Monday, July 4, 2011
America the Beautiful
Happy Birthday, America. I am thinking today about what makes this country great, and also those places that people never look at very closely where the flag and all it represents is actually quite tattered. We talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We think about our fallen soldiers. They went willingly into the fray, and died as martyrs to our cause of freedom. Their families will go to their graves today, to lay down a small flag, or a clutch of carnations. Someone will say a prayer, someone will put a hand on their heart. An ache will ripple through the bodies of those left to remember. The news will show their faces today, the faces of the young men and women recently fallen. The voice of a mother or brother will share a glimpse or two of their stories, their remembered humanity, as the screen flashes their faces in uniform.
I’m thinking about our unsung heroes, the civilians who fall every day without pomp and circumstance, without Taps, without a holiday celebrating them. They too are the shoulders on which we dance. I’m thinking about the veterans who return home to disrepair, whom we leave to suffer PTSD. I’m thinking about the blown off face of the man we can’t look at. I’m thinking of the harried and overworked civilians, the families put through the ringer of daily survival. I’m talking about the people who fall prey to alcoholism and mental illness and divorce.
I’m talking about my sister, an I.T. security worker at a large law firm, who took her own life last year. Her face will not be flashing up on any screen, with a memorable anecdote about how sweet she had been in her youth.
My sister also fell in the line of duty. She fought on the front lines of our recent banking wars. Rather than being honored, her face has been erased. It has come to my attention that Gaby’s Facebook page, which will go on for posterity post mortem, no longer bears her picture. She has been reverted to a generic “female silhouette”- the white shape with the bob do. Of course, all of her notes, her status updates, remain: the depiction of a woman going right out of her mind. A woman who is no longer a woman at all, but an empty silhouette.
The reason Facebook has removed my sister’s profile picture is quite evident. The picture was from her job. It bore the name of her firm across the bottom, beneath her pinched, over-serious demeanor. Clearly the firm did not want the bad PR, to be associated with a crazy person. A person who described her hallucinations in all their twisted glory. A person who would be incarcerated in the HR Office when she couldn’t grasp that her time was up. Who was incredulous once she was cuffed and spit in the face of the cop. A person who spent three weeks in a psyche ward, refusing medication, and then was released, only to take her own life.
My sister fought in the front lines of a New York law firm during the biggest banking debacle of our time. She worked on the fortieth floor. She took her job seriously. The fact that she used the picture from her firm for her profile picture suggests how important her work was to her. She was charged with confiscating the files of attorneys about to get the axe. She held her poker face through wave after wave of layoffs. She watched as her friends, who had much greater longevity with the firm than she did, were quietly put out to the streets.
When my sister’s time came, she would not go quietly into that good night. As the IT Manager, the go-to person who battened down all the hatches as the firm weathered tidal shifts in their loyalties, she waited for the time when the spotlight would turn on her.
That kind of pressure could get to anybody. Well, it got to Gaby, all right, an incredibly intelligent person with a lurking mental illness. She went from being one who preached the dangers of the internet to one who exploited the internet’s dangers, and used it to exorcise her madness. My sister went nuts with an audience, on a social networking site. She remains there on her wall like a butterfly pressed beneath glass. But what a freakish, faceless specimen they have allowed her to become by removing her profile picture.
So I want to take this special day to honor the everyday, unsung heroes who are breaking under the pressures that our fucked up social structure puts on them. We value work over family, war over love. We value those who are young and whole, and turn our eyes away once they are broken. Let’s look in the mirror today, as we enjoy our watermelon and our ice cream and our fireworks, and think about what we can do for those who are hurting, both far and near. When I glimpse my loved ones’ faces in the glow of the sparklers tonight, I will think of those who are no longer able to taste this happiness. And I will make a wish upon a falling ember that their lives and deaths will be remembered.
Yes, let's remember the soldiers who fought for our freedom. But let's also remember the everyday heroes among us, the fathers, and sisters and friends who fought or are still fighting the good fight, the fight of love and loss and struggle, the fight of the family, the fight of our souls, the fight of the fragmented trying to become whole. We are America the Beautiful. But we are also America the Broken. Let’s begin to own that, too.