Memorial Day Reflections
by Chris Lowe, Portland
May 25, 2014
(These reflections arose in the context of an HCAO Discussion List exchange on using the HCAO Facebook page to post remembrances of people we know who died for lack of health care. A 2009 estimate by PNHP connected doctors was that there were about 560 such deaths in Oregon that year . The annual order of magnitude is probably the same today. In the next few years it may decline a bit due to OHP expansion and Cover Oregon coverage, but there will still be hundreds of such deaths per year. The death toll is also a marker for a wider realm of pain and debility, reduced quality of life, and stress and suffering for family and friends of the untreated ill, dying and dead. If you have such a story to share, please go to our FaceBook and add it asa comment under the bouquet of tulips.)
Memorial Day has meant many things. I've seen two different origins stories, not mutually exclusive, one of which was about recently freed ex-slaves organizing a remembrance day on May 1, 1865 specifically for a several hundred Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison camp. That is sort of similar to today's most common ways of honoring the military dead. The other was quite nearly the opposite. The origin was dated a few years later and organized by mothers and widows of the Civil War dead, to remember them in the name of peace and opposing war. By my youth, in my home town it had become a rather bellicose holiday. It did include honoring the dead, but also became an occasion for jingoistic pro-war speeches at ceremonies in our town cemetery in the Vietnam era.
In my own family it was an occasion for visiting my grandmother's grave after she died. She had no military connections. I believe other families use Memorial Day that way. My ex-wife's family used to make a family outing to an old family graveyard, on the corner of a farm in rural Eastern Washington, to mow the long grass and otherwise do upkeep, to remember, and to picnic. Some of the deceased may have been soldiers. None died in war. Personally my main thoughts this year will be on my father, who died 3 years ago. Though drafted during the Cold War, he was a quiet anti-militarist, who disliked political abuses of patriotism to support war and militarism. I will be honoring the memory of how he tried to live for love and art in the world.
Of course, a main way many people "honor" Memorial Day these days is by taking a long weekend for travel or other recreation. In Portland they are running a sort of carnival along Waterfront Park, as they do each year. The newspapers will be filled with consumer ads and sales, and the local news will apportion time to military remembrance, to promoting commerce, and to people's recreation.
If I thought that posting remembrances of those who died for lack of health care in any way dishonored the military dead, or anyone else's use of the day for remembering the departed, I'd object. I don't see it that way.
In fact one significant group who die prematurely in our current system for lack of care come from among the homeless military veterans who are failed so miserably by our society, to our shame. Failure of medical care is among the ways we fail them. This is especially true in the many cases of service men and women who suffered officially unrecognized PTSD or other mental health injuries, sometimes unrecognized by deliberate policy of commanders, contributing to them getting "bad discharges" that make or made them ineligible for veterans' benefits.
Others who are failed are loved ones of ex-service members. Both lack of insurance and military service are found disproportionately among lower income Americans. Veterans who may get care through the V.A. may not be able to ensure their relatives or friends have care.
At its best, Memorial Day can be a day for coming together. Pericles' famous oration on a somewhat similar occasion, honoring the Athenian dead in the Peloponnesian War, was used by him also to honor the values for which Athens tried to stand, to bind the people together. Perhaps such unity is relevant to the value we promote, that we are all in this together and should work to make sure all are included in health care.
But I am sure there is no idea of asking anyone to do anything against their conscience or asking them to depart from their own priorities for Memorial Day remembrance.
I hope those of us who do take part focus on those we remember with dignity that they may have been denied in life, and with sorrow, and with our hopes for lifting everyone up and including everyone as a basis for unity. Doing so may arouse other emotions, but let's save those for another day.