Last week was not a great week. For our family, the last week in September has too many days of note, and they are all bittersweet. Chief among them is 24 September, the anniversary of the first death of a Strathcona during my husband’s deployment in Afghanistan. His name is tattooed on MiniSir’s arm, and though I never got to meet Nathan Hornburg, I’ve seen his handsome face on many memorials. Every year when I wake up on this day, I remember his face from the photos, and thank him for his service and sacrifice. I thank whoever else is listening for guiding my husband home safely so he could be the one waking up beside me. And I think of my best memory of that particular anniversary, which happened just three years ago, and I hope that wherever he is, Nathan approves.
September 24, 2011 was a Thursday. MiniSir was posted at CFB Suffield. I was in Medicine Hat Hospital, recovering from the accident. The Portraits of Honour, a mural depicting Canada’s fallen soldiers from the Afghanistan tour, was in town for a public viewing and gala. Of all days to have the gala, this one was especially poignant. MiniSir had to attend, but he had the afternoon off to get ready. I was napping in the afternoon sun, something I often did after my second Physio workout of the day, when he came into the room, still in his combats, and sat next to the bed.
“I was thinking about today, and how short life is,” he started, “and in case I didn’t get the hint when your accident happened, today really kicked my ass with it.”
Sleepy, bleary-eyed and without my glasses, I vaguely noticed he had something in his pocket.
He went on to say how he couldn’t imagine life without me, and that he felt that it was the right time to do this. After much teasing about what was in his pocket, he pulled it out and nervously opened the box. It was the ring we had picked out together months ago, the one I had loved immediately. He asked me to marry him, and when I nodded, slid the ring on. But he made me say the words, all of them, before he would kiss me in celebration.
The ring had been sized for my pre-accident finger width, so it was far too big to keep wearing. I waved it around and let it sparkle for a while, but when he told me he had to go get ready for the gala, we agreed to put it back in the box for safe keeping. Then, his visit cut short with a promise to try and see me later, he left.
I spent the evening playing card games with my mum and talking about what kind of wedding I wanted, and went to bed still wondering when he would show up. Late, nearly midnight, I woke up to a text message saying he was just outside. The ER guard had apparently taken one look at him and let him in without a fuss.
I was still waking up when I heard the familiar “Ching-Ching-Ching” of his spurs against the hospital floor. And when the nurses started wolf-whistling and cat-calling, I knew exactly what was going on. Still dressed in his mess kit, having come straight from the gala and a whiskey toast to Nathan, he was strolling through the hospital looking like a million bucks, just to kiss me goodnight.
And I fell in love with him all over again.
He came into my room quietly, and when he saw I was awake, he gave me a single red rose he had stolen from the centrepiece. “I love you, Mrs Johns,” he whispered.
The next day was the day I walked for the first time without the casts. The nurses couldn’t stop talking about his appearance the night before, fawned over my ring, and gave me a beautiful martini glass they had all chipped in to buy me as a congratulatory gift. When he came to visit that evening and I showed him I could stand up by myself without the walker, he got the ring out, got down on one knee, and proposed again, just so he had done it right.
If you ask me, he did it right the first time.
And that is why, every September 24, I wake up happy, though I know it’s a somber anniversary. Because I remember that it was Nathan who helped my husband to take what he wanted from life, to say what he felt, and to be strong and proud. This September 24, I looked down at our sleeping son, at how beautiful he was, and marvelled at how so much can change in just three years. And then once again, I thanked Cpl. Hornburg, a man I never met, for everything.