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 warfighting.

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, tiptoed 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 the 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!”

This is not at all the way 8th grade Jamie looked at me. (Courtesy of author)

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.