Losing a link to the past ... but gaining another
Written by Andrew McNess
It is nearly two decades since the death of my brother, Jeremy. I have to admit a certain resentment has built within me in recent times, given that so many developments have occurred since Jeremy (or “Jez”) was with us. Fortunately, in early December of 2010, I was privileged enough to experience an event that brought Jeremy powerfully to the present.
It couldn’t have happened at a more unexpected event; my mum Jan, my sister Kathryn and I travelled to Brisbane to attend the ‘decommissioning’ services and ceremonies for the F-111 fighter jet. It was an F-111 crash that killed Jeremy and the air craft’s navigator, Mark Cairns-Cowan in September 1993. Now, seventeen years later, we were attending the retirement of this controversial aircraft; over the F-111s thirty seven years of service in Australia, the air craft has claimed ten fatalities in peacetime accidents.
We approached the ceremonies with a mix of anticipation and apprehension. Would retiring the aircraft feel like we were closing the door on a crucial link to Jeremy’s life?
Links were foremost on our minds. On our way to Amberley Air Force Base, Kathryn, Mum and I made a detour to Yamanto, the suburb Jeremy was living in, in 1993. I had not visited his house for seventeen years and was amazed to find it just as I had remembered it. We then drove a couple of blocks further to visit a court and a park, both of which had been named in memory of Jeremy. Jeremy’s death had had a strong effect on the people of Yamanto, and we were touched by this gesture from the local council. After having some lunch in the special environs of McNess Court and McNess Park, we headed to Amberley to attend the ceremonies.
A number of the ceremonies included “flyovers” and aerobatics from the F-111 air craft, a last opportunity to see them in all their grace and glory. (Of course, there was a darker side to the air craft’s function, but we always preferred to view the F-111s in the way Jeremy did, that is, a graceful, inspiring jet that, in flight, felt as close to God as one’s physical being could allow.) We saw many inspiring aerobatics, and revelled in the “roar” of the planes – anyone who has attended an air show will know what I mean. The planes flew over an awestruck and reverent crowd of civilians and service men and women. Mum, Kathryn and I, I suspect, were not the only crowd members feeling a wave of melancholy in saying goodbye to a beautiful aircraft.
The ceremonies spanned two days. On the morning of the second day a memorial service was held for the families of pilots and navigators killed in F-111 accidents. It was held under an immense sail and I think there would have been 600 people in attendance. We saw a small number of men and women who served at the time of Jeremy and Mark’s accident, but most of the faces were new to us. It was an inescapable fact that time had moved on.
But for me, the barrier of time fell away at the conclusion of the service. The bereaved family members were invited to join a procession, led by a chaplain and a dozen or so marching cadets, in which we would walk 400 metres to a memorial wall. At this spot a wreath would be placed. Mum, Kathryn and I were the first of the family members to join the procession and we walked directly behind the cadets.
It was a powerful, stirring experience; as we processed down the aisle, with air force personnel standing either of side us, the beautiful “Going Home” was played. I never, in my wildest dreams and hopes, imagined that we would walk in Jeremy’s name again.
There was also something else that was very special about this moment. I had never seen Jeremy march during his years at the air force, and despite the photos we have of Jeremy marching at air force ceremonies, I was always sorry to have missed the opportunity. But now here we were walking directly behind the marching cadets, as they processed steadily to the memorial. I felt as close to the essence of who Jeremy was, and the world he inhabited in his final years, as I think I ever have.
When you lose someone close to you, it is difficult at times to feel blessed. But in those two or three minutes, I felt greatly blessed; blessed to have been granted such a fantastic opportunity. Meaningful experiences can emerge in unexpected ways; walking behind the cadets, I truly felt we were walking with Jeremy.