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  • Every Memorial Day I take the ride to my hometown to put flowers on the graves of my mother and father. They lie in two separate cemeteries with their respective families. They divorced after 23 years of marriage. Neither of them ever re-married, so as it was in the final years of their lives, they remained apart at the end.

    I always go to my father's grave first. He died at the age of 65. He was a WWII vet who spent 44 months in Japanese prison camps being captured 14 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He lies side-by-side with his two younger siblings. Like him, one was in the Marine Corps and the other an Airman in the Air Force. I have a ritual that I follow when I visit his gravesite. I weed the existing plantings around the headstones of his parents, place an urn above his name, reflect on his life and the impact it had on my mother, myself, and my two sisters, and perform three full prostrations (I am a practicing Buddhist) to honor his service to our country.

    Next I drive the five miles to the cemetery where my mother is buried. She was born in Scotland and lies with her mother, father, wee sister Marian who died at age three, and her uncle Hugh, her father's brother. She was 68 when she passed. I have a different ritual I perform for her as she was not a veteran. I simply honor her service to our family on this day. After all, it is not only veterans who shoulder the psychological and emotional burdens of war, this burden is also shared by their families, especially their wives. I weed around her headstone, place an urn of flowers there, and stand in silent remembrance of her while playing Amazing Grace on my iPhone. As I listen to the pipes a tear trails down my cheek.

    I had just completed my remembrance of her and was returning to my car when a man and his small son came walking down the cemetery road in my direction. Their dog was with them. He was a friendly guy and stopped to say hello and chat for a minute. He began to tell me about his family and where they were buried sharing some details of the history of their lives. At one point I surmised that he might be a veteran so I asked him, "Are you a vet?" He said "yes." I told him I worked at the VA as the Suicide Prevention Coordinator. He smiled broadly and said, "I know we have spoken many times," adding, "I want you to know that you really helped me and I am doing much better now."

    For the life of me, I couldn't remember him or his name even though I had talked to him on six separate occasions over the course of a year. I knew him as a result of the calls he placed with the Veterans Crisis Line. It is a 1-800 number vets call when they feel the darkness closing in on them. I typically field five to ten of these calls a week. Over the course of many years it is impossible to remember each call or know whether you ever really helped the person on the other end of the line. I asked him his name. He told me who he was and I thought to myself, "that's a strange coincidence ... when I was growing up my family doctor had the same name." I shared this with him. He smiled again and said, "That's my father." He spoke with pride about his dad, "He is a veteran too. He lives in a really good nursing home for vets .. on the Alzheimer's unit." What he didn't know, and I didn't have the heart to tell him, was my mother and his father were good friends for awhile after my parents divorced: perhaps more than "good friends." No one ever really knew for sure.

    We talked for a little while longer in astonishment over the revelations about our families and the fact that he and I had connected around his military service. He was an MP in the National Guard. He spent a tour of duty in Iraq as a guard at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. He suffers from severe PTSD. He doesn't sleep well ever since he returned home. He does not feel safe in crowds. His dog is a PTSD service dog. "I love my dog, he really helps to keep me calm," he told me. It came time to leave and he thanked me again for helping him. I wished him luck and thanked him for his service to his country. His son shook my hand, they both smiled, then turned down the road heading for the graves of his five uncles. They all served their country with distinction as veterans of WWII.

    As I drove away it occurred to me this was more than coincidence. We were brought together by a set of conditions that were in play for many years involving a multitude of people, places, and events. The seeds of our collective karma ripened on this Memorial Day and brought us to this place and time ... to bear witness to the intersection of our lives and the lives of our families on this day of remembrance.
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