A Memorial Day Tale

Get over yourself.

I've been crazy busy the last couple of weeks and on a coding binge (about which I'll do a post at some point) so I haven't had time to post - although I have a number of things my mind is pressing me to write about.  But since it is Memorial Day - a day in which America (surprisingly) honors selflessness and sacrifice, I thought I would resurrect this story I posted over a decade ago about a young couple I once met who knew a thing or two about getting over themselves.


There’s an old Hallmark Hall of Fame movie I really like called Decoration Day. It stars James Garner, Bill Cobbs, and a very young Laurence Fishburne (the credits refer to him as “Larry Fishburne”). I sometimes rewatch it around Veterans Day since it revolves around two aging veterans of WWII and the lifelong effects of that war.

What I like about the movie is the rich tapestry of themes that are woven throughout the storyline. In fact, so many reminders of important things are offered that the viewer can almost lose track: the enduring importance of childhood friends; the profundity of married love; how misunderstanding and guilt can drive wedges into old friendships; how an awareness of our mortality can lead to reconciliation; the centrality of love to everything that truly matters; even the symbolic significance of a simple hug.

One of the themes of Decoration Day that especially resonates with me is how the shortness of life makes urgent the need to let people know just how important they are to you and how much you really love them. Time passes, and things go unsaid, and too soon we realize that we’re out of time, and we didn’t say what we wanted – needed – to say to someone who was vitally important in our lives. I like this movie because it drives home the importance of telling another person, now while there’s still time, just how much they mean to you.

It’s important to come right out and say it.

These themes about mortality resonate with me because I’ve had more than my share of reasons to ponder my own mortality. In my own case, things have turned out well (so far) but that doesn’t mean that the kinds of shocks I have endured don’t have me rethinking a lot of things. I have old friends who are facing their own struggles along these lines and the outcome for them is currently unknown. This business of facing up to your own mortality can be tough sledding.

The key, I’ve come to believe, is learning to see our lives beyond the limiting lens of our own needs.

In the movie, James Garner plays a retired judge living a reclusive life, mourning his wife’s death and regretting aspects of how he had chosen to invest himself through the years. But events (life is full of surprises) force him to choose between his own secluded grief and the needs of someone who was very dear to him as a child.

It is this opportunity to love someone else, even in the midst of our own grief, that fascinates me the most.

It has always seemed to me that, when Jesus said “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends”, part of what he was saying was that true love moves us, even at great personal cost, beyond our own needs. We each have nothing greater to offer than our own life and to give it up for another is to comprehensively move beyond ourselves.

So I guess Jesus was saying, in a way, “Love means getting over yourself.”

This is a story about a couple I once met who knew a thing or two about getting over themselves.

Around Thanksgiving of 2007, my wife and I were privileged to meet a young couple named Jeff and Andrea Sekelsky (names have been changed). We had been given their names through an organization called Operation Homefront. Jeff was a soldier in the US Army and had been wounded that year in Iraq. A few days before Thanksgiving we walked up the front walk at their home in Tacoma, WA, and heard their story for the first time.

Jeff and Andrea had a young daughter with cerebral palsy. Just prior to Jeff’s deployment to Iraq, Andrea became pregnant with their second child. Nearly nine months later, in early 2007, Andrea was trying to delay the arrival of her baby because Jeff was due to come home on leave. They were both hoping that Jeff could be there for the birth of their baby. A few days before the due date, however, Andrea got a call that all military wives dread: Jeff’s vehicle had been blown up by a roadside bomb. Jeff was badly wounded. He was being flown to Germany and then on to Walter Reed Medical Center on the east coast of the US.

Andrea is an energetic young woman of Italian extraction. She is also a formidable woman of instant decision and, far from being paralyzed by that phone call, she sprang into action. First, she immediately decided that “it was time to evict the baby.” She was determined to meet her husband on the east coast when he arrived, so into the hospital for an induced delivery she went. As soon as she left the hospital it was off to the airport (against the advice of many, including her doctor) for the six-hour flight to Walter Reed Medical Center with her new baby in tow. Her oldest daughter would stay with relatives for the duration.

Andrea is a huge believer that wounded soldiers need advocates within the military medical system. So she planted herself, along with her newborn baby, right next to her husband’s bed. And for the next six months, she stayed right by his side as he moved through surgery after surgery and from hospital to hospital.

We sat in their living room that night, listening to her and to Jeff telling their story. No rancor. No bitterness. Only a keen sense of humor and warmth and a twinkle in their eyes for each other as they remembered. Looking at Jeff, I could see the effects of war. Visible battle scars, fingers missing here and there and an arm that no longer worked; all these gave silent testimony to a great struggle and sacrifice. But he was warm and funny and made light of his own short term memory struggles – one of the abiding effects of the traumatic brain injury he had incurred.

While we had come that night to be of benefit to them, we found that we were the ones who were moved and affected. Their high spirits and the total absence of self-pity were astonishing. I lightly observed to Andrea that I found her commitment to her husband inspiring and I admired her for it. She seemed genuinely surprised that I would find anything admirable about it. She dismissed such sentiments with a wave of her hand and the kind of sympathetic expression a teacher reserves for a particularly dimwitted pupil. “That’s why I married him,” she explained.  Andrea isn’t the type to contemplate anything other than devotion to her husband. Her husband knows how lucky he is to have her, and he whispered as much to me in a separate conversation.

So my wife and I were sitting in the living room with this young wife and mother, a nine-month-old baby, a husband and father struggling with a body ravaged by war, and a child with cerebral palsy confined to a wheelchair. And I heard the words “Is there anything we can help you with this Christmas?” coming out of my mouth. I knew money must be short. Andrea had quit her job to care for Jeff and they had been living entirely on Jeff’s enlisted man’s pay. We intended to pool some resources together with some friends from our church to help them get some things they needed to cope with the “new normal” of their lives.

They were very reluctant to ask for anything at all. (Much later, in an e-mail, Andrea finally suggested that it might be nice for Jeff to have some mittens. It turns out that gloves don’t work very well after you’ve been blown up and you’re missing fingers here and there.)

But when we pressed them some more, it did so happen that there was one thing they were willing to ask about. Andrea’s Italian tradition called for a Christmas dinner of Turkey with spaghetti and meatballs. Andrea and Jeff were worried, you see. As we sat in their living room with Jeff’s health issues, with their oldest child’s health issues, with their financial struggles, what they were worried about that night was that some of the men in his unit wouldn’t be able to make it home that Christmas to be with their families. They wondered, if it wasn’t too much trouble, could we help them get the food together so Andrea could cook a Christmas dinner for these men who couldn’t be with their own families that year?

Dazed and humbled, we made our way back to our car that night, pondering what we had just seen and heard. We had been privileged to see what it looks like when someone is so over themselves that their own concerns fade away in the bright light of their concern for others.

And so, a few weeks later, Andrea cooked an enormous turkey dinner, complete with spaghetti and meatballs, for over 30 people, including some lonely enlisted men who needed to be with a family that Christmas.

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