It was a cool winter’s day. Yellow sunlight burned its way through the damp haze that hung in the air. Jack’s friends had just left after offering their assistance and support. Even Kevin Priest, who could barely stand and stared forlornly at the stump where his left hand had been. They were all unflinchingly sincere in their sadness and their support. Their troop commander Bob Hastings gave us a flag signed by all the men, and left us at the doorstep saying “Anything you need…”
Exhausted by their visit, I sat on the couch while Ally set to drawing with the art set Jack’s friends had brought her.
“Mummy – when do we go to say ‘thank you and goodbye’ to Daddy?”
The question astonished me. Ally had just been given the news that her father had died while serving in Afghanistan. For all that she was a precocious child, this seemed like a question and a statement that seemed even beyond her seven-going-on-thirty years. I choked back a sob.
“Ally, sweetheart. Sometimes you amaze me. Daddy’s funeral service will be on Thursday.”
Ally counted. “Today is Monday? So… three sleeps?”
“That’s right. But if you want to thank him, you can do it any time. Was there something in particular you wanted to thank him for?”
“Oh Mummy! It’s to say thank you for going overseas to help other people when it would be so much easier to stay here and help you make the bed or do the dishes… Or mow the lawns… Or put the bins out!” She finally ran out of chores to list off.
She had a point. Since the news of his passing while on patrol in Oruzgan Province, I had been cursing his selfishness – abandoning us so he could go and play soldier. But I should have known better. He was there because he believed in the mission. He believed he was making a difference to the lives of the civilians who were being subjected to all manner of horrors – economic, cultural and societal – by Taliban extremists. He believed he was doing the right thing in helping the local people of Oruzgan decide for themselves whether their society should be dragged back to the “glory days” of the 12th century. Jack certainly wasn’t a missionary… but he definitely had a mission.
I shook myself out of my reverie and looked wanly at Ally. “Would you like me to tell you one of Daddy’s stories?”
“That’s okay Mummy. I think I remember them. But I do have a question.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Where did Daddy learn to love other people so much?”
That threw me. I knew he had a big heart from the first day I met him. We were on a singles wine-tour in the Barossa Valley and the bus clipped a dog. The bus driver was torn between his duty to keep to his itinerary on behalf of his passengers, and the concern he had for the struck animal. Jack said he would leave the tour to make sure the dog was looked after. I left the tour as well – intrigued by the kind-heartedness on display. Jack bundled up the dog – a kelpie/border collie cross – in his jacket, and we chatted while waiting for a taxi to take us to the local vet hospital.
“Oh – it wasn’t just people, Ally. He loves – loved – animals and places and things too.” I sniffed.
Ally stepped over to me and took my hand. “He loved us very much Mummy. He loved you very much.”
“I know, baby girl. He loved you very much too.”
“I know.” She smiled cheerfully. “Do you think we could go visit some of his favourite places?”
“No… silly Mummy. I mean later. Once we have said goodbye.”
“Oh. Of course! Is there any place in particular you wanted to go to?”
“I’d like to go see Max and Uncle Reg and Auntie Jean!”
Reg and Jean Ashton were the owners of Max – the dog that Jack and I took care of the day we met. The vet hospital had called them in and they invited us to stay with them for the balance of the weekend in thanks for looking after Max. A few years older than Jack and I, they were working at one of the big wineries in Angaston. Reg was a junior winemaker, and Jean worked in the cellar door. After that weekend, Jack and I had become a part of not only their family, but of each other’s. They now ran their own winery, and any time Jack was home on furlough, we’d head up to the Barossa to see them.
“I’d like that very much too.” A tear ran down my face as I sniffled.
“Don’t cry Mummy. I’ll look after you just like Daddy asked me to.”
“He asked you to look after me?”
“Of course. Just like he would have asked you to look after me. I’m just a little girl after all.”
“But – w-what – w-w-when…?” I stammered.
“The night before he went to Afghanistan he said that I was a big girl, and that I had to look after you if he didn’t come home. But he also said I had to listen to you, and help with the dishes and the gardening if you asked me. And keep my room tidy and clean. And to eat my greens, even if I don’t really like them. Although broccoli is green, and I like that!”
Until that day, I had thought that I had been Ally’s primary caregiver, with Jack away so often – first in Iraq, then in Afghanistan. But at that point, I knew that she was his daughter first and foremost. She had his brave and honest love, and his big heart. She would be fine. She would become a resilient, open-hearted and caring young woman. And with that, I resolved that I would match her bravery and love with my own. That day, I rescued my own injured dog on the roadside – took responsibility for it, and sought to live up to the standard that Jack – the good soldier – had set for us both.