When Every Day Is Memorial Day

(Courtesy of Kryste Buoniconti)
(Courtesy of Kryste Buoniconti)

As America gears up for Memorial Day weekend, many people are making plans to travel or just have fun, hoping for good weather, and buying those last-minute BBQ items. All of this is wonderful. We should enjoy time off to spend relaxing with friends and family.

What sometimes gets lost is the reality of war, of losing people we love.

During Memorial Day 2010, a month after my husband Frank returned safely from Afghanistan, we were in Arlington National Cemetery as members of Westboro Baptist Church were protesting outside an entrance. The Kansas-based church is known for its angry, anti-gay protests at the funerals of U.S. military members.

Frank told me that day: "If we didn't have kids with us, I'd be willing to go to jail today."

The scene at the cemetery that day felt like a cold dose of hard reality.

Parents were placing flowers on service members' graves. Spouses were sitting in chairs at the foot of gravestones.

I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to see it. I knew it could have been me.

I was thankful we escaped it. Frank had joined the Army in 1994 and had deployed a total of four times to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Memorial Day fell out of my mind.

Courtesy of Kryste Buoniconti

Nineteen months later, I got The Knock.

Our family had not escaped tragedy, after all.

Twelve days before Christmas 2011, I had to tell our children that their dad was gone forever. CW3 Frank Buoniconti and three other aviators were killed in a Kiowa training accident at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

In a chapel decorated for Christmas, I sat like a statue alongside family members and friends during the 21-gun salute for my 36-year-old husband.

When the colonel handed me the flag that was folded on my Frank's coffin, my then 6-year-old son kept asking his uncle, "What's in that box? Is that my dad's skeleton in there?"

My 10-year-old daughter stayed beside me, grasping tightly onto my hand. 

Courtesy of Kryste Buoniconti

In those early days, I had not yet begun to understand.

His death exploded our family's holiday season and the months that followed into a minefield of grief and hurt as we figured out what it meant to live in a world without him.

Memorial Day took on a new meaning for me. 

Courtesy of Kryste Buoniconti

The years began to unfold without Frank. A weary, winding, up and down, breathless, nonstop road of grieving.

A couple of years after Frank's death, I was walking late at night through the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, D.C. I picked up a flower with a laminated sheet of paper attached to it. A widow had left it for the husband she had lost 40 years earlier as a young bride.

Although she had found the courage to move forward, the pain of her loss was seared into every word of her letter. Forty years later, she was still leaving him a flower.

The heaviness of lifelong grief weighed on me that night.

For me, like it or not, every day is Memorial Day. 

Courtesy of Kryste Buoniconti

In 2012, Frank's name was added to the Dupont Veterans Memorial in Washington state. We had not yet buried him, so it was the first time we saw his name etched in stone with an end date. It didn't seem real, and sometimes, it still doesn't.

On that Memorial Day, we gained a new perspective. I realized I had a new duty: to keep his memory alive, to make sure the world knew this burden. I realized I couldn't keep it all to myself or let our children shoulder it alone.

So I share his stories. As I tucked our children in every night, I told them about their father's life. Sometimes, our memories of him even brought laughter. I share stories of Frank with people I know and I meet. I push forward and do things to honor him and remember him well.

Courtesy of Kryste Buoniconti

Shortly following the second Memorial Day after we lost Frank, we buried his ashes in our hometown on a sunny Colorado morning. I'll never forget carrying on my lap the small box of what remained of my high school sweetheart, a 6-foot tall, 200-pound man with a larger than life personality.

I'll never forget the tenderness of the moment when Frank's mother and I shoveled dirt over the box together, or how I and our children felt standing at his headstone.

As the third Memorial Day after Frank's death approached, anxiety crept up inside me. I felt pressure to participate in ALL THE THINGS, but part of me wanted to run off and hide until the rest of the world was done marking the holiday.

When every day is Memorial Day for you, it gets overwhelming.

Courtesy of Kryste Buoniconti

The U.S. sets aside one day a year to honor our fallen.

This holiday is not really about thanking veterans, or sales, or long summer weekend activities.

It's about the ache in the hearts of countless survivors who carry the weight of loss. It's about honoring the fallen. On Memorial Day and all year long, remember the sons and daughters, husbands and wives, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, friends. 

Courtesy of Kryste Buoniconti

They say, We were young. We have died. Remember us.

They say, We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done.

They say, We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.

They say, Our deaths are not ours: they are yours: they will mean what you make them.

They say, Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say: it is you who must say this.

-- from "The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak" by Archibald MacLeish

Courtesy of Kryste Buoniconti

Kryste Buoniconti lives with her children in Texas.

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