On my way to return the rental car I’ve been driving while my car has been in the shop I made a detour to the Fort Snelling National Cemetery to visit my brother-in-law Mark’s grave. The weather was typical of this time of year in Minnesota, where the snow composition is a type of slushy icy wet. The visibility was poor, as a pea soup fog engulfed the Twin Cities.
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Mark’s gravesite. Truth be told I’m not one to find much solace in cemeteries. I’d prefer to think the reason why is that I would rather spend time with the memories of my loved ones from when they were alive and well. When in reality I think it has more to do with the fear of facing the fact that they are no longer living. It’s difficult to run away from grief and your own mortality when you are standing in the middle of a cemetery.
Having a general idea of where Mark’s was buried I began my trudge through the wet snow. In an odd sense of timing my big sister Krissy, Mark’s widow, called me. “What are you up to?” she asked”. “Oh, I’m at the national cemetery trying to find Mark’s grave”. After a bit of a pause, she told me “It’s raining” to which I said “No shit. Can you help me find his grave? I forgot his number but I know it’s in section 28”. She told me his gravesite number, therein reducing the amount of wandering in the light rain that was beginning to saturate my clothes. Once I found his grave I thought it needed a little something special, so I made a little snowman for him. Nearby a rifle volley fired shots to conclude the burial of another serviceman. Little known fact - Fort Snelling National Cemetery is the home of the first all-volunteer Memorial Rifle Squad.
Mark and I didn’t always see eye to eye, but we had a mutual respect and love for each other. With him being a “gung ho military man” and me being a “smart ass tree hugger” we would often debate just about everything. Although we’d likely never admit it to each other, we learned a lot during those discussions.
Mark was Aide-de-camp to General Babaker Zebari, retired General in the Iraqi Army chief of staff of the Iraqi army from 2004 till 2015, during the Iraqi War troop surge. He took it upon himself to learn the Kurdish language so he could better communicate with the men with whom he worked with.
As I made my way back to my rental car, eventually driving to the Hertz car rental return I reflected on how wasteful violence is, and how we are all brothers in sisters stuck here together on this pale blue dot. Mark Twain wrote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”. If you ever want to experience an overwhelming example of just how wasteful hatred and prejudice is, travel. If you ever want to experience an overwhelming example of just similar we all are, travel. Go to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. or any country that’s been afflicted by war. In my travels to Ukraine I would learn about how literally entire villages - entire families - were murdered and destroyed over pointless power grabs. How Ukraine’s famine, otherwise known as Holodomor, killed millions. In my travels to South Africa I would learn about Apartheid and the laws put in place a structure which legalized, within the warped rationale of the regime, a society entierly based on racism.
Nelson Mandela has a beautiful quote “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I think of this often when I travel or when I walk around my neighborhood in Minneapolis, one of the more diverse neighborhoods with many immigrants who call it home. It is because of Mandela’s quote that I make a point of learning a greeting of the many languages that my brothers and sisters speak in the neighborhood I call home. As-salāmu ʿalaykum is a greeting in Arabic that means “Peace be upon you”. In Spanish “Hola, buenos días,” (hello, good morning) or “Hola, buenas tardes” (hello, good afternoon). Nyob zoo is how you say hello in Hmoung. Privyet is “hi” in Russian. Minnesota is home to many immigrants seeking a better life, and I love the opportunity to practice my limited vocabulary. I guess it’s my simple little gesture of letting people know that I recognize and respect that you have your own culture.
After I returning the rental car I hailed a taxi. My cabbie was dressed in traditional Somali wear consisting of a macawis and a koofiyad. After I told him my home address and we pulled away I thought for a split second of pulling out my iPhone to stare mindlessly at the machine that steals us from living in the present. Instead I said As-salāmu ʿalaykum in what I have to assume had a the Minnesotan folksy “you betchya” accent that I am heavily afflicted with. The mans entire face brightened up, surprised that I knew how to greet him in his own language. He asked how I learned that so I told him Mandela’s quote and how it’s my goal to learn how to greet people in their own language. He told me his name is Hasheem and that he lives in St. Paul with his wife and 3 daughters, ages, 17, 14, and 10. He laughed when he said he’s outnumbered by all the smart, beautiful women in his household and how he wouldn’t have it any other way. We talked a lot about Somalia, avoiding the heavy topics of war and instead focusing on the beauty of the country. I listened while he told me how much he loves Minnesota and how happy he his to give his daughters a better life. We also talked a lot about how amazing of a man Nelson Mandela was, ending South Africa’s apartheid through peace and love - not through violence and fear.
When Hasheem dropped me off at my home we gave each other a big hug before parting ways. Walking up to my doorstep I thought again of Mark, and everyone who died as a result of war and violence. The best way to honor their memories is through peace and compassion, for if we can achieve this there will be fewer graves to visit of people who died just too damn young.