The Marine Corps birthday is an important celebration for all Marines. Every year, on the tenth of November, men and women of my ilk take a step back from the everyday lives that have developed in wake of our exit from service, and we raise a glass alongside our active duty brothers and sisters. Of course, like most celebrations that give us cause to look back over the passage of time, the Marine Corps birthday tends to carry with it a solemn sense of loss and responsibility. It can be difficult to celebrate your scarlet and gold heritage without hurting a little over those who aren’t here to celebrate with us.
On the Marine Corps birthday, no Marine drinks alone and as we raise our glasses, surrounded by friends or the silence of an empty home, we raise them together. We’re honoring those who came before us, remembering those we lost and of course, celebrating the commitment of the latest generation of Devil Dogs, carrying the torch into a new era of war fighting.
In my house, the Marine Corps birthday carries a darker cloud of remembrance. Two years ago this morning, my wife and I got up early in the basement guest room of my mother in law’s home, tip toed up the stairs to check on her, only to find her loving husband sitting quietly at the end of her hospital bed we had positioned in the living room to help share to responsibility of her care. She passed away, quietly and peacefully in her sleep early that morning with her husband by her side.
Jan was an incredible woman. I met her as a nerdy 6th grader with a crush on her older and much cooler daughter. My family didn’t have much money, but Jan would pay me a crisp twenty-dollar bill to skim their pool. I was overpaid for an easy job and if I was lucky, I might get to spend a few minutes awkwardly trying to make conversation with her daughter. It was a winning lottery ticket of a gig. I still remember the day Jan came outside with a glass of lemonade for me and blurted out, “you two are gonna be married one day, I just know it!”
In 2006, Jan was there to see her prediction come true when the girl of my childhood dreams agreed to spend the rest of her life with me. Then, some years later, she was there again to counsel me as Jamie and I hit a rough patch in our marriage. I wouldn’t say her advice was our saving grace, she wasn’t necessarily always good at that, but it was her concern about me that meant so much.
Like me, Jan worked as a writer and preferred solitude. She and her husband Rocky lived in a beautiful cabin deep in the woods of upstate New York, so when we got a call saying Jan was in the hospital, we knew something must have gone terribly wrong–she wouldn’t have left her quiet acreage otherwise.
We learned that it was lung cancer… or at least, it had been once. It had already spread throughout much of her body, and although the doctors believed they might be able to stretch her life span out by a few months with radiation and chemo, Jan bravely chose to face her end on her own terms, opting to enjoy her remaining months the best she could. Money was tight for all of us, but I had recently landed my first legitimate post-Marine Corps job as a regional HR manager for a defense contractor and was able to keep the bills paid with just my income, so my wife chose to walk away from her career as a technical recruiter and move to New York where she would be her mother’s full-time nurse.
For the next year or so, I’d work throughout the week and then make the six-hour trek up to their home in Woodgate to help out with Jan, spend time with Jamie and commiserate with Rocky. Then, on Sunday night, I’d make the drive back, get a few hours of sleep and start again. Trying as it was for me, the challenges were far more dramatic for my wife. During my off hours throughout the week, I edited and self published a book of Jan’s writing that sold like hot cakes in her community, which helped offset the cost of her care.
When she passed on November 10th, our sadness was tempered by relief. Living had stopped being fun for Jan weeks before, and we ached for our loss while acknowledging her freedom from that pain. I covered Jan with a blanket as we waited hours for the one ambulance in a nearby community to arrive. There was only one EMT on board, so I helped carry her outside while Jamie and Rocky consoled one another.
As I came back into the house, wiping the tears from my face that I’d let go in Jamie’s absence, my phone began to light up. People were waking up and it was the Marine Corps birthday. For some reason, that realization brought about only the sense of loss that usually sets in after the birthday celebrations subside for me. I sat down in the mud room and allowed myself a few minutes to cry before heading back in to check on them.
That day, like the day I stepped on those yellow footprints on Parris Island, changed the entire direction of my life. Jan and I spoke often near the end, usually about nothing important, but occasionally about the lessons she hoped to impart, and one in particular stuck out to me: it’s not worth being unhappy because none of us are promised a long life.
My wife would never return to her cubicle in the Boston suburbs, and a few months later we threw just about everything we owned into three huge dumpsters and set off for Georgia, where I had family and we hoped we could find a new start. My high paying HR job was never right for me, but it was the loss of Jan that made me realize that I didn’t have time to waste on the wrong path. Jamie, who had previously recruited PhDs for pharmaceutical and tech positions, became a nanny. I became an underpaid technical writer and my journey to SOFREP had begun.
Jan, like those Marines that are no longer here to exchange celebratory texts with, remains with me, informing the way I lead my life and inspiring me to be the man she saw in me when I was a scrawny kid cleaning her pool all those years ago. She was proud of my service, regularly picked fights for me at local bars (“my son is a Marine, think you can take HIM?”), and kept my boot camp photo on a table in her living room even after I’d gotten too old to really resemble that young guy anymore. Her book, “Just My Luck,” now holds that position in my own living room.
I joined the Marine Corps in a hurry when Jamie got sick and we needed health insurance, but it didn’t only provide us with that. The Marine Corps gave me the means to pursue my dreams, to grow into a man, get an education and develop the sense of responsibility that now defines me as a person. The Marine Corps gave me the background I needed to get a foot in the writing door, and it led to some of the most important friendships of my life, but an equally important part of serving your country is remembering who you are and where you came from. For me, my memories of Jan embody that recollection. Jan, who saw the Marine in me from her vantage point above the pool. Jan, who left us on the Marine Corps birthday.
Today, I celebrate the branch of service that took the punk kid I was and made him a man, and I mourn the woman who knew it would happen all along. Today, I honor the fallen and celebrate the life of my wife’s mother. Today, I’m proud to be the man the Marine Corps made me, and I hope Jan’s proud too.
Images courtesy of the author.