Monday, July 23, 2007

Happy 30th Birthday, Ken

July 21, 2007 was an especially hard day. Since Ken was killed in Iraq on 5.30.04, we have celebrated his life on his birthday and on his deathday. For the anniversary of his death, we travel to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to celebrate his too short life. For his birthday in July, we go to a local park in Mountain View, CA. This is our local community who have always been supportive of me as I travel this journey of bereavement.

This birthday, Ken would have turned 30. I'm not sure what made the day more difficult; that we were celebrating this 30th anniversary of his birth. 30 should have been one of his milestone birthdays, so we celebrated without him physically present, but always in our hearts and on our minds (some of of on our bodies, with the tattoos in Ken's honor. Or was it that we were celebrating on his actual birthday? I had always run away from home in previous years and being around people, especially on Ken's birthday was difficult.
My local paper, the San Jose Mercury News wrote a very nice accounting of our celebration. The reporter is Kim Vo, the photographer is Pauline Lubens. I am grateful that they both saw a story in this celebration and understood that our loss is not only Ken's families. His death was a pebble dropped into a smooth pond and touched lives of his friends, his community and of our country. I heard from friends and family all over the country wishing me well and acknowledging missing Ken, too. I am not alone in missing Ken. I do not know if I will ever know the lives that Ken touched in his short time here, and we must always remember that our loved ones lived and not just how they died. Happy birthday, buddy!

Here is an audio slide show, too "Celebrating Ken's Life" (thanks, Pauline, as always, for your amazing photography)

Keeping a soldier's memory alive

Like most birthday parties, there were balloons, bubbles and stories. What was missing was the birthday boy.

Ken Ballard died May 30, 2004, in Iraq. He would have turned 30 on Saturday.

"He shouldn't just be remembered for how he died," said his mom, Karen Meredith. She has held posthumous birthday parties the past three years "as a celebration of his life."
For military families who've lost loved ones in the war, such events are common. They host backyard barbecues and park picnics.

Every year, Fremont mom Diane Layfield, whose son Travis died in Iraq, goes to El Burro restaurant. She places his photo at the head of the table, then orders their favorite: two cheese enchilada verde.

For the Meredith family, Cuesta Park in Mountain View is the spot. It's where they celebrated after Ballard graduated from Mountain View High School in 1995. It's where they wilted under the sweltering heat last year, cooling themselves with ice cubes as they toasted his memory.
Celebrating is a must for Meredith, who raised Ballard as a single mother. When he was young, she indulged him with "Star Wars" and firefighter-themed birthday parties. She even baked a firetruck-shaped cake. After he joined the Army, she shipped brownies to the Middle East, packing candles in the box so his fellow soldiers would get the hint.
The day after his burial, five of his relatives inked their bodies with memorial tattoos. Others followed suit.
At Saturday's gathering, the body art ranged from black ribbons to gold stars to a banner that read "Ken-21-RTFO" - a reference to Ballard, the number of his tank and his profane utterance to "Rock the f--k on."
Power in numbers
Still, even with all the past memorials and tributes, Saturday was tough. Thirty is a milestone year, one usually marked with black balloons, over-the-hill jokes and hints about marriage.
In past years, the parties hovered near his birthday. This year, it fell smack on: Ballard, who made first lieutenant, was born July 21, 1977.
Other years, "I could run away, go to the beach, pull the covers over my head" on Ballard's birthday, Meredith said. She never knows how she's going to feel, when a memory will make her smile or steal her breath, leaving her sobbing. "You don't know when you're going to get slammed."
It's a sentiment shared by Ballard's family, who were among the 30 guests at the park - including Ballard's grandmother, Pat Meredith.
When asked how many grandchildren she had, she momentarily flinched.
"We've got 14 now," she said quietly.
"This is a hard day. Usually we're well," she said. "But it's good for people who know Ken and understand. Most of our friends don't have a connection to the war, so they don't understand days like this."
Among the guests were other moms who've lost sons in the war and parents who are about to send their children overseas. Ballard's former Mountain View High teacher also came, as did peace activists, people who knew him as a boy and those who only heard about him after his death.
"I met all these people through the loss of our sons and daughters," said Layfield, whose son Travis was killed in 2004. "We've become a family through that."
The guests held varying opinions about the war. Meredith has criticized the government for not telling her for 15 months that her son was killed by a machine gun accidentally discharging - not in combat as the military initially reported. But none of that mattered Saturday, she said. Saturday was about Ballard.
A new family ritual
Guests flipped through photo albums, swapping stories. Here's Ken wearing that loud red Hawaiian shirt over his fatigues. Remember how the cousins loved riding his back while he did push-ups? Ken declared "No Pants Days" in Iraq, allowing his unit to wear only boxers in their tank, where the heat could rise to 160 degrees.
Cathy Patton stopped at a photo of Ken with his cousin Elizabeth, Patton's daughter. The two were born four months apart and raised like siblings. Elizabeth turns 30 this November, another reminder of something Ballard was supposed to achieve first - but never did.
"It's all things, like when my daughters have babies, he won't," she said. "Get married, he won't."
Throughout Cuesta Park on a picture-pretty Saturday, other families gathered for their own rituals: a summertime picnic and volleyball game, a baby's first birthday party with purple and orange balloons hanging from the tree like fat Christmas ornaments.
Meredith had balloons, too. People attached notes to the long, thin ribbons: "Thank you for your service," "Happy 30th Birthday, Ken" and "Kenny, I miss you so much."
The man at the balloon store had asked her how much helium she needed. It didn't matter, she said, she was releasing them into the sky. He looked horrified - such disregard for the environment!
"How else," she asked the clerk, "are they going to get to heaven?"
When it was time, she invited up all the women like herself - Travis' mom, Erik's mom, Pat's mom - who had lost their sons. They clutched at the balloons, red as hearts and carrying loving thoughts.
Then, they opened their fists and the breeze blew by, carrying the balloons high and away from this earth. People kept staring after them, long after they had disappeared from view.


Chancelucky said...

I loved the comment about the helium. "How else are they going to get to heaven?"

Hopefully someday soon, we'll be able to celebrate all of these young men and women's birthday in style when our country stops getting into needless wars.

GSMSO said...

Hey Chance

Thanks for stopping by.

Maybe my birthday wish is for a peace based country rather than the big war machine that currently powers our economy. We could do it if we wanted to.