I traveled to Highlands, North Carolina, last weekend for my cousin’s wedding. Her fiancé is a former Marine, so there was an essence of military pageantry to their wedding weekend that only added to the romance of getting married up in the mountains, soft rain falling miraculously in between parties and pictures.
When we arrived at the Rehearsal Dinner on Friday night, there was an unexpected guest at a reserved table toward the entrance of the room. The table was small with a single chair accompanied by a single place setting, a single rose, a single yellow candle, a Bible, and a small frame listing the names of all the groom’s brothers in arms who had gone before him defending the country we call home. It was a night that would have been emotional already, but now it had a level of surreal sacredness attached to it. These were the names of men who should have been there—would have been there—had they not received a higher calling, had they not been asked to give the ultimate sacrifice and risen when their name was called, had they not stepped out of the precious life they were given to give others theirs in exchange.
In the past few weeks, I’ve thought about that chair a lot, the people it represents, the families it made incomplete, the children it made parentless, the spouses it made single, the siblings it made one of three instead of one of four, the friendships, the dreams, the fears, everything a person is identified by. The ripple effect is overwhelming when you consider just how many people are affected by an empty chair. It’s hard to stomach the loss.
This weekend was my husband and I’s first weekend home in a long time. We celebrated this rarity by sleeping in, using restaurant gift cards we’ve built up over holidays and birthdays, went house hunting, checked out a bagel shop we’d been meaning to but never had, ran errands, watched all the sports (him), read all the books (me), slept in more, had beignets for dessert and again for breakfast, went to the grocery store, and argued over the menu for Memorial Day dinner (ribs vs barbecue shrimp—like true Americans, we chose both). As simple as it sounds, it was pure bliss.
When I woke up this morning, my mind immediately went back to that empty chair. The lost life that that empty chair represents, and the lives of countless others, allows me the freedom to make the simplest choices: sleeping in or getting up early (never), eating in or eating out (google New Orleans), hockey or basketball (not a fan of the goal buzzer on the ice, or the ice in general), ribs or barbecue shrimp (why choose when you can have both?). But because of that empty chair, these simple choices become sacred, they become invaluable, because a man or a woman put on a uniform and decided that these little freedoms, these little choices, this little of life of mine is worth defending, worth fighting for, and ultimately, worth dying for.
Tonight we ate our Memorial Day meal of compromise, and we set an extra place and pulled up an empty chair, just as we learned to do a few weeks ago at my cousin’s wedding, and we thanked God for the life of the man or woman in the empty chair. While today may be a day off of work, the start to a short week, and an excuse for ribs, beer, and red, white, and blues, it is so much more than that. It is a day to remember those who gave us the freedom to celebrate all of those simple joys, to honor those who gave up their one life so that we might have ours.
Because of an empty chair, we can sit down today or tonight with our family and friends, eating and drinking and breathing and choosing and loving and living—freely, at the ultimate cost.
Around this country, in so many homes, at so many tables, there is an empty chair. Today we are given an opportunity, and a responsibility, to remember why.
Thank you will never be enough.