The Man Who Wasn’t There

© David Campbell

Winner, 2015 Kembla Flame, Illawarra NSW.

He wasn’t there when I was born,
but far away in countries torn
by conflicts that went on for years,
to end in tragedy and tears.
And when they brought him home once more,
a stranger entered our front door,
his mind and body wracked with pain,
and nothing was the same again.

He wasn’t there when I returned
from school each day, and though I yearned
to feel his touch and hear his voice,
his absence said he’d made the choice
to heal the war’s enduring scar
carousing at the local bar.
And when he stumbled home at night,
my mother had to stand and fight.

He wasn’t there on Anzac Day
to march and bow his head to pray
for those who gave their lives so we
could keep our fledgling nation free,
a democratic, thriving place
where creed, religion, sex, or race
could not prevent a future where
there’d be abundant wealth to share.

He wasn’t there when I had need
of counselling for some misdeed,
and so my teenage years were wild,
a fog of days and nights defiled
by drink and drugs that stole my mind
and rendered me completely blind
to those who tried to lend a hand,
a gift I could not understand.

He wasn’t there when years of hell
were turned around, to leave me well
enough to cope, to struggle by,
and walk once more with head held high
to see my mother, ill and weak,
to kiss her softly on the cheek
and hold her hand a little while,
rewarded with her gentle smile.
He wasn’t there the night she died
as I sat weeping by her side,
remorseful for the time we’d lost,
the hurt she’d known, the awful cost
of dealing with two wounded men,
the constant, daily battles when
she faced her own survival test
with no relief, no chance to rest.

He wasn’t there the day I wed,
to hear me as I humbly said
“I do” and kissed my lovely wife
as we began our brand new life
together, knowing that I would
take any step that meant I could
support our children, come what may,
whatever price I had to pay.

He wasn’t there to greet our son,
a generation now begun
to carry forward our proud name,
dispel the past, and lay a claim
to honouring the good we do
in nurturing those people who
are dear to us, despite their wrongs,
for that is where our heart belongs.

So I was there to heed his call
when cancer held him in its thrall,
and shades of death began to close
about his world, for then he chose
to seek forgiveness, make amends,
as should be done when our life ends.
He told me of the war he’d fought,
the shocking damage that it wrought.

For both of us were there at last,
a son, his father, and their past,
and so I looked into his soul
and saw the worst, the brutal toll
of trauma from the battlefield,
to which the strongest man can yield.
Together, then, we said a prayer
for all the men who were not there.

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