Sherle-Lee Baker saved her husband Bradly in every way that mattered, making her death in his absence almost impossible to bear.
Every day he gives thanks to God for the brave lady who looked beyond his “pauper” status and brought out the best in him.
Yesterday, as schoolteacher Bradly Baker confirmed the posthumous awarding of an Australian Bravery Medal to his deceased wife, he revealed his undying love for her and a determination to move forward after battling “survivor’s guilt”.
On a January evening two years ago, Sherle-Lee Baker, her adopted and disabled son Daniel, and teenage friend Shannon Butcher went to “paddle” in the cool waters of Butler’s Falls. The outing at the end of a hot day turned to tragedy when a “sandbar gave way” and Ms Butcher was swept downstream.
“Sherle-Lee, without any hesitation, just went in,” her husband said yesterday.
“That’s how she is. She doesn’t think of herself. She just gets in and helps people.”
Mr Baker, emotionally burned and broke after a marriage break-up, was one of them. “She believed in me and built me up,” he said.
““She married me when I was a pauper. She brought me into her home and even paid for the marriage ceremony.
“She has a heart of gold.”
On the night of Mrs Baker’s death, her devoted husband begged off joining the excursion to Butler’s Falls.
It is a decision that has played with his heart and mind.
“I’ve had to go to counselling ... one of the first things I felt was the guilt,” he said.
“Here I am a special ed teacher, here I am a swimming teacher and here I am watering the garden and lying in bed tired ... while Shirley was getting drowned.
“I had to think ‘What sort of husband am I?’”
Counselling has helped the now single-parent to Daniel to accept that he couldn’t “follow them around everywhere”.
Daniel, who has a “severe” intellectual disability, often tells Mr Baker “mum dead, mum in heaven”, and sometimes “me silly, I drowned her”.
“I tell him ‘No mate, you panicked, you didn’t mean it’,” Mr Baker said.
Daniel had followed his mother into the Macquarie River that terrible evening.
“He panicked and put Sherle-Lee down,” Mr Baker said.
“Later on Shannon gave Daniel the kickboard.”
Yesterday Mr Baker publicly thanked Ms Butcher for “saving Daniel’s life” before going for help.
“She’s never been back to Butler’s Falls,” he said.
Mr Baker has also praised Matthew Payne, who heard Ms Butcher’s screams, retrieved Mrs Baker from the water and administered CPR until an ambulance arrived.
Both Ms Butcher and Mr Payne have been awarded a national commendation for brave conduct, announced by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.
“I’d also like to thank the people of Dubbo who have been so caring towards me,” Mr Baker said.
With 21-year-old Daniel by his side, he is trying to “move on”, believing the love of his life is in the best of hands.
The pair have stopped having picnics at the graveside after Sunday mass, instead enjoying special attention at their favourite restaurant, The SSS BBQ Barn.
“I don’t think there’s a replacement for Sherle-Lee, but there’s always a possibility,” Mr Baker said when asked of his hopes for the future.
“The thing is if it never happens I know what love is ...because I had seven-an- a-half years of a beautiful marriage.”
The Bravery Medal and commendations will be presented at a date to be advised.