education.govt.nz

Where my grandfather lies

Issue: Volume 93, Number 21

Posted: 24 November 2014
Reference #: 1H9csB

students kapa haka group at the Gallipoli memorial

You can read her full essay on the Ministry of Education website and watch the other supreme award-winning entry from Rongomai Callaghan and Atareta Smith-Taumata’s music video for ‘Māori Battalion Tū Ake E’”

“We are gathered here today to cry, to grieve, to sing, to rejoice, to reflect, to remember,” our minister began, repeating his famous line of commence, “... to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for us who are fortunate enough to be alive, largely because of what they did for us …”.

This statement started every service. It was overused but never lost its meaning. Being there in that moment at that cemetery, I had never felt it to be so true. I closed my eyes as they welled with the tears that represented my family’s unanswered questions, burning enquiries, broken promises, confusion, long years of hurt, their despair, but never the less, their love.

I felt the overflowing love along with the spirits of those who were here before us in our thoughts, our prayers, our songs, even in the gentle blow of the wind and the ruffle of the last autumn leaves.

I stared at the masses, lost myself a few times, consumed by the loss itself, but managed to find myself again. This time, though, I found myself in Cassino 1944.

I didn’t just feel them, I saw them. I swear I really did see them.

This beautifully maintained memorial vanished in an instant and the air reeked with the exasperating odour of death. The embodiment of ‘kill or be killed’ was evident through and through. Enemy mortar fire from the ruins of Monte Cassino, Allied tanks to my left, stretcher bearers seeking shelter to my right, the dead piling on the dead, Allies looking out for each other, comrades going back for one another, brothers departing each other for the last time, and the rest of the heart-wrenching sort.

This was The Third Battle of Cassino. I knew this because it was March, it was winter, the town had been bombed, but mostly because this was the day my grandfather died.

I can still see it all playing out in front of me. Most of the 2nd NZ Division at the rear and just like I had studied, the 28th Māori Battalion in the front line. I saw my Granddad a hundred or so metres in front of me, fixated on the precision of his rifle’s range, eliminating all that threatened the peace of his homeland. His surviving friends were right when they told my Nan years later that they swear he was born for this task; he was only a private but he was so good at what he did.

Something in my peripheral vision disrupted my admiration for my grandfather’s accuracy, which would be a sight so crucial that it would end his life. Enemies were creeping from their trenches, with the perfect scope to strike. I could see it all; the elevation from their trenches, mapping out their plans, preparing to execute, how it would wound his chest, how his comrades would urge him to hang in there but he wouldn’t be able to, how all I could do was witness it and how nothing I would do could change any of this. I saw it all play out right in front me; I sprinted towards my grandfather, not knowing or caring if I would get hurt.

I yelled at the top of my lungs, “Granddad, Granddad! Look out to your left! Get away from there! Please, Granddad!”

I tried to shake him, to move him, I pleaded for his attention, but he couldn’t see or hear me. I did everything I could think of, but my best wasn’t enough. I was too late, it had already hit him.

It hit him just as I regained my awareness.

Our minister ended our service with the honorary roll call of those who lie in this cemetery. So many family names from home, too many numbers, just so much waste. I didn’t think it was possible for humans to be so inhuman towards another but the graves in front of me confirm this unfortunate truth. We were then free to explore the cemetery. I set off to find our Māori soldiers, where my grandfather lies.

On the phone that night, even though my Mum was half a world away, I could not only feel but actually see her thoughts flooding her system, stumbling out without order but with the most sincere intent, when she finally gathered herself to ask me,

“What was it like, being there?”

What was it like visiting my dead grandfather who fought for my freedom?

What was it like knowing all these men gave up their lives in the hope that we would have the chance at a better one?

What was it like knowing that because my grandfather lies in foreign soil, he will never be able to truly rest at home?

What did she really mean and what did she really want to hear me say, truly and honestly?

“It was hard, Mum” was all I could manage, “it was damn hard. And that’s an understatement”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 8:50 am, 24 November 2014

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