When I was a kid, my mom and grandparents called Memorial Day Decoration Day. We would load up wreaths and flowers and visit the cemeteries where all of my relatives were buried. It was important. It was a tradition. Our own version of Day of the Dead. Personally, as a kid, I thought it was weird and morbid. The last thing I wanted to do on a 3 day weekend was visit the cemetery. I was going to live forever, right? Graveyards were for old people that I could barely remember or had never met at all. All of the flags and flowers were pretty, but I didn’t figure the dead people could appreciate them, so what was the point?
Funny how middle-age changes things. Death is a certain reality. By the time you’re 50, it’s almost guaranteed you have lost someone you truly love, that you’ve been touched or devastated by a lingering or a sudden death. But…it’s easy to forget that Memorial Day is more than a long weekend meant for relaxing and cooking out. Or maybe not. Who wants to think about death? Who needs to remember the pain? Who needs to stare at the inevitable end of our own life?
As writers…we do. We must. Life is a fragile, precious commodity, and if we don’t feel that way, then how can our characters truly come alive? How can we write about death without facing it ourselves. Especially us mystery writers…but all writers must have a sense of urgency in their work, a foreboding future lurking around the next corner, blood throbbing in the veins. Our work has to have life in it.
My novels and short stories are littered with dead people. My memory as a human being is jam-packed with dead people. This weekend, I will honor them by planting flowers, by participating in a tradition I once thought was ridiculous. I will visit the graves of my mom and my grandparents, and I will say thank you for teaching me to remember.
By honoring the past, by letting go of the things we cannot change, we can face the future with hope and courage—dream our own dreams while there is still time. We can do our best work, in memory of the past, because we were touched or devastated, because we choose to face the reality of our own end by placing a few flowers on a tombstone.
Love and memory live in every petal of every flower, in every flapping flag. If we can capture that universal moment and put a little bit of Decoration Day into our work, the urgency of life and the fragileness of it, then we have succeeded as writers…and as human beings.