Anzac Day is getting harder for me as every year passes. I am standing by helpless as one of the most admirable, dignified and courageous people I have ever known sails quietly towards the end of his days. The final years of a life is a time for reflection and over the last 4 years, since my pop suffered a massive stroke, I have had plenty of opportunity to think about his life.
The Anzac Spirit was forged on the battlefields of WW1. It was the reputation the Anzacs had for loyalty, mateship and skill on the battlefield but it was also mixed with cheekiness, mischief, and good humour. The generation that fought in WW1 have all passed and the generation that fought in WW2 is passing too. As the last of the WW2 diggers age and die, I wonder if the Anzac Spirit still has a place in today’s society. A society that feels a world away from the one my grandparents grew up in.
My pop, Jack Wade, was a commando, a “digger”, a scrappy nugget of a man with a cheeky sense of humour and the respect of everyone he ever met. He was the embodiment of the Anzac Spirit. He fought in WW2 in New Guinea in the 2nd/3rd Commando Squadron in the Australian Army. All the men volunteered to join knowing they might not come home, because that’s what you did back then.
We weren’t told a lot about this time or what it was like when he returned home, as it wasn’t discussed much.
I know that it was a time when the words “counselling” and “men” were never used in the same sentence and PTSD was not a thing. The time I learnt the most was also one of my proudest moments. It was the year after I joined the police force and Jack asked me if I would march with him on Anzac Day. Dressed in my ceremonial uniform, I joined Jack and his unit on the march to the Shrine of Rememberence. What I remember most was the feeling of being invited into a secret club. As though this brotherhood, this side of him, was only reserved for those who had “served”. I do not, by any means equate my service of intervention orders and speeding tickets to be anything like what he and his mates endured but the pride that shone from him that day as he introduced me to his mates was something that will stay with me forever.
After he returned from the war, he and my nan, Dot, raised a family of 6 kids, one in a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy and one with epilepsy in a small 3 bedroom house with very little money. Their life was anything but easy, but back then problems just HAD to be solved. There was nothing to be gained by wallowing in self pity or blaming others for their difficulties. Things needed doing so they just got done. They needed money so he worked. If something broke, he fixed it and when someone… anyone… needed help, they helped them. Most of this help was through Legacy where Jack volunteered tirelessly supporting the widows of lost soldiers. This work earned him a Centenary medal in 2001….not that he was too thrilled with all the song and dance made over it! For as long as I can remember, my nan and pop have thought of others who may be in need before they turn to themselves. Everything I know about duty, dignity, self respect and sense of community comes from these two people.
My nan and pop do all of these things because, to them, everyone has worth and everyone deserves respect. They understand the connection that comes when another human cares about you regardless of your story. I don’t think I will ever know how many people have felt more kinship in their lives because of them.
Four years ago, Jack had a stroke. He had been told that a tumour was growing under his skull, it was benign but it was growing larger. He was told it would eventually grow so large as to impact on the part of his brain that controlled movement and eventually he may be unable to walk. Independence and dignity were non-negotiable in his world. If you can’t walk, you can’t work and even though he was 88 there was still a lot of work to be done. Those tomatoes and beans were not going to grow themselves and who would clean out the guttering? So in true Jack-style, he took himself off to the doctor and decided to undergo surgery to have it removed without telling any of us his decision. The operation was a success but a few hours later he suffered a massive stroke. Always the fighter, Jack refused to let this be the end of him. The stroke happened in the March and Mick and I were getting married in the September. Determined that he would be at the wedding, Jack spent the next six months dutifully completing gruelling physio exercises so that he could get better and be at the wedding
…. And he was.
He was in a wheelchair and he was tired but he was there…proud as punch.
Jack was a “digger”. Lying down in the dirt was not an option and this doggedness is with him still. He wanted to go home from the rehab centre so he worked hard enough to get there. He was cared for at home for nine months until the enormity of the task became too much for Dot and he was moved to a nursing home. Seeing his independence and dignity slipping through his fingers was incredibly heart breaking for me. I started to wish that he wasn’t so strong, that he wasn’t so determined and so bloody-minded. I started to wish that he could lie down peacefully comforted by the love of his family with his pride intact knowing that he had lived a worthy and dignified life until his very last days rather than the reality that he was living. Trapped in a body that won’t work, in a place that was not his own, tormented by thoughts left to wander in the drug-muddled idleness of his days. Removed from the mates and community that had been so important for so long.
That same Anzac spirit is with Dot too. Almost everyday since Jack’s stroke, my 89 year old nan visits him at the home to feed him lunch and ensure that his needs are met. Jack gave her Thursdays off a while back so that she can go and spend the day with friends but every other day she is there. Dot approaches Jack’s care with the same resilience, determination and fighting spirit as the Anzacs, whose families the two of them have helped since the end of the war.
As the years marched on, having something to look forward to became very important, especially if it had anything to do with family. When I fell pregnant it was something he could focus on. I think seeing the progression and looking forward to the birth was like a clock he could use to mark the passage of time. When the baby started kicking, I would sit on his bed and put his hand on my belly for him to feel it. He was so proud and so excited.
Early in my pregnancy I had been told that there was a high chance our baby may have Down syndrome and at 20 weeks it was all but certain. It was a very difficult time for us. We had decided to love and welcome this baby regardless but we worried about telling Jack. Alone with his thoughts, Dot worried it might be too much for him. They had raised a child with a severe disability and had lost him at 19 years of age. They did it with few supports and it was hard. She needn’t have worried because not long after I knew it in my heart that our baby had Down syndrome, and before we told him, Jack said to me,
“There’s something special about the baby”. Tears streaming down my face he told me he thought I would be a wonderful mother.
Our son was indeed born with Down syndrome and we named him Wade after both Dot and Jack. We visit pop at the nursing home every week and a couple of times a week, he asks nan if it’s “Baby Day” tomorrow. The joy that Wade has brought to his life and to the lives of the other residents is overwhelming for me. Every week Wade wanders through the home waving to each resident that he sees drawing smiles and waves from even the saddest face. He peeks his head into each room along the hall receiving greetings in a variety of languages and brightening their day. For some residents, this may be their only visitor that week and the sight of their faces transforming as he enters their room is incredible.
I know pop worries for me as he knows what it is like to raise a son with a disability. I reassure him that times have changed, Wade’s future is bright and in true Jack-style it is not dwelled on. Instead, he celebrates every hard fought milestone that Wade has achieved along with the rest of us, from first steps to first words. I like to think there is a mutual respect for hard-won achievements between the two of them and that’s not their only similarity. They both have the same cheeky smile, the same devilish sense of humour and the eye of the ladies!
Jack calls Wade his “Little Mate”, a “King without a crown”
It breaks my heart to see pop lying there, growing weaker with every passing month. Watching his eyes shift from moments of extreme clarity and connectedness with me to times of cloudiness and distance. I watch his almost unrecognisable face and body and I hold on to the memories of him as a fit man who endured mornings when my sister and I would nearly break his bones as we leapt on the bed to wake him up when we stayed over. Memories of taking home bags of fresh veggies from the garden and hanging out in the bungalow which stored a lifetime of carefully maintained and ordered tools.
The time spent with my pop during the final years of his life have taught me so much about the Anzac spirit and I now know that it is as relevant today as it was during the war years. Dot and Jack have taught me that when times are tough, I just need to get on with it…to find a solution to the problem and move on. Don’t dwell, don’t blame. Their Anzac spirit shows me that everyone deserves respect, everyone can use a helping hand every now and then and all of it can be done with a twinkle in the eye and a cheeky grin too.
So as I prepare to commemorate Anzac Day with Jack tomorrow, I know he will be wearing his medals with as much dignity as the days when he marched. I will miss him terribly when he is gone but I thank him for everything he has taught me.