IT WAS OUR DAY
Sally pushed the pram over the cobbles of the church yard and headed down the footpath to the gravestone that had become an unwelcome, but familiar haunt over the last year. Had it really been a year already?
As they approached the spot she had so carefully chosen - close to the edge of the cemetery for privacy, but with a view looking out to the sea, where she knew part of his heart always rested - it was clear to see others had already been to pay their respects that morning. It warmed her heart to know that it was not just his immediate family that still missed him, but his Navy family too. There was no doubt that the majority of the gifts would be from them.
"It all looks so pretty, mummy," Chloe whispered from her side, her hushed tones more to prevent her baby brother from waking than from the reverent surroundings they now found themselves in.
"It does indeed, sweetheart." Sally smiled wistfully. "Your father was loved by a lot of people who still clearly miss him, just as much as we do."
The trouble with days like today were they just made things worse; that endless hole of sadness you worked so hard to close would just burst wide open again, each and every raw emotion cutting deeper than the last time. But worse still, sometimes, was the brazen assault of memories that took you tumbling back to the good times; to the better times.
Sally pushed away the thought, determined to concentrate on the here and now, needing to stay focused and strong for her two children. Kneeling on the grass, carefree about the stains she would incur, she gently manoeuvred the gifts and decorations so Chloe's potted plant that she had lovingly tended to and cared for over the last month, could blossom at the centre of her father's headstone. Chloe joined her on the ground, and together they began their ritual of reading others thoughts and feelings about the man they had cherished the most.
"Be at peace. RO"
"You were, and always will be, my inspiration. Thank you. Bird"
"To our courageous hero, you're always in our hearts. We miss you. Love Kate and Mike"
"Still can't believe you're gone, mate. Charge"
The tears were now precariously close. The sentiment was one she battled with daily, and despite the half empty bedroom, the lack of masculine items scattered around the house, the decreasing existence of the musty odour that was her husband, she still couldn't bring herself to admit his passing. Her mind could not seem to get past the obstacle of denial that insisted he was just away on a long deployment. At the back of her mind, however, she knew differently. She couldn't forget that day…
Sally woke to a shrill blast coming from the nightstand. Convinced her alarm clock was the culprit her hand snuck out from under the covers and whacked the machine. Still the noise continued. Groaning, she pried her eyes and hauled herself onto her elbows. The sudden movements made her nausea worse, and it took a moment before the symptoms subsided long enough to survey her surroundings.
The digital alarm clock, despite being battered, was still fully functional and displaying '08:00'. She sighed, suddenly annoyed with herself that she had managed to sleep in for so long, and that despite the extra sleep she still felt like crap. Chatter from the bedroom across the hall reached her ears; Chloe was apparently awake and hosting an early morning tea party with her dolls.
The high pitched squealing began all over again. Catching the glowing of her phone, she finally registered she had an incoming call. Fumbling for the device, she hit 'answer' without checking the ID. "Hello?"
"Hey Sal!" The familiar voice brought a smile to her lips and temporarily settled her stomach as she greeted her husband. "Sal, I've got some bad news." He didn't need to finish that sentence; she already knew what was coming. Truth be told, had she seen the caller ID, she would have known where the conversation was heading before he uttered a word.
The universe felt her pain; a loud rumble outside drew her attention to the unusually darkened exterior. "We've been crash sailed, sweetheart," he added, as another thunderous crash rocked the house. A flash accompanied the noise this time, and it took a matter of seconds for Chloe to appear in the doorway unnerved by the natural phenomenon.
She invited her daughter into her bed and hugged her tightly, the only part of her husband she had close to hand these days. "I understand." And understand she did. He was Navy, and a ship stopper, and she knew that when she married him. The Navy came with certain responsibilities, responsibilities that sometimes kept him away from the ones that loved him the most.
"I can't say much, but it's a matter of national security. I really am sorry, Sal." She could hear the sorrow in his voice. "I'll be home before you know it though." It didn't go unnoticed that he made no guarantees. After missing Chloe's birth, it was something he refused to do again. She just hoped he wouldn't miss the next one. "I hate to cut our conversation short, but I have to run. I love you, honey. Chloe too."
"And we love you back," was all she could muster. Her tongue was desperate to tell him her news at that moment, but her head convinced herself that it was best delivered face to face. Besides, she wanted to see the look of astonishment and excitement and panic and joy; all the emotions she had already been through herself at the doctor's office.
"Love you daddy!" Chloe yelled, and before she knew it, he was gone.
With Chloe by her side, a short thundery spell echoing overhead, she remained in her room, just lying on the bed. Mother and daughter, and unborn child, together in silence, the absence of Chris felt more at that moment than anyone would admit.
A whimper from her side snapped Sally back to reality and to the small infant that needed her attention right then. Chloe was already on tip toes and peering over the side of the vintage-style pram. Sally watched on as her daughter gently stroked the side of her brother's cheek, something she had done so many times herself. Whatever nightmare had disturbed his sleep seemed to disperse at his sister's touch and he settled once again.
"It's okay, mummy. I'm his big sister. That's my job," she said, matter-of-factly.
Sally smiled sadly. "Well, thank you, sweetheart. You are doing an excellent job. Your father would be proud."
"He is proud, mummy. He's watching over us, remember? He's our angel, and now he's angel Christo's too."
Sally held back the small chuckle that arose every time she heard the nickname Chloe had developed for her brother. But with the mirth always came a twang of pain that squeezed at her heart. It had started almost as soon as she had named the baby, announcing he would be Christopher after his father.
She had overheard her daughter talking enthusiastically to a group of Navy wives who had gathered to show their support, and coo over the newest arrival to their unconventional family. It was to that audience she revealed her brother's new nickname. The ladies had laughed just as much as she had initially, until one had the foresight to ask her why she had opted for something so unique, rather than just Christopher or a simple Chris.
'Christopher was too long,' she had patiently explained, adding afterwards, 'And Chris was my daddy's name. Not my brother's. Saying Chris all the time makes me sad.' And it made Sally even sadder. Just the memory of that afternoon was enough to bring her to tears. That information had shattered her world all over again; the previous time being when she received the devastating news she always dreaded hearing…
Sally was darting around the house attempting to finish the spring cleaning before Chloe returned home from after school club. She hadn't bothered altering the plans since her husband's phone call earlier that morning, allowing Chloe to attend after school club with her best friend, with whom she was due to receive a lift home.
"I'm coming," she yelled from the kitchen as the doorbell rang. Her eyes flicked to the hallway clock, and as she pulled open the door, she expected to find her daughter. Instead, she was greeted by two familiar Navy personnel, both dressed in their pristine whites, sombre looks adorning their faces. She might have been mistaken, but Kate's expression appeared to only just be held in place, red-rimmed eyes betraying the cool and collected exterior she was fighting to uphold.
"Mike, Kate." Sally greeted each with a smile. "I didn't expect to see you here. What can I do for you?"
"Can we come in?" Mike questioned, removing his hat. Kate followed suited.
"Of course," she smiled, gesturing for them to enter, "Where are my manners?"
They walked in and took up residence in the front room, neither attempting to sit, despite Sally's insistence. She was trying desperately to keep things normal, to keep them upbeat, but their mere presence told her more than their words ever could. They were only here because whatever they had to say couldn't be said over the telephone - it needed the personal touch. And that meant only one thing.
Mike coughed nervously, Sally catching Kate's flinching reaction. She sensed almost immediately that they were present at their own insistence, that had protocol been followed, an unfamiliar face would be staring back at her, about to reveal the truth she so vehemently wanted to deny.
"Sally," Mike began.
"Don't, Mike," she insisted sharply. "Don't say it. Please."
Kate was already in tears. Like metal to magnets, the two women gravitated towards each other with lightning speed, an unspoken understanding between them. "It'll be okay; it has to be," Kate whispered, as much to herself as to Sally.
But it made no difference; Sally was lost in a world of her own. "This can't be happening. Not now, not to Chris. I need him," she continued to mutter to herself. "I need him. I need my husband; my children need their father." The mere realisation that dawned at her own words sent her running for the kitchen sink where she promptly returned the small snack of crackers she had managed to nibble on half an hour previously.
Silently exchanging looks with Mike, Kate left the lounge and joined Sally in the kitchen. She, at least, knew exactly what the poor woman was going through; the need to throw up her own lunch had taken route once the initial shock at watching Jim being blown to pieces before her very eyes had worn off.
"Sal?" Kate quietly asked, stepping next to her counterpart in this unfolding tragedy. "I know how you're feeling," she began, but the tearful bitter laugh stopped her. A muffled 'How could you?' came from the sink where Sally refused to move. She took a few deep, calming breaths while the running tap washed away the evidence of her previous actions. Kate looked towards the Heavens for some divine help. Careful not to use his Navy nickname, she tried her best to explain. "I know, because Jim was with Chris, Sal. I lost my fiancé."
Surprised, and saddened, Sally rose and looked at Kate, the tears about to fall again. "And I lost my unborn baby's father."
Kate slapped a hand to her mouth in shock, a further wave of guilt and grief sweeping through her. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry, Sal. I didn't know; we didn't know." They were back in each other's arms, fresh tears escaping from both of them. "Chris never said."
"He didn't know," she sobbed. "I never got the chance. He was supposed to be home this evening and I was going to tell him over dinner. And now…" Only there were no words to finish her sentence, just more tears.
"Uncle Mike!" yelled an enthusiastic five-year-old as she bounced through the front door, heading straight towards the man, her youthful exuberance making her immune to the tension and sadness that had descended on her house. Mike cast a fleeting, panicked glance at Kate, begging for her help in handling the situation.
Short stubby arms wrapped themselves around his leg before he had the chance to be rescued. Finished with her affectionate greeting, she stepped away and tossed her school bag in the corner. "I had the bestest day ever at school today! The teacher let us do arty stuff, and I drawed a picture for daddy."
She toed off her shoes quickly without untying the laces, and waited for her mother's wrath; only it never came. Shrugging, she turned back to Mike and continued her conversation. "My picture has the Hammersley and lots of sea. And there's lots of sailors, just like daddy. But daddy is special 'cause he's a doctor sailor. See!"
Whipping the rolled up A3 picture from her bag, she unveiled it to reveal wiggly lines of blue, with the odd streaks of mixed in grey representing the sea. A large pointy grey shape sat proud in the centre. "That's you," she smiled, pointing to a stick figure with a round pink blob head that was decorated with a smaller white blob above his head.
"And there's Kate!" Her enthusiastic fingers pointed to the only stick person that had long flowing blonde hair. "And there's daddy," she added, singling out the lone figure at the back of the ship. The image alone brought a tear to his eye, and he had to swallow the lump in his throat in order to comment.
He was certain she had been trying to add medical supplies and equipment to her father's image, but the selection of items had him appearing more like an angel than a sailor. The paintbrush had either not been washed properly between colours or had mixed over time in her palette, as the white blob that should had represented Swain's hat had been tinted with Kate's hair colour, and left a yellow halo above him instead. "It's beautiful, Chloe," he choked. "Absolutely perfect."
"Where's daddy?" she suddenly blurted out. Mike was stumped. His tongue knotting immediately, allowing no sound to pass his lips. Her hands on her hips, a sudden miniature version of Sally, she demanded, "Did you make him stay on the boat to do boring reports again?" Tiny eyes scrutinised his face, and he couldn't help squirming. There was nothing more he wanted to do than to be able to tell this precious little girl that she was right.
He felt like a coward, but he was more than thankful when he heard Sally's voice call out to her daughter. From nowhere, Kate slipped into place beside him, her hand finding its way into his squeezing it for reassurance, for which of them she wasn't quite sure. Given the circumstances, the harrowing exchange that was about to take place, and the ever growing emptiness she felt inside, she couldn't help but allow her head to fall and rest gently on his arm.
"Chloe, sweetheart, daddy's not here," she started, kneeling on the floor in front of her daughter.
"But I drawed a picture for him," she protested. "I wanted to show him."
"You can show me instead," Sally suggested, pushing away the overwhelming urge to lock herself in the bedroom and hide under the covers. Chloe held up the painting proudly, the images bringing on a fresh battle with her unshed tears. "Mike is right, sweetheart. It is beautiful."
Sally admired the artwork, convinced that on any other occasion, her daughter's choice of colours would have appeared vibrant, but for some reason even the bright yellow round sun circle looked dull and grey. The wavy ocean turned gloomy before her eyes, the grey of the ship dragging her further into despair. "I wish he could see it, sweetheart."
"He can," she insisted. "When he comes back."
Sally let forth a sob she could no longer contain. "He's not coming back, sweetheart," she cried, grabbing her daughter tightly, and holding onto her for dear life.
"Mummy?" she questioned, wriggling free of the tight hold. "Where's daddy? What happened?"
She stared at her daughter blankly, suddenly realising that despite the upset and turmoil, she still didn't know herself what had happened to her husband. A pleading look went in her friends' direction. Kate was already beside Sally attempting to shed some light on recent events.
Kate needed to say the words, needed to verbalise the reality that she had been denying the last few hours. "Your daddy, and my," she paused. How was she supposed to explain 'fiancé' to a five-year-old? 'Boyfriend' didn't quite seem the right term either. She tried again.
"Your daddy, and my best friend Jim, they did a really brave thing today. They were heroes. They saved a lot of people, including me, and you, and your mum." She wanted to continue, explain in detail, but was unsure if such information was suitable for such young ears, but Sally's encouragement spurred her on. "Some really nasty people made a bomb that could have hurt a lot of people. Your daddy, and Jim, they tried to turn the bomb off, but when they couldn't, they tried to make it smaller, so it wouldn't hurt so many people. Only," Kate stumbled, closing her eyes to regain her own composure. "Only they couldn't make it small enough, and it hurt them."
"They both died, sweetheart," Sally added, relieving Kate of her story-telling duty. Her own tears back once again, Kate sort her own refuge - Mike's embrace. He held her tight and they both bore witness as Chloe's happy little world shattered.
"You remember when Grandpa died? Nanna said that Heaven needed him more than she did, more than we all did?" Chloe nodded. "Well, it was the same for daddy - Heaven needed him too."
"So, daddy's in Heaven, with Grandpa?" she asked trying to wrap her head around the situation.
"Yes, sweetheart. Heaven called, and daddy answered."
"Did daddy go to Heaven to be a doctor angel?"
Sally laughed, despite her tears and desperation. "Maybe, sweetheart, maybe," she muttered, hugging her daughter once more.
Tucked against her mother, Chloe couldn't help but ask the one question she most needed answered. Her voice quivered, frightened that the answer would not be what she wanted. "Do doctor angels watch over us like normal angels do? Will daddy watch over us like Grandpa does?"
She sighed, relieved. There was quiet for a moment. A further whispered question eventually arose. "Do you think daddy's seen my picture?"
"Definitely. I bet he's showing Grandpa right now," she added, feeling a small smile form against her chest from her daughter.
When Sally pulled herself back to the present, she found Chloe had disappeared off down the pathway with the pram, Christopher's soft whimpers reaching her ears even at this distance. She called out instructions to be careful, but was thankful for the few moments alone by her husband's graveside.
"Hey honey," she whispered, her fingers tracing the lettering of his name, her eyes closing and imagining her husband at the tips of her fingers instead. "You have a son, Chris; a beautiful bouncing baby boy. But I guess you know that already."
Smiling, Sally swiped at the lone tear that trickled down her face. The sadness dissipated, replaced by warmth as she thought back to the loving weekend they had spent together that had resulted in Christopher. She laughed to herself, a brief blush creeping up her cheeks as she remembered some of the more graphic details.
"Do you remember that long weekend we had away together? Down on the Gold Coast? Well, I came home with more than just sunburn," she smiled, remembering their morning lie-ins, afternoons in the sun, and precious alone time as they enjoyed several early nights as just husband and wife, not mother and father. "It's amazing what you can achieve when you stop trying," she added wistfully. "He is beautiful, perfect; he looks just like you. Every time I look into his eyes, it's like you're staring back at me."
A scream of protest came from the pram. Christopher wiggled and squirmed, the noise reaching a high pitch level in a few seconds. Although he didn't know any better, his response seemed inappropriate for their location. Chloe was already racing back to her mother. Sally was quickly on her feet, and reaching for the crying infant. "Shh, it's okay. There, there, shh," she cooed, gently bobbling the tiny bundle. The human contact had him hushing almost immediately.
"I think he wanted to say hello to daddy, too," Chloe announced.
"Maybe you're right," Sally agreed. "Christopher, say hi to your dad." The now contented infant babbled in response, eliciting a gasp from his mother. Chloe nestled next to her mother, a quiet sadness descending on her. Manoeuvring her son, she freed one arm and pulled her daughter close. "Don't be sad, Chloe. We'll all meet again someday, in Heaven."
"I know," she whispered. "I just wish it was sooner rather than later."
Sally sighed. "I know, sweetheart, I wish I could see him now, too. But, it's going to be a long time before we do because otherwise how can we tell him about all the good stuff that's happened in our lives? About how you went to big school, how you went to college, how you got a boyfriend and got married and had children, how-" she was about to continue when Chloe spoke up.
"About how I joined the Navy, just like him!"
Smiling, Sally agreed. "Yes, about how you joined the Navy."
"And we can talk about all the things we used to do together."
"Exactly. But we need to make lots and lots and lots of stories to tell daddy before we get to see him. We'll keep him entertained for eternity with all the adventures we are going to have."
"For now," Chloe announced, lying down on the grass. She pointed towards the blue sky. "We can just watch the stars, and watch over daddy like he watches over us."
"That sounds like a good plan," Sally replied, carefully kneeling on the ground before launching herself into a sitting position. Carefully she pulled the pram close and began rummaging through the contents of the basket underneath.
Fighting with all the bags and packets she had accumulated during shopping that morning, she freed the one she was looking for. Handing the bag to her daughter, she entrusted her with taking care of removing the contents while she nursed Christopher.
Looking up, Sally watched on as Chloe artistically rearranged the already present gifts, creating a space to line up the three glass-potted candles along the lip of the headstone. Despite her incessant baby-brain, she had at least remembered to include the safety lighter, rather than matches that little fingers could gain access to.
"Have you got the flowers, mummy?"
"Yes, sweetheart, right here," she replied, turning around to give her one. "Do you want to say anything?"
Chloe considered the suggestion. "I'm not sure, mummy. Not at the moment, I don't think. You say something."
She smiled sadly, and slipped an arm around her daughter, hugging her tight. "Alright. We miss you, honey. We wish you were here, but we know that you're needed elsewhere." She placed her rose down first, just to the left of the candle, then sat back to watch Chloe do the same, insisting that as big sister she needed to do Christopher's for him.
"Now for the candles, mummy," Chloe whispered, not wanting to disrupt the gentle quiet that had encircled them during their reflective time.
Sally reached for the lighter and held it in place as Chloe brought a candle to the flame. A bright orange flame burst forth and flickered towards the sky. "It's just like when daddy used to take me camping and we'd make a campfire," Chloe whispered, her mind for the moment dwelling on the good times she and her father had shared.
With the final candle lit, Chloe placed it down with care and sat back. "You'll always be in my heart, daddy," she added, her eyes fixated on the flickering flame. "I know you'll always be with me. No matter where I go or what I do, because that's what angels do. Even doctor angels."
Christopher was starting to fuss again, and Sally took the opportunity to stretch her legs and attempt to calm the boy. Left for a few moments of quiet time without her mother around, Chloe opened her heart to the spirit of her father. "I still hear mummy crying sometimes, daddy. I know Heaven needed a doctor angel, and that you had to go, but sometimes, mummy needs your angel powers too. It makes her sad that you're not here, and that makes her cry, and miss you more. I miss you too daddy, but I'm doing okay. And I know that you're busy doing doctor angel things in Heaven, but please try and visit mummy sometimes; make her feel a little better."
Sally felt the tears building yet again. She had promised herself she wouldn't slip back into that tearful, depressive state she had worked so hard to come back from, but as her daughter's words reached her, there was nothing she could do to defend against the emotional tidal wave. Christopher settled in her arms, despite her own upset state.
A sudden breeze whipped up from the ocean, the winds carrying inland and swarming around Sally, warm air draping itself around her shoulders. She shuddered, a strange familiarity to the trail of wind that now surrounded her. It should have chilled, but it didn't; it should have been disturbing, but instead was comforting.
The rest of the world disappeared into an eerie silence; the winds still blowing, the winds still comforting. It whipped and lashed at her hair, a faint howling echoing with each hard gust. Sally closed her eyes and took in the sensual experience, convinced the words 'family', 'love' and 'wife' were swirling in her ear. Her eyes shot open as the words 'Luna Park' filled her ears, as loud and as clear as someone speaking into her ear.
"Oh Chris," she whispered, sensing his presence finally secure around her once more.
Her mind was already transported back to the weekend they had spent away in Sydney on their second anniversary of going steady. They had spent the afternoon at the amusement park for what Sally had thought was just a fun day out, but for which Chris had ulterior motives.
They had boarded the Ferris wheel, Chris having previously arranged for the operator to stop the ride when their carriage had reached the top. As the ride slowed, Chris had carefully stood up, turned to face the rest of the park, and took a deep breath. Suddenly the words, "I love my girl, Sally, more than life itself,' echoed around the place.
Sally had shrunk back into the seat, embarrassed beyond words as people below clapped and hooted. Worse still were the people on the wheel in the compartments below, who she was convinced were all in on his declaration.
Grinning, he rocked the carriage some more by shifting position, this time kneeling before her in the confined space. He set about apologising for his outburst, insisting that he was so in love that he needed to shout it to the world. Then the velvet box appeared. He had opened it to reveal the ring she had been eyeing up for months, and vowed that he would always feel that way about her. Proposing marriage had seemed like the next logical step. There had never been any doubt in her accepting, and her affirmative response had resulted in a resounding cheer from the Ferris wheel occupants, and the ride restarted.
That ring still sat on her finger, along with her wedding band, a continual reminder of the love she had cherished, and still cherished to this moment. She smiled at the memory, her thoughts drifting to their marriage which took place exactly a year later. Looking down at her son, then back over to her daughter, and the remnants of her life, the memories couldn't help but be tainted by the fact that eight years after they married, nine years after their engagement and eleven years after they first met, he had met a perilous end.
He had died a hero, but it didn't change the fact that she was celebrating all their good times and commiserating the one time that had ended everything, all on the same day. "Happy anniversary, honey." The wind whistled, kissing softly at her check before reluctantly dissipating. "Today will always be our day."