New life among the roses


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Category: Reflections Date: 16 Apr 98

My 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 prayer.


In 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 intervention.


Part 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.


This 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.


This 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 darling.


The 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.


The 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.


Then 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.


That’s 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.


A 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.


When 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.


She 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.


Some 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).


That’s 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 broadly.


We 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.


Fr 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”.


Firstly, 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.


Secondly, 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.


And 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.


Joan 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.”


The 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 them.”


But, 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.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur