This coming Saturday marks the Anzac Centenary, which in more ways than one is ‘A Day to Remember’. The Centenary marks one hundred years of remembering our fathers who went off to war. Many did not return and many who did spent a life time recovering from the memory of the horrors of war. Anzac Day is bittersweet for me, just as it is for a lot of Australians.
War brings out the very worst in humanity and yet the price of freedom is always blood. I have long chosen to remember the latter and honour those who gave their lives that we might live. The bible verse John 15:3 recited on Anzac Day tells the story well. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends”.
I have shortened Marele Day’s poignant story for the sake of space but the full length story is well worth the read. One father’s story: as we, too, remember them. The caption said it all. Marele’s father was quick to anger, hard to talk to. “The war changed him”, his family said. “Yet as he neared death, Marele Day’s father finally found peace”. Marele’s story is my story and the story of millions of Australians who will attend a Dawn Service on Anzac day.
It’s 4.30am. I get up, creep around the house so as not to wake anyone. What to wear to an Anzac Day Dawn Service? Decades have passed since I last took part in Anzac Day activities, and back then it was to protest.
I live in a laidback coastal town in northern NSW, little formality required. I decide on runners and a fleecy jacket, even though the April night is unusually warm.
A car passes as I walk along the main road. Otherwise, the town appears to be sleeping. When I take the street to the War Memorial I hear a lone bugle playing. A circle of light shines on the gathered crowd and on the plaques dedicated to those who served in World War I, World War II, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam. Plaques for Iraq and Afghanistan are yet to be added. In the east, behind the black silhouettes of coastal pines, the sky is changing. The shy twitter of birds, then a kookaburra laughing. The day coming to life.
I hover at the edge of the congregation, thinking back to childhood. I’m seven or eight, almost tall enough when standing to look eye to eye with my father who is sitting at the kitchen table. It must have been a weekend in summer because he was wearing shorts, relaxed enough for me to venture a question.
He wasn’t always approachable.
In any of our interactions with him, my sister and I found ourselves automatically assessing the situation. Was he in a good mood? How long could we chat before he had enough, or made a comment he thought was cheeky and be blasted by his thundering voice? He never hit us, much as he threatened. The voice was enough. It bore down on us like a tidal wave, crushing us with its force.
I must have decided he was in a good mood. I don’t remember thinking about the question for very long, just coming out with it. ‘Did you kill anyone in the war, dad?’
He didn’t answer, frozen into silence. The kitchen clock kept ticking, steady as a heartbeat. My father’s eyes were downcast, staring into a dark chasm. I teetered on the edge of it, bewildered. Something was terribly wrong. He should be taking charge, at least chastising me for being cheeky. Where had he gone? Only later could I name what I saw on my father’s face that day. It was shame.
A couple of years ago my father phoned me. It was always my mother who took this initiative, rarely my father. The call was short but monumental. ”I want you to know that the three things I’m proudest of in my life are marrying your mother, having you two girls, and being a Rat of Tobruk.” It was tantamount to a declaration of love.
He had recently turned 91, could feel the tide of his life turning. There was an urgency to say the things that had been left unspoken. Despite the shame I witnessed all those years ago, and the question that still remains unanswered, it did not really come as a surprise to find my father’s World War II service as a Rat of Tobruk in his top three. By securing Tobruk in 1941, the Rats gave the Allies their first significant victory. Of the original 15,000 Australians who fended off Rommel’s Afrika Corps, 70 years later when my father made his declaration, fewer than 100 were still alive. His war service at Tobruk, then El Alamein, Lae, Borneo and Finschafen, formed the man who would become my father…
After successful treatment for a bowel blockage he commented: ”I feel terrific. It was the biggest evacuation since Dunkirk.” We laughed uncontrollably, heartily, all three of us, for a long time. My father no longer put a stop to it with ‘That’s enough!’ It was as if some emotional blockage had also been relieved…
In a metal box I found his service medals and a Father’s Day card from my mother written when her hand and mind were still steady: ”Thank you for being the father of my children.” There they were, contained in this box, the symbols of my father’s proudest achievements. I held the box in my hands till the cold metal grew warm, tears welling in my eyes…
I have become the keeper of memories…
I came to the dawn service to bear witness for my father but I am thinking of the life we all one day will leave behind, about what dies with us and what we pass on. In the sky are wisps of pink and the sun starts to break through thick, grey clouds.
The greatest celebration of Anzac Day is about to take place in our nation this coming Saturday 25th April 2015. I strongly encourage you to get your children out of bed and go to an Anzac Dawn Service in the town or city that you live in. I have been doing it for the last few decades and it brings healing to the weary soul. You can pass this healing on to your children.
Your children need to know what our ancestors went through and they need to see that you are prepared to honour them for their sacrifice. Attending a Dawn Service like does not mean that you endorse the insanity of war but it does mean that you understand the words recited at every Anzac Service. “Greater love has no man than this than he lay down his life for his friends”. It is a story your children need to be told.
Yours for remembering our fathers’ sacrifice
PS. Check the video link of the week, a song called ‘Spirit of the Anzacs’ by Lee Kernaghan with Guy Sebastian, Shannon Noll and several other well known Aussie artists. Purchase it on iTunes. All proceeds go to charity.
There are still some places available for the ‘Train the Trainer’ Summit 22-24 May 2015. We are extending the closing date to Friday 24 April 2015.
For those men who want to make a difference in the lives of other men by learning how to run the ‘Good to Great Fathering Course’, apply here.