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Tyler stepped back from the mirror and straightened his tie. Satisfied with the neat Windsor knot that he'd managed to tie, he slipped on his uniform tunic and buttoned up. It hadn't been that long ago that he had stood before this very same mirror with his dad behind him showing him how to tie a tie for the first time. His dad had been so proud of him for joining Army Cadets; as proud as Tyler was of his Dad for being a soldier. His Dad was coming home today and Tyler was preparing for his arrival.
"Honey we need to leave in just a few minutes," his mom shouted from the main floor.
"Ok, I'm almost ready," Tyler shouted back.
Tyler slipped on his beret and properly lined up the cap badge with his left eyebrow before straightening his tunic and leaving the room.
Downstairs, Vanessa, his mother, dressed in a very nice looking dark dress raced around getting his younger brother Alex ready to go. Alex was too young to really understand what was going on, but he understood that his Daddy was coming home.
"The car is here Tyler. I'm going to get Alex into his seat. Please lock up behind you Tyler," his mom said as she hustled her younger son out the door.
Tyler did a quick check of the house to ensure that everything was locked and then exited, closing and locking the door behind him. When his Dad left, he told him that he'd be the man of the house and it was a responsibility that he took to heart.
Outside his mom was already in the black limo that had arrived a few minutes earlier with Alex buckled into his booster seat.
"Where are you off today all dressed up, Tyler?" Mr. Evans the next door neighbor asked.
"My Dad's coming home today," Tyler said as he climbed into the back of the huge car next to his Mom.
As they drove east on Highway 401, Tyler watched the scenery pass by and thought of his Dad. It seemed like so long ago that he'd last seen him. He remembered the day that he left for Afghanistan. He remembered feeling a distinct mixture of pride and fear. He remembered that when he gave his Dad that last hug before he walked to the plane, he felt as if he never wanted to let go. At thirteen, he didn't want to be seen crying in public and he did his best not to cry in front of his Dad, but once he disappeared into the waiting airplane, the tears came hard.
Since the news arrived three days earlier that his father would be returning home today, he felt as if he'd been on a roller coaster of emotions. He knew that he wanted to be there today to make his Dad proud when he came off the plane.
Nearing the half-way point in the drive to Trenton, the driver pulled into a highway rest stop. Tyler went inside to purchase a coffee for his mother as well as cold drinks and doughnuts for him and Alex.
"My don't you look sharp!" an older looking woman who was standing behind him in line said.
"Thank you, Ma'am," he replied politely.
"Where are you off to today?"
"My Dad has been fighting in Afghanistan. He's coming home today," Tyler replied.
"God bless you," the woman replied. "God bless your Dad too. I always get out to support our troops. Especially along the Highway of Heroes," the woman said.
When Tyler got to the front of the line, the cashier who took his order asked him, "Are you on your way to Trenton?"
"Yes Ma'am, I am," he replied politely. "My Dad is coming home from Afghanistan today."
The kindly looking woman smiled and nodded her head. "There's no charge for these," she said and handed Tyler his order.
"Thank you, Ma'am," Tyler said with a slight smile.
"Thank you," the cashier replied. "Thank your Dad too."
As the limo approached the airbase in Trenton, Tyler began to notice that there were a lot of people around. Some were on the highway bridges and others were lining the streets. There were veterans in their uniforms, police officers, firefighters and even children. Some carried flags some carried "Support our Troops" signs and banners. There was a huge crowd assembled at the entrance to the airbase.
Their limo pulled up to the gate and showed the driver showed an ID to the guard. After explaining who they were, the guard directed them to a parking area reserved for family members. As they pulled away, the young soldier snapped to attention and fired off a smart salute.
The driver parked the car and Vanessa got Alex out of his seat and the three of them made their way to the gathering of family members and dignitaries. Tyler noticed a few people that he recognized from the news including the Governor General. There were all kinds of high ranking officers in dress uniforms as well.
The plane carrying his Dad had just landed and the large gray Airbus taxied to a stop on the tarmac not far from where Tyler stood. He watched patiently as a mobile set of stairs was placed before the front exit and the door was opened. A steady stream of soldiers dressed in tan desert uniforms made their way down the stairs and formed up on the tarmac. When the last soldier had left the plane, the rear cargo door was opened and a lifting platform was rolled into position. A moment later, the platform was lowered to the ground carrying a flag draped casket.
Tyler's father was back on Canadian soil at last. The casket was accompanied by a soldier who, despite having his arm in a sling and a bandage on his head stood brave and tall.
Six soldiers in dress uniform hefted the casket and walked it off the platform and carried it on their shoulders to a waiting hearse. The soldier who had accompanied it, marched straight over to Tyler, Alex and their mom. Nearby a military band played the last post and flags were lowered to half-staff around the base.
The soldier stopped and saluted smartly. "Ma'am, My name is Sergeant Kyle Jones. I was with your husband when he died. I want you to know that he died a hero. He died saving my life and the lives of seven other men in our vehicle. We were hit by a roadside bomb and Captain Richards was injured, but he could have made it out, but he stayed in the vehicle and fought tooth and nail to get every one of us out. I was the last one in the vehicle other that your husband and I was pinned. He refused to leave without getting me out first. When he finally got me clear of the wreckage, he shoved me out the hatch when an RPG struck the vehicle."
Vanessa, with tears in her eyes placed her hand on the young soldier's shoulder and he continued. "I went back and pulled him out. He was hit bad and I tried everything that I could to save him, but he died right there in my arms. I wanted you to know that he wasn't alone at the end. He was surrounded by his men.... the very men that he had fought so hard to save. Before he died, he told me that he wanted you to know how much he loved you.... how you were the perfect wife and how he wanted you to go on with your life and to be happy again. He wanted me to tell little Alex that his Daddy loves him and will always love him." He patted the little boy's head.
Sergeant Jones turned to Kyle. "You must be Kyle. Your Dad talked about you all the time. He was as proud of you as the day is long and he wanted me to tell you that he loved you very much and that he will always love you. He said that he will always be there when you need him and that he will be there to watch over you. You're the man of the house now. You need to be strong for your mom and your little brother. Your brother is going to need you to be there for him as he grows up. You need to make sure that he never forgets his Dad, never forgets that he loved him very much and never forgets that he died a hero. He died for his country." He then stepped back and smartly saluted Tyler.
Tyler was as numb as he had been three days earlier when they first got the news. He hadn't been able to cry then, but the tears came now. Sergeant Jones wasn't his Dad, but he was available and he clung to the man and let his emotions flow out of him.
Sergeant Jones steadied Tyler and led him along with his mom and brother to the back of the hearse. Each of them placed a single red rose on top of the flag draped casket and then stepped back. Sergeant Jones and Tyler snapped to attention and fired off smart final salutes to Tyler's Dad before being greeted by the Governor General and the Minister of National Defence. Someone handed Alex a teddy bear wearing a Canadian flag sweater and the three of them, accompanied by Sergeant Jones entered the limousine for the long drive back to Toronto along the Highway of Heroes.
As the car pulled out from the base, following closely behind the hearse and escorted by police cars with flashing lights, Tyler watched the crowds. Some waved flags and banners, some stood saluting, and others clapped their hands.
The drive to Toronto was long and hard. They sat largely in silence each lost in the memories of their lost father, husband and Captain. Tyler watched as all along the highway, cars pulled over and honked their horns. Trucks blasted their air horns, police officers and firefighters stood honour guards along the off ramps and every single overpass was filled with hundreds and hundreds of people waving flags - all paying their respects to his Dad.
When they finally arrived at the Coroner's office in Toronto, Tyler, Alex and his mom were given a few moments alone with the covered casket. Vanessa paused, then leaned down and placed a kiss over where he husband's face would be and whispered a few words.
"I'll give you a moment alone," she said when she was done and she took Alex out of the room leaving Tyler with his Dad.
Tyler placed his hand on his Dad's casket and thought silently for a moment. "Dad, I hope you can hear me. I don't know what I'm going to do without you. I love you and I'll always love you and I'm going to miss you so much," Tyler's voice broke at that moment as his tears returned. "I'm going to do my best to be the best person that I can be. I'll do my best for Mom and Alex and I'll never ever forget you. You're my Dad and you'll always be my Dad. We didn't always agree about things but we're the same. I'm just like you. Everything that is good about me comes from you. I'm proud of you and I hope that I'll grow up in a way that you'll still be proud of me when we meet again one day. I love you Dad."