Keeping Memories Alive: Parents Tell Son's Story

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While many families are kicking off their summer vacation with trips to the beach or a day of hitting the holiday sales, scores of others are remembering service members who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. For one Rhode Island family, Monday marks the first Memorial Day they will spend since their son died in Afghanistan.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Memories of America's service men and women are perhaps freshest on this Memorial Day for those who have lost family members in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Elizabeth Harrison of member station WRNI in Rhode Island has the story of one such family.

Ms. MELANE PARANZINO: His dress uniform is hanging there. When I really need -when I'm really desperate, I'll hug it.

ELIZABETH HARRISON: Melane Paranzino lost her son Michael in November. His Army Reserve uniform hangs in the family dining room, which is full of photos and keepsakes put out for a memorial service months ago. A framed snapshot of Michael in full combat gear reminds her of the lives he touched in Afghanistan.

Ms. PARANZINO: Michael was well known amongst children of the village. They would come outside of a strongpoint and chant Zino, Zino, Zino until he would appear. I had all the faith in the world that he was coming home. I guess I was confused which home he was going to.

HARRISON: Michael Paranzino was just 22 when he died near Kandahar, after stepping on an improvised explosive device. His father, Butch Paranzino, remembers the day he learned his son was gone.

Mr. BUTCH PARANZINO: I just left the office, got a phone call from my secretary that an Army commander stopped into the office and needed to talk with me and could I call him right away. Unfortunately, your intuition goes to work and you know.

HARRISON: Grief is something the Paranzinos carry with them all the time now, like Michael's dog tags, which they both wear around their necks.

Mr. PARANZINO: Every day presents its own struggle. You never know what will remind you of Michael in a way that causes you to catch your breath or have a tear.

Ms. PARANZINO: Sometimes it's a day at a time; sometimes it's a minute at a time.

HARRISON: Melane Paranzino, who teaches nursing at a local community college, says friends and colleagues are there with plenty of hugs when she needs them. And then there are the strangers, like the artist who gave her a graphite portrait of her son.

Ms. PARANZINO: It's an incredible likeness. And the way his face is lit up? That's how Michael is, was, will forever be.

HARRISON: Losing Michael has meant the Paranzinos have had to redefine themselves as the parents of a fallen soldier.

In the small beachside community where they live, news of Michael's death spread quickly, even making the local papers. Melane Paranzino says talking about it helps.

Ms. PARANZINO: It's by retelling it and thinking about it and processing it that you heal. I don't know that you ever completely recover, but I guess the pain gets a little bit less. It changes you, this kind of a loss. It takes time to figure out, you know, who you are and what your new normal is.

HARRISON: That new normal also means connecting with other military families and survivors. Butch Paranzino says they stay in touch with several members of Michael's unit, who are now back from Afghanistan.

Mr. PARANZINO: They are our surrogate children. When they send us emails and communicate, I'm Papa Zino and that's Mama Zino because Michael was Zino, you know? And whatever is going on with them, we are interested in that and we have energy in caring for them.

HARRISON: The Paranzinos saw Michael just days before his death while he was home on leave. They say he looked happy, strong and military life seemed to suit him. They will honor his death by keeping that memory alive.

For NPR News, I'm Elisabeth Harrison in Providence.

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