Last Thursday was Mike’s last day in the military. It nearly crept right by us, as these things do. An ending is so often overshadowed by the urgency of a new beginning.
It’s tempting to slip through transitions quickly, the way you might lean a shoulder through a closing elevator door. There are infinite particulars to figure out– where you will live, where you will work, how your new routine will function. So, you spend your time setting up one responsible domino after another in hopes that these trembling logistics will all stand at attention, will all fall into order, will all lean into each other and lead you to your most excellent future.
Transitioning to a new way of life involves so much mental and emotional energy that other areas of life tend to go into energy-save mode. Things like initiating time to see friends or exploring a new city or showering on days that do not involve church.
The first task is to secure the framework of stability. The next task is to actually start living.
With this mentality, it’s easy to abandon celebration as a frivolous expenditure. The more natural impulse is to postpone, to relegate celebration to the moment you have a testimony of success to stand upon.
But the reality is that if you postpone for too long, the milestone passes you by. And chances are, you’ll never feel so settled on a podium of success that you’ll find a spacious, perfect moment to commemorate it.
Celebration is inconvenient by nature, yet it matters.
There is only one Thursday in our lives that Mike will exit active duty service in the military.
And so at the last minute we decided to celebrate.
I wish I could tell you that I planned ahead, but the truth is that four days (Yes, four) before his Marine Corps Exit, or “Mexit” as we affectionately called it, I panicked with the realization that I had done nothing to prepare.
Late Monday night, I started texting some Marine friends, asking them to write a letter honoring Mike’s service and commissioning him into his next season as a civilian. For this contemplative, meaningful, work-intensive task; I gave our friends a working window of…..
Impossibly, they were gracious and productive, and not only did they write letters, they recruited other Marine to do the same. Turns out, we all wanted to do this for Mike: to let him know that his service mattered, that his bright legacy was witnessed and appreciated by many.
And this leads me to believe that most of us want to champion others in meaningful ways, we just need someone else to present a method to do it well.
My plan was to print the letters and put them in a bound book. I thought maybe a dozen people would contribute. But by Wednesday night, I had over thirty letters from Marines at every duty station, every set of orders, from training schools and deployment, all the way back to the days of college ROTC. Thirteen years of history documented by the friends who were there along the way.
I wept as I read through each letter, grieving the loss of a season that was beautiful and vibrant in its time. I cried with thankfulness for the relationships that began in the military and will follow us beyond it.
A project I began as a service to Mike, actually became a service to me. It was a sort of therapy to me. One I was terrible at hiding from Mike.
Truth be told, I coordinated this secret task in the most conspicuous way possible. I acted weird and shifty. When he came in the house looking suspiciously at my teary, bloodshot eyes, I responded with, “I’M FINE! TOTALLY FINE! STOP ASKING ME!”
I went out for a run and threw my phone in the closet so he wouldn’t see any incoming texts or emails. But Mike watched me throw my phone into the closet. And I left without explanation, as if this is the sort of thing I always do.
Finally, when I tried to text myself a contact from his phone, I accidentally deleted our entire text conversation, including all the photos of our children I have texted him over the past three years.
He has since forgiven me. I think.
On Mike’s last day in the military, our immediate family met at a friend’s house to celebrate.
We lit candles, put fresh flowers in mason jars, and had desert and champagne. I warned Mike that his “Mexit” party would have the same aesthetic as a bridal shower, but he just needed to deal.
Towards the end of the night, our family squished on couches and sat on chairs relocated from the kitchen and read our letters to Mike. It was incredibly emotional, as you can imagine, telling someone in words how proud you are of him while he is sitting across the room from you.
Before the party, I wondered if I should just give Mike the book privately, let him read the letters at his leisure. And most of them he did. But then I realized how important it is to occasionally sit under the weight of your impact, to be surprised by your legacy with loved ones as witnesses.
As each person read his or her letter, we nodded in agreement and laughed and cried together. It was as if all of us were blowing wind into sails that were freshly raised for a new adventure, as though we all came to testify, “There is momentum here, see? Nothing is lost in change, only redirected.”
I almost did nothing to commemorate last Thursday, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.
For one, I suspect that I bought into the mythical notion that the right thing falls into place on its own. When really, the right thing must often be painstakingly put there. In the end, someone needs to actually go and buy the cake from Costco.
I think many of us often default to downplaying occasions that deserve celebration. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves or inconvenience or embarrass others. But treating a moment cheaply is not the same thing as living through it humbly. And big moments deserve the witness of those who love us best.
As a friend, it is a wonderful act of generosity to come alongside someone in a pivotal moment and notice the depth of investment they are making in their own life, which is to notice how much this change costs them.
And as the person in the midst of change, it is a courageous thing to look at the past, to relive its vibrancy and brilliance and use its positive history as stimulus for moving forward.
Celebration is not just the right thing to do. It’s the responsible thing to do. Maybe not in terms of your finances or time management, but for your heart and soul.*
*For the record, it doesn’t have to be expensive (our party materials were from the dollar store) and doesn’t have to take a long time (our party lasted two hours).
In celebration, you get to write the narrative of how this moment will be remembered. It is an inconvenient yet powerful demonstration of that time you dug deep to make a change. And how when you did it, you weren’t alone.