Friday, May 16, 2008

Charles Lawrence and the larger struggles of life and death

When I first met Charles 24 years ago I was a young untested teacher with an unbridled desire to impart winsome knowledge to all those I came into contact with.

One of my many students was a bright, talkative Charles Lawrence. Life was different then. Charles like many of my fifth form high school students was constantly challenging me. He asked probing questions, studied hard, articulated studied responses to my questions, and was a rising star.

Although we were only a couple of years apart, there was a deep student to teacher respect. I was always “Sir” in and outside of the classroom. The respect was mutual. Here I was teaching stuff that I had only learned about three years before. I guess I was convincing. The students all triumphed at the GCE exams.

I saw in Charles and others like him a glimpse of the tremendous potential of Dominica’s human resource. Learning was like second nature.

This was then. It is now 2004 and I’m attending a dinner hosted by a Dominican group in New Jersey. As I entered the room I heard this shout, Sir! I spun around and there was Charles. At least there was the smile, the voice, the face. In a second my mind raced back twenty years. Surely, this was Charles Lawrence. Or was it?

As if reading my mind Charles bellowed, “Sir it’s me Charles, you remember?” Of course I do, how could I forget. For the next few minutes we reminisced about those wonderful days at SMA. Then the conversation turned to him.

“You know” he said. “I should have been in Cuba. I was half way through training to become a doctor.” I interrupted by telling him that I always knew how brilliant he was. He pressed on, “But you know, I had to come back to the US to get some treatment, I have been diagnosed with kidney failure.”

My heart sank. I have witnessed sickness and suffering in the young on a very personal basis having lost two siblings. The pain lingers, the memories still raw. The first, my brother died of a mysterious stomach ailment in 1985.

My perennially fit, athletic sister died just four years ago from lung cancer. Most days of the last six months of her life I shared with her as she bravely battled through sickening doses of chemotherapy and other cancer treatment.

Sometimes in our world of TV diners, botox treatments and designer drugs we can often forget the words of the great philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “...and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

I’ve never quite understood why young people suffer like this through sickness. I don’t want to understand. Why engage in mindless musings? I simply accept it as part of the conditioning of man.

I was staring at Charles, tortured memories swirling through my mind. Even then he was brave, bold, committed to overcoming his latest challenge. In the end, his attitude and courage gave me hope. I promised to stay in touch. I did not.

In the summer of 2007, I’m back in New Jersey at a Dominican picnic. I see a frail looking person hunched slightly forward and leaning against a cane. I turned to someone nearby and enquired who might that be.

The response was completely unexpected. “Charlo that there wee.” I stared in disbelief, rooted to the spot. Here was a person I had recognized after 20 years. Now, just after three years the face that I knew had been replaced. The disease that had been visited upon him combined with the treatment had taken its toll.

He had aged beyond his years. I quickly ran across to him. “Sir, I’m doing good. I’m alive.” Then the laughter!

In his characteristic style Charles detailed his struggle. Weekly dialysis treatments and a strict adherence to a special diet was sustaining him. A resumption to normal living was within reach. He was in need of a kidney transplant.

Thankfully, his sister was a match and had agreed to give him the gift of life. But, things never always work out the way one desires. Without insurance coverage, he would have to bear the full cost of the operation, about $100 000.

This time I promised to help where I could. I did. At least I’ve started. The word is being spread. Fund raisers are getting organized. The word is getting out, and people are beginning to respond. If anyone can beat this, Charles can. His indomitable spirit has risen equally to the daunting challenge.

His positive outlook on life is heartwarming. Every time I speak to him there is this wow! effect. Sometimes it takes someone like Charles to remind us of life’s limitless potential and equally damning pitfalls.

How we respond to our challenges is key, but equally important is how those around us respond, take up our challenge as if theirs, and do the right thing.

Editors Note: The Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences has fully embraced the plea to help a fellow Dominican, and we are urging everyone to contribute through the DAAS:
(1) Via Credit Card, go to and click on the Pay Pal donate button. Indicate Charlo Benefit Fund in the item line.

(2) Via Direct Bank transfer: Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences
Routing Number: 031100869
Account Number: 2000003534225
Wachovia Bank of Delaware
5801 Limestone Rd
Hockessin, DE 19707

(3)Check payments can also be mailed to: Thomson Fontaine (Treasurer – DAAS), P O Box 27254, Washington, DC, 20038.

DAAS is a registered 501 (c) 3 non profit organization in the United States. All contributions made via DAAS are tax deductible.

Thomson Fontaine


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