On Memorial Days when I was a child, my mother would take me and my siblings to visit the grave of her older brother Adrian, who died in France in World War II. She had been a young teen at the time, the baby of a mostly fatherless family, and Adrian, in his 20s, had been the brother who had taken on the role of "man of the family." He had risen admirably to the task... until that dark day, the day of the unfathomable news.
After his death he became family legend, the golden boy, the perfect man. By telling me that I reminded her of him, my mother could keep me on the straight and narrow, a guilt cage. But that's another story.
When I visited that cemetery as a child, perhaps with my baby brother in tow, I never imagined that as a young adult I would be there again, visiting my little brother's grave. My brother Cal died at 21, as a result of his own drunk driving. My book The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility is dedicated to him because so much of it was written as my own way of processing his death.
Memorial Day is about honoring those who died in wars defending our nation's liberty. Cal was a casualty of another kind of war: the war for personal freedom in an oppressive society. A wild-child rock-n-roller, he was doing his best to break out of the deadly prison of a fundamentalist Mormon upbringing, to let his creative spirit fly, to be his true self. But he had no tools to work with, his armor was defective, and, like every young soldier who dies in battle, he didn't see the bullet coming.
In my worldview, wars are manifestations of inner human states. In that light, the struggle for individual spiritual emancipation is even more important and heroic than the gory battles over invisible borders and political non-issues.
I'll never know why the role of the dead brother was Cal's to fill, not mine. I've had to fight the battle for personal liberty myself, and he has been an immense help. Cal is the advance scout, venturing into the ultimate unknown territory ahead of all of us. If the cemetery was not 2,000 miles away from my current home, I'd honor him by visiting his grave today.
I've recently been inspired reading past installments of Jason Stern's "Esteemed Reader" columns from Chronogram Magazine, several of which explore a truth that is crucial to healthy living, something that wisdom traditions from Sufi to Samurai urge: "Die before you die." Consider your own death, prepare for it, know that you are temporary, and then live to the fullest in the here and now.
Memories of my brother, this blog entry, the book it refers to, even Memorial Day itself -- each serves me best as a memento mori. Memento mori is Latin for "Remember you must die," or in another interpretation, "Be mindful of dying."
Let's let this Memorial Day and every other day remind us: Life is short; live it.