I was at The Wall last Veteran's Day, standing in the sad mist and listening to the speakers. One of them recognized the grief of the Gold Star mothers, a term I had not heard since my high school history days, back when World War II was the war of our fathers' remembrance. I thought about the Gold Star mothers, the mothers who lost sons in World War II. The government had issued them blue stars to put in their windows when their sons enlisted, and now gave them gold stars, a small recognition of their terrible sorrow and sacrifice. The speaker referred to the mothers of Vietnam with the same term, never mind that sacrifice was not a term embraced in the '60s. He was recognizing in a phrase the really important fact, the pain that they live with daily, even now, years later: their sons, the ones they loved one by one, were killed.
It occurred to me that the mothers are the same now as they were 25 and 50 years ago; they grieve unimaginably for their lost sons. Only now the war has changed. Today it is a battle for a generation of young men, hope struggling with violence. The sacrifice today is different; we wouldn't even grace it with the word. Our nation did not call up the young men who die, nor our state, nor our city. They are just being killed, one by one.
And still their mothers cry. Today the war front is the home front, and the home front is in our homes. The hard young man who died as he lived has a mother or aunt or grandmother who loves him now as dearly as she loved him growing up, only now the promise is gone. The police officer who faced his fear down in order to do his job, the innocent who got a bullet because the bullet didn't care; they had women who raised them and loved them day by day. The lucky ones had men, too. These aching men and women now see the world only through their wounds.
Why not give them a gold star or a gold heart? It would cost nothing and mean everything. It would be a tiny little token that says "We know."
Baltimore could be a city of windows, where a tired, sad woman could see, here and there, a kindred heart. Who knows the power of a heart? Maybe disempowered people would begin to talk to each other. At the very least, they would know that other people care, that they are not, even in the coldest of our neighborhoods, forgotten. At the most, it could be the beginning of the way back.
Who would give them their hearts? And who would receive them? It is not important. There is little cost. There would be no need for paperwork or record checks. If a neighbor knew that a man or woman raised that child, or somebody just hurt so much for him that his heart needed help, that would be enough. There would be no reason to judge the dead; it is the living who need the heart's touch. And maybe, as these little hearts flourished across Baltimore, people would decide that enough is enough, begin to see themselves and begin to carry our city back.
Ken Katzen is a teacher in Howard County.