I never say “happy Memorial Day” because for many it is not.
Countless ultimate sacrifices protect us and preserve our freedoms. Conflict and evil are inevitable, and sometimes war is inevitable, too. Some wars needed to be fought. Many will have to be fought in the future. But history is also filled with conflicts that could have been resolved by time or other means. We honor those who serve by never forgetting the high stakes.
Sixteen years ago, shortly after my father’s unexpected death from an aneurysm, my family traveled to China to see my grandmother. Only my father had been born abroad. Having never been, we decided to visit Japan as well. A friend invited us to visit her parents in her hometown of Oiso. After the frenetic vibrancy of Tokyo, we found ourselves in a traditional Japanese house, situated in a grove of trees, with wood latticed windows and sliding screens of paper.
The home looked like something I had seen on an antique scroll painting. We slept on tatami mats and spent delightful evenings chatting over tea, sitting cross-legged on cushions. One night, as we lingered over a traditional meal, I looked at our patriarch host and was filled with intense sadness. He reminded me so much of my father. They were about the same age, which would have been mid-70s at the time. Both had the same small, wiry build and quiet nature. Both were intensely academic and chose to study medicine. Both could sit and listen, almost expressionless, for hours, then crack into hearty laughter over a random joke, before returning to a near silent state. Both loved their families deeply.
Then it struck me. If my father had still been alive, we wouldn’t have been there. Not just in this home, but in this country.
My father never vocalized what was in his heart, be it resentment, fear, or hatred. But in our youth, when cars and electronics were flowing to America from Japan, my father avoided them. His youth was too scarred. Some 25 million Chinese civilians were killed by the Japanese in the years my father was a child. My mother revealed to me that my father had witnessed unspeakable atrocities when he was sent back to spy on the village he had fled.
I am just one generation removed, and the Japan I know is among the most peaceful nations on earth. I also feel comfortable in Germany, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China – the list goes on of the many places I have traveled where not long ago I could have lost my life.
I don’t know how many of my relatives died in the Sino-Japanese War, or the Chinese civil war, which killed at least 8 million, or the Cultural Revolution, which, by some reports, left up to 80 million dead. My father never spoke of these things. It was clear I shouldn’t ask. I can extrapolate from how, where, and when he grew up that his family most certainly suffered. To this day, I still don’t know how many siblings my father had.
I didn’t want to know if our Japanese host had served in the army.
I knew my father had served after his entire medical school was conscripted by the Nationalists. I know he came very close to death as he no longer fled a foreign enemy, but his own people, at war with themselves.
It’s possible our host had either volunteered or been volunteered as well. Over a wonderful meal, welcomed as a friend, I realized that had our fathers met as young men, they likely would have killed each other. At best, they would have fled. Sharing a meal? Not a chance. If you asked Americans back in the 1950s which countries would turn out to be our strongest allies 50 years later, no one would have guessed Japan and Germany.
My story has a happy ending. My father survived, eventually made it to America, trained as a heart surgeon under Michael DeBakey and conducted medical research that led to huge innovations and advances with the implantable pacemaker. His team performed the first heart transplant in Florida.
But what if? What if he had been killed in any of those conflicts? Conservatively, tens of thousands of people are alive today, both directly and tangentially, because my father lived. I am alive because he met my mother. At an age when he thought he might never have children, he became an incredible father to four. Before my father died, my youngest brother got engaged to his college classmate, a Japanese woman. My father loved her. We love her family. She is our family, as is the family that hosted us in Japan. Timing is everything.
It’s estimated the wars of the 20th century resulted in 200 million combat deaths. This does not take into account the collateral losses that always come with war. We will never know if any of those young minds might have developed a malaria vaccine, discovered a new form of renewable energy, or painted a masterpiece that would cause lines in museums. We can only surmise from the sheer numbers that inestimable greatness and potential were lost.
So my wish to you on this Memorial Day weekend:
May you live a long, happy, and peaceful life.
May you have the privilege of time to realize your potential.
May you die gently and old in the embrace of a loved one.
On this Memorial Day weekend, let’s think of all those who did not.
Let’s honor their lost potential by reflecting how precious life is.
Janet Wu, the former 7NBC reporter and anchor, is currently writing and teaching at Emerson.