Like the great majority of the American population, I have no one in my family who died in military service. Generations of my ancestors served in conflicts from the Civil War to World War II, but no one died in combat. Five years ago I knew only one man who had been killed in Vietnam. The grief of war was an abstract thing to me. I understood Memorial Day, meaning I knew the difference between it and Veterans Day and the Fourth of July, but it still felt like a day of observance that belonged to other people.

Through working on the project that has become The One String Violin: The Long Cost of War, though, I have gotten to know many men whose names are on The Wall. I got to know them decades after their deaths and only through the stories told about them. I have imagined them. I have seen in my mind’s eye the mortal wounds. In a strange and mystical way, I have been present at their deaths. I have watched their bodies leave the field, felt the vacancy left by their sudden absence. Five years ago I knew nothing about them. Now I know something about their being in this life through the stories of their leaving it.

So thank you to the story-tellers. Thank you to those who take war stories out of the abstractions of “glory,” “heroism,” “defenders of our freedoms.” Thank you to those who tell about quiet, lonely deaths, deaths that happened long after the conflict, or deaths that don’t fit the stereotypes of social media memes, or flags and parades. It is through such stories that I have learned to share in the grief of Memorial Day.

So today I lift a glass to those I now know, to those whose stories I have still to hear, and to all of us, that we may honor these dead rightly by deciding the cost of war is too high to pay.