ambivalence towards organised religion has not prevented me from
accepting, gratefully, some of its gifts. Walking barefoot in the pale
morning sunshine, across the cool freshly washed stone floors of a temple
to bestow a handful of flowers to a deity, lighting a candle in the hush
of a magnificent old church while whispering a prayer for happiness or
love or health, wandering in a high-walled rose gardens of a mosque
watching the imprint of my footsteps on the damp rich earth to the call of
moments such as these I have bowed in acknowledgment to a superior force.
There have been other moments, too, not as clear and peaceful as these,
when a series of coincidences stop being coincidence and become karma,
destiny, something huge and ordered, or as Joan Charles calls it, divine
of the story I am about to relate is public knowledge. It is pieced
together with private conversations and a public interview I had with one
of the people involved. There are many versions of this story, depending
on which angle you look at it from. I cannot presume to enter the full
private chambers of the minds and hearts of the family and close friends
who are living the story daily.
is a journalist’s account, scrappy at best. I have tried to edit
judiciously, taking out the sensational, and the personal, and I hope I
have not stepped beyond my boundary as a journalist, and now a friend of
the family. It is inevitable that everything public becomes personal.
is an account of a family of nine as tightly knit as they come. The boys,
Sheldon, Curtis, and Hayden, are close to their father and mother, and
tenderly protective of their sister Joanna. Sheldon’s wife Joanna was
drawn into that tight circle and their baby daughter is everyone’s
children have imbibed their parents’ exhilaration for life. Together Ken
and Joan Charles gifted their children with a sense of right and wrong,
courage, a capacity to love and accept love graciously, a sense of fun,
faith. The boys’ love for the sea was an expression of their enormous
joie de vivre, and tied in with everything else.
sea is to them a metaphor of life. Here in the sea is all of life - vast,
mysterious, powerful, unpredictable, gentle. It is here with the spray of
salt water on their faces, and the sun on their backs, that they learned
fearlessness, to see the family as a team. It is here amidst the
exhilaration of speed that they learned how to get up and try again after
a setback, to plan intelligently. As they cut cleanly across water they
learned to lose graciously and gritted their teeth with the determination
to win against the odds.
some five years ago, Ken and two of his sons, Sheldon and Curtis,
mistakenly went into full throttle, the boat in the frenzy of the race
hurtling its occupants into the sea. Ken survives, miraculously with a
broken arm, but Curtis and Sheldon, both in the prime of their lives, die
within days of one another. There were two funerals at St Finbar’s
within the space of ten days, five years ago.
when the public became personal for many of us. A mother’s pain. A
father’s grief. A sister’s loss, a brother’s loneliness. The
horrible uncertainty of life. Their grief touched a cord in the private
sorrow of everyone who read about them. Because sorrow is universal and we
have all been touched with it. Later I learned that the letters poured in.
From people she knew and those she had never known, from all parts of the
country. People who had lost children of their own, people who felt for
her, mothers and fathers and children.
month later I picked up the phone and called Joan. I said, “I don’t
know how you bear it. I’ve got a young son and I feel desperate even
contemplating what you’ve been through.” To my amazement she comforted
me. I can’t remember the exact conversation but she’d been studying in
Curtis’s room - they were both going to do their law exams together. I
got the sense that she went into a dark cold tunnel but she’d come out
horribly scarred, but not defeated.
next I read about Joan, she’d topped her class. She’d gone under and
surfaced, stronger. Then last year she agreed after much persuasion to do
a public interview on television. Miss Solo was back in the water,
competing fearlessly again, and winning. Joan was a successful attorney,
helping those least able to help themselves. I said, you have to help us
all to learn about coping with loss, about courage, the stuff you both
passed on to your children.
told us how the family coped. They stayed together as a team, they drew
even closer as a family, they kept the faith, they comforted others upon
whom tragedy had befallen. They talked about Curtis and Sheldon - what
they would have said, what they would have liked to eat, included them in
their jokes. They were always pressed against her heart. She told us that
it gave her more comfort if people made reference to them, naturally. But
Curtis and Sheldon came from a family which had taught them to fight
against the odds, and win. And by going on, living life to its passionate
pitch, the family was doing what the boys had grown up to believe in. She
also talked about her work, her study. The very act of endeavour, of
engaging in the world fully, was a weapon against defeat and despair.
weeks back Joan delighted me with the details of Hayden’s engagement.
She was clearly happy. She had to give him a little push, she said. Hayden
couldn’t contemplate celebrating, marrying, without his brothers, she
said. But he too surfaced and did the deed with all the flamboyance and
romance of a captain at sea. First, even before asking for Cherrie’s
hand in marriage, he took a chance and bought the ring. He told his
mother, “If she loves me then she will love what I choose for her”
(she did). Then, when she was least expecting it, he surprised Cherrie (a
girl whose inner beauty Joan admires more than her outward good looks)
with a ring in the pudding at the end of a meal at a rustic restaurant on
a hill with a view of the coast (the ring fit).
how, on Easter Sunday, I found myself in a church, in St Finbar’s
Church, decorated with exquisite white flowers, listening to the glorious
sounds of The Lydian Singers sing O Perfect Love, and Solo Pan Knights
Steel Orchestra play the Wedding March. The moment was poignant with a
sense of healing. And it is here, in the glow of the afternoon, as I
watched a father read Ephesians Chapter 5, verses 22-23, that I was once
again able to draw from a place of worship. His voice dipped, faltered and
then rose strongly again. During the exchange of the vows he was smiling
stood in the same spot where tears of sorrow and sadness were spilled, and
now was ringing with The Hallelujah Chorus, Ave Maria. I have often
ruminated on this Christian tradition. A physical area (the church, the
aisle, the pews, the altar) is sanctified with symbolism. The church
cradles its flock from birth, communion and marriage to death. It is a
point of reference, of milestones. This can be sobering if you think that
death is where the journey ends. But Fr Thomas Lawson (and later, Joan)
was to give me a different perspective.
Lawson spoke in parables which were clear to all present. He drew an
analogy of the resurrection of Christ, showing how the family was able to
lift its spirit from the loss of death and come into new life with this
union. Death will not triumph over life. There is life after death. The
colour scheme was the same as it was during the tragedy. I asked Joan
about how she felt: “I was looking at the altar during the wedding,”
she said. “The church is a place of hope and faith,” and corrected
herself hastily, well “hope and faith comes from within you and not from
a place, but the church is a sanctuary where you go to feel a closeness to
God, re-establish the faith and feel the community is with you. It gives
us the strength to go on.” There were “coincidences” which pointed
the family towards life, which Joan calls “divine intervention”.
Hayden met Cherrie in circumstances related to the loss of his brothers.
He resigned from the bank where he was working and Cherrie was called in
from another branch to replace him. When he returned to visit his
colleagues he met Cherrie.
out of the entire Bible, Cherrie chose for Hayden the very reading that
Sheldon had for his wedding. It was as if it was decreed that the onset of
this new life was to supersede the older more painful memory.
the final “coincidence”: Cherrie’s birthday is on May 2, the same
day as the tragedy and Joan says how could she not see new life on the
birthday of her daughter-in-law. “How can I cry and be sad on her
birthday?” Joan asks. The “divine” message seems to say that life
comes after death, and it is life we must celebrate.
took her son and daughter-in-law to the airport for their honeymoon. “It
didn’t feel like I was taking a daughter in-law and my son. It was like
taking my children and I love that feeling.”
boys will remain in the hearts and minds and memories of their families
and friends. They will always be loved. “I missed my sons during
Hayden’s wedding terribly but each time that feeling of longing entered
my mind I overshadowed it with the happiness on Hayden’s face and
consoled myself with the fact that they were there. We couldn’t not miss
on Sunday, April 12, between 4 pm and 3 am, somewhere between the church
and the reception, where white roses were woven into green vines, like so
many grottos; somewhere between the processional of Handel’s Hallelujah
Chorus and the flight of two white birds; somewhere between the throwing
of the rose petals and the blessings and the early morning when the bride
and groom were hoisted on the shoulders of their young friends to
Rudder’s High Mass, a wound closed. On Easter Sunday for this family,
life triumphed over death.