Memorial Day was arguably the single worst day of the year all because he simply didn’t want to remember. He couldn’t even leave his house without being reminded; nearly all of his baseball caps had the words “U.S. Navy” and an American flag embroidered on their sides, and his license plates just the same. It was pride, mostly, that drove him to broadcast his veteran status every other day of the year, but on Memorial Day, his pride seemingly vanished. That day was filled with shame, not guilty shame exactly, but embarrassing shame. He hated to be pitied, and ever since his last living brother died 13 short years ago, Memorial Day meant one thing and one thing only. Everyone in his small Kentucky town knew who he was and what had happened to him. He’d lost three of his older brothers in World War II, one more in Korea, and one in ‘Nam. Good ol’ Arnold was the one lost in ‘Nam, and they were in the same platoon, too. That one was the hardest; he was right there with Arnie when it happened, almost got killed himself, and days like these made him wish he had. Him and his youngest brother were the only ones to survive their respective deployments, but his youngest brother lost his life in a much different kind of fight. Pancreatic cancer. Aggressive. Poor guy never stood a chance. And before that, the love of his life died. About three years after the war, also to cancer. Prostate. Less aggressive, but obviously aggressive enough.

He was alone in this world, his last living love having lost his life over a decade ago, rendering him alone for much longer than he felt he deserved. This was the 13th Memorial Day he’d spent alone, but the silver lining was that this was probably going to be the last one. He’d finally been given his own fight to lose, cancer himself, and this one was also aggressive enough. He didn’t know how much longer he did have, but he knew it was hardly long enough to reach the next Memorial Day. This would be the culmination of his yearly despair. The last hurrah, if you could call it that.

For whatever reason, the morning of that 13th Memorial Day, he woke up and decided he’d spend the day outside. It was a beautiful day, sun shining, slight breeze, clear skies, and a steady 76 degrees outside. Normally, he didn’t give a damn how nice it was outside, Memorial Day was Memorial Day and he hated it just the same; it could’ve been the nicest day of the whole damn decade and it wouldn’t have mattered to him. Memorial Day was Memorial Day, and he hated it just the same.

None of those feelings were lost on him on this particular Memorial Day; he woke up feeling as full of shame as ever, but in his old age, he’d grown more appreciative of the world around him. The greenery, the animals, even the people around him, despite the fact that the people he’d hoped would’ve grown old with him were never given the chance. It was the camaraderie that came with spending decade upon decade in a small Southern town, full of hospitality, care, and concern for one another. He had recently started to begin each day with a walk into town, where he would smile and wave at passersby on their own morning strolls. He’d come upon the local bakery, get himself a muffin and a coffee, sometimes a slice of pie if he was feeling like it, and walk back home to sit on his front porch with his Great Dane Archie, enjoy that coffee, and read the morning paper. He was about the only person left who still read the morning paper.

Those walks had quickly become the greatest part of his days. He looked forward to them, and when he went to sleep at night, he would tell his pup aloud what was actually a reminder to himself, “I hope I make it to see tomorrow. One more day, one more walk, and each walk will be a blessing, Archie boy.” And each night, he would fall asleep eager, hopeful to do it all over again come morning.

Some mornings, there would be a little old lady sitting on a bench out in front of that bakery where he would get his breakfast. She wasn’t there every morning, but she was there enough for him to recognize her, and for her to recognize him. After some time, they’d started greeting each other. At first, just with a subtle nod and smile, and gradually, they worked their way up to a verbal “Good morning, nice day today, huh?” He was lonely, and this certainly was not a solution, but it made his walks all the more lively.

On that particular Memorial Day, he got a later start than usual. He was having a tough time finding the motivation to take his walk that morning. The thing about the lady on the bench that made her so different to him was that she did not know him beyond the man who takes walks in the mornings. She did not look at him with that same look in her eye as everyone else did, and he knew that seeing someone who looked at him with fresh, friendly, and unfamiliar eyes was exactly what he needed this Memorial Day. It was with that feeling that he decided to try to overlook the feelings of shame, the worry of being pitied by all who crossed his path, and take his morning stroll.

He arrived at the bakery a bit later than usual, but much to his relief and pleasure, she was right there, sitting where she always sat, on that bench out front. This time, however, she had set a black iced coffee and a glazed donut on the bench next to her, both of which were untouched. She had her own coffee and donut in her own lap, which she was savoring while taking in the hustle and bustle of the brisk morning around her. When he approached the bakery and saw her on that bench, with that extra coffee and donut, he knew what was going on. He knew far too well.

“May I come and join you?” he asked her, with a friendly smile, straining to hide any pity in his own expression so as not to cause her the same discomfort that he felt when he was perceived that way.

She smiled back at him, quietly nodded, “Of course you can. All I ask is that you sit with enough space between us that the coffee and donut here can stay put.”

He acknowledged the coffee and donut, thanked her, and said he’d be right back. About five minutes later, he emerged with his own coffee and donut, taking a bite out of the deliberately chosen pink frosted donut with rainbow sprinkles, instead of the white frosted one with red and blue star-shaped sprinkles. He sat down on the other side of the still full coffee and pristine donut so that there was a respectable amount of room between the two of them. Enough room, say, for someone else to come sit in that spot and replace the coffee and donut.

“Did he serve?” the man asked.

The lady looked puzzled at first, but when he gestured towards the unclaimed coffee and donut, she somberly smiled and nodded.

“He did, yes. Two tours in Vietnam. He passed away a little over two years ago, but every Memorial Day since we moved here, we would come into town and sit out in front of this bakery so that he could wear his uniform and boast his naval pride.”

The man reached over and gently touched her shoulder. He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of stars and stripes.

“I’ve been thinking about getting this removed for quite some time now, what with everything going on in our country. It isn’t the same country that it was when I pledged my life for it, and pride in this country is something I’ve been trying so very hard to rediscover, you know, since all that nonsense back in 2016. But I was deployed in ‘Nam for two tours myself. I thank you and your late husband for his service.”

“And thank you for your service as well. May I ask, if it’s not too forward, where is your uniform?”

The man’s cheeks turned red as he looked away to hide his embarrassment. It was a fair question; this was a town full of veterans, and he had an idea that the odds of him being the only one not in uniform on Memorial Day were actually pretty good. He gathered his thoughts and turned back towards her. “I take it you haven’t been here very long, have you?”

She smiled sheepishly. “No sir, not in the grand scheme of things I haven’t. Maybe six, seven years? Who can remember?”

“This is a small town, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, and it’s a pretty stereotypical small town at that. What I mean is, everybody knows everybody else, and my father was about the friendliest fella to walk these streets. He knew everybody in ways that most people would only let their immediate circles in on. And as a result, everyone knew our family, things about myself and my brothers that we may not have even known about ourselves.”

The woman nodded and adjusted the donut that sat between them, a slight breeze having blown up some napkins that were now sticking to the sugary glaze.

“I grew up the second youngest of seven boys. My mother died young, probably from the stress and heartache of having lost five sons in combat, and my father went not too long after. But I’m the only one left of our family. Everyone here knows me, but not personally. They all knew my mother and father, and so they knew us. Every year on this damned holiday, people look at me like I’m the saddest soul ever to walk this earth, and I can’t stand it. So I try to avoid it as best I can. Most years, I just stay inside all day…” The man trailed off, as he realized he probably could not articulate a reason as to why today was any different. Why today he had felt compelled to come outside and walk the little town roads that held the greatest risk of him being pitied, and reminding him of why he hated days like these so much. Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day; they were all just convenient excuses for people to tell him they’re sorry. And for what? They didn’t do anything wrong; it’s not anybody else’s fault that the love of his life or his youngest brother died of cancer. That the rest of his brothers were all killed in combat, unless these people happened to be among the soldiers who pulled the trigger or pulled the tab or called in the strike.

“Well, that’s quite a family you were raised in,” the woman said, breaking his train of thought and bringing him back to the present. He looked back at her and gave her a soft, subtle smile that seemed to say I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to unload all of that onto you, stranger.

“Yes, yes it was. It’s all gone now, though. Which is I guess why this day pains me so much. I don’t want to be constantly reminded of the fact that I am the last of us who are left, and every time someone looks at me with recognition in their eyes, that’s exactly what happens. I’m brutally reminded.” The man took a sip of his coffee and stared at the road in front of them. A road that was flooded with reds, whites, and blues; red and white roses with blue lilies on storefronts, flags raised at half-mast on every corner, and signs, streamers, and all sorts of decorations filling in the gaps. The man began to tear up, remembering why he had enlisted in the first place, the pride that he had once felt for his country and the honor that it was to call himself an American, and how he cannot bring himself to feel those same feelings any longer.

“Would you like to walk with me?” He turned towards the woman with kind, hopeful eyes.

She considered this for a moment, looked down at the donut and coffee that was reserved for her late husband, and nodded. “Yes. Yes I would.”

The man stood up and offered her his hand. The two of them took off down the road, the opposite direction from which he had come, leaving that coffee and donut right where they were. The two walked in silence for a bit, taking note of their surroundings. After several blocks, the man noticed a bicycle tied with a coil lock to a lamppost.

“Wow, look at that bicycle. It’s so orange.” He hadn’t even noticed he’d said that out loud until the woman laughed in agreement.

“Funny the things you notice nowadays, ain’t it?” she remarked. He figured that by “nowadays,” she had meant the days of old, when they had both found themselves alone in a world that can be so unforgiving—that had been so unforgiving—towards those like them.

“My—” he hesitated, but decided to continue when he realized he owed her no explanation, and it would be easier to just speak of them as if they were his own and not his brother’s, “grandkids love to give me a hard time about that. They like to tease me. My youngest just last week had pointed to a penny on the ground, delightedly announcing how shiny it was.”

“My children do the same thing. They always make fun of me for pointing out the little things, but I for one see them as reminders to myself of how lovely it is to be alive.”

The man looked at his new companion, amazed at how profound their walk had become in such a short time, on what he had always thought of as such a horrible day.

“It is lovely to be alive, isn’t it?” he whispered, unsure of whether she had heard him.

“Were you married?” she asked him, with a hint of hesitation out of fear that this may be another sore subject for him.

“I was. I met him shortly after I arrived home from the war. He was in the air force; we’d served at roughly the same time.”

She didn’t respond for a moment, taken aback by his use of the pronoun “him” instead of “her.” But who was she to judge? Especially on a somber day such as this, in a shared moment that they had both been missing for years.

“Well, I thank him for his service as well.” She thought this to be the appropriate response, sadly assuming that his husband had since passed as well.

They walked on for a bit longer, and just at the point where the man thought it was time to head back, the woman abruptly stopped walking. “Look at that!” she beamed, and pointed at a cardinal which had landed on the bench not a block in front of them.

Just when he thought there could not possibly be any more red, white, or blue in the air of today, a crimson red bird lands in front of them. Part of him thought a blue jay and a dove were in tow. She said “You know, it’s said that a cardinal is representative of a loved one coming back to say hello from the other side.”

The man blinked. He had heard that before, but he had never really thought much of it, never having been much for old fables or spirituality.

They turned around and walked the rest of the way back to the bakery mostly in silence. She told him a bit about her husband, and he told her the names of all six of his brothers, but that was the extent of the conversation. When they arrived back at the bakery, the donut and coffee were still sitting on the bench. The donut, however, was half-eaten now, and when the woman picked up the coffee to recycle the cup, she realized that it was half-empty as well.

“Seeing as though my husband was clearly preoccupied, I guess we know who the cardinal was!” She smiled at the man not with pity or sympathy, but with an understanding.

“Do we now?” the man asked, not seeming to pick up on what it was that she was suggesting.

“Well, I guess we know who it wasn’t.” The man smiled as it began to dawn on him, and at that exact moment, the cardinal was back. It landed on the bench in front of them and started nipping at the donut. The man was stunned, and just as he opened his mouth to thank the woman, both for her company as well as this bit of information, the most incredible thing stopped him in his tracks. Six more cardinals landed on the bench, crowding the donut. The woman gently touched the man’s shoulder, thanked him for his service once more, and left him there, in front of that little town bakery, surrounded by seven souls of those he had lost. Those he now, in that moment, with gratitude, pride, and love, remembered.