Lily, my daughter has Scruffy. He’s a battered, smelly, balding, bare…scruffy…bear. He’s been with her every day, every night since she was born. He’s been everywhere with her. Shared her triumphs – first teeth, first steps, first day at Nursery School…and shared her pains and troubles – the time she was severely dehydrated and in hospital after catching a Noro-virus type bug… but he has always been there, with his very soft tail that Lily strokes and trails between her fingers when she is really tired and is drifting off to sleep.
But not tonight.
Tonight whilst Lily tries to drop off to sleep upstairs, Scruffy is in Liverpool with Lily’s mum. By accident, Scruffy was in Mum’s handbag when we dropped her off there this evening. I realised that Scruffy was not in the car just after we’d been driving for an hour and were nearly home. It was too far and too late to turn round and fetch him…we would just have to wait a day or so until Scruffy came home with Lily’s mum.
So what? you say. What is your point? It’s sad, but she has to get used to the idea of loss. Of losing things. Of coming to terms with loss.
But loss of the most simplest things, the smallest things can mean the very most to us. Right now, the media is bringing our attention to the loss of innocence of many children due to assault by a certain celebrity. Lily’s mum is coming to term with the loss of her father, who died on Sunday. These aren’t easy things to come to terms with. At the other end of the spectrum is the fact that we all get stressed and grumpy at losing the remote for the Sky box or our car keys…
How we deal with the loss of whatever it is we have lost is down to one simple thing. How important the thing that is lost is to us. How much value we attribute to our possession. It depends where it comes from, who provided it to us, how much they meant to us. And Scruffy is pretty important to Lily. And she is rightly pretty cut-up about him not being in bed with her tonight.
And I can sympathise with her. I know how she’s feeling. I have got lots of experience of loss; both my parents are dead now, and have been for many years…and I am always losing my bloody keys. But the one thing I have lost that really hurt me was out in Afghan.
Before I was deployed my wife, Lily’s mum, had a ‘dog tag’ made for me. Made of silver, it was an impression of Lily’s finger print, which hung around my neck, along with my proper military issue dog-tags. It hung on an extra bit of chain below the two steel tags with my name and rank and so on… On one side of it was Lily’s fingerprint, on the other were the words…’Love you to the moon and back’. It was with me every time I went out on patrol. It had been with me a few days before when our multiple had turned left and avoided the IED that the shadowing multiple had hit by turning right. It had been my totem, my lucky piece. It was my link with home…despite being 5000 miles away, here was something from home, something from my family, something touching my skin. A direct link with home.
We’d moved into an Afghan compound and were setting it up as a new Check Point. It was a standard Afghan compound. Fairly basic mud constructed buildings with a large brick and mud wall around it, and a large area for the animals in the middle. Rather annoyingly right by the main door to the compound there was a big ridge of hard, compacted earth. We couldn’t figure out what it was for, but it was something that every time we went in or out of the compound to go on patrol in our full kit, we would trip over. It got frustrating.
And so, one afternoon, whilst the lads were out on a patrol and I was staying behind I decided to take a pick-axe and shovel to the ridge of earth and use it to fill a few more sandbags (and don’t get me started on filling sand-bags in that bloody CP).
The weather was of course bloody hot. Absolutely baking, but the job needed to be done and I stripped to my shorts, in the safety of the compound and set about the ridge with the pick. Hard, heavy work, swing, pull, rip, swing, pull, rip…repeat and repeat, then dig, dig, dig, fill a sand-bag, drink a bottle of water…and then start again. 50 minutes later with 6 sandbags full the ridge was gone. Nice and flat and nothing for the guys to stumble over when they got back from another tough patrol in full body armour, helmets, kit, weapons and ammo, desperate to get the kit off and get a drink and some food.
I went into the HQ room to have a seat. I was still bare-chested and reached for my tee-shirt to put it on. I looked down and noticed…nothing. It wasn’t there. My dog-tags still hung there, but the extra bit of chain that held the silver tag with Lily’s finger-print was not there.
A moment of abject, mind-numbing, utter panic. Fear and desperation. I searched everywhere in the HQ room. Turning chairs upside-down, rifling tables, sweeping the floor, tearing the place apart…and then the deeper fear hit me. I was wearing it when I went out with the pick and shovel.
SHIT. I rushed over to the area I’d been digging. I scoured the area. I dug, and dug. Turning over soil. One of the Rifles lads came over and asked what I was doing. I told him. He nodded and turned and walked to the HQ room. He returned with a Vallon metal detector. And we spent another hour scanning the area with the detector. We even ended up scanning over the filled sand-bags. We found…nothing. We emptied the bags out and got down on our hands and knees and sieved through the right Afghan soil with our fingers.
We found nothing. It was gone. Lost. We looked over the compound, but it was nowhere to be seen. It could have been anywhere. It was simply lost.
And I felt the biggest hole in my life. Utter, absolute despair. I felt every one of those miles away from home. Desolate. And I felt empty…and an absolute sense of feeling that I had let both my wife and my daughter down. I’d lost this thing that was so valuable. More valuable than simply pound notes. It was what was behind it. What it meant. The thought behind them giving it to me. And I’d let them down by losing the bloody thing.
And I went to the empty field that served as our Helicopter Landing Site, around the back of the buildings. I sat there and wept. I wept for home and for my daughter and my other kids and my wife. I wept what felt like a tear for each of the miles between us. I wanted to be back home right then, I wanted to be away from Afghanistan, out of that god-forsaken crap country, with their problems that were so complex and deep that would take so much to solve. What could I do to help these people? How could my presence there do anything to improve things. Things that had taken so much, that still take so much, to solve.
But I couldn’t. I had to stay there. I had to carry on. You can’t run away from your loss. You can’t hide from it. It was getting late and time for the evening Company Conference Call over the radio net. I did my piece on the net, and listened to the usual evening chat about the days events and what the priorities for the next day would be. Well, I half listened. It was getting dark and I continued to shine my head-torch around the room trying to see if there was a silvery chink of light. Of course there wasn’t. The tag was lost. Gone forever.
I went to bed, crawling into my sleeping bag outside, under the Afghan sky. Through my mossie net, I looked up at the stars and the moon. To the moon and back…that’s what the tag had said. And my spirit changed. Each night I would get a reminder of home. It wouldn’t be round my neck, instead it’d be in the sky. To the moon and back…but it’d never be the same as that small bit of silver.
And now, I am going to go and check on my little girl Lily in her bed. To try to make up for the lack of Scruffy the teddy bear, Lily has every teddy she owns in her bed tonight. All round her. But they won’t be the same as Scruffy.