge crowds of Memorial Day visitors and hosts a variety of remembrance events throughout the entire weekend.
Back in 2007 I was attending graduate school in DC and getting ready to spend 10 days in Central Europe as part of a summer study program. On the day after Memorial Day, I boarded the 5A Metrobus to Dulles Airport, settled in for the 30 minute ride, and started thinking about all the beer and culture I'd be taking in when I got to Prague. A woman sat next to me, and started up a conversation. "Where are you going?" "What do you do in DC?" The usual small talk. We discovered she was originally from a small town in Minnesota that I know well, and then I asked her what she came to DC for. She told me about her son who died in Iraq in 2004 at age 22. He wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, so every year she flies out from California to visit him and participate in Memorial Day activities.
I didn't know what to say to her. We shared a few tears over her loss; I was amazed at how strong she was. When we got to the airport she wished me a good trip and thanked me for having talked to her about her son. I never forgot that woman - a person who was traveling with thoughts of grief while I was traveling with thoughts of excitement and adventure - and every Memorial Day I wonder if she's back in town visiting her son whose grave is only minutes from my Arlington home.