“Life, Death, and the Vast Vale”

I recently read “The Phone Box at the Edge of the World”, by Laura Imai Messina. This story was inspired by a real place in the north-east of Japan, in Iwate Prefecture.

“One day, a man installed a telephone box in the garden of his house at the foot of the Kujira-yama, the Mountain of the Whale, just next to the city of Otsuchi, one of the places worst hit by the tsunami of 11 March 2011.

Inside there is an old black telephone, disconnected, that carries voices into the wind.

Thousands of people make a pilgrimage there every year.”

I do not want to spoil anything by giving the story away or discussing the plot in too much detail, only to share this with you: 

“We all have something to tell those we have lost”

All of us, at some stage in our lives, have experienced grief – that intense feeling of loss and sadness caused by someone’s death. I believe that we should honour grief by being mindful of all the emotional stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) associated with grief.

Instead, a lot of us shy away from showing close family and friends our pain, anger and sorrow. The expectation is that we just carry on normally, and move on.

One of the most painful and sad experiences of my life, was the death of my baby sister, Fiona.

Fiona (photo credits – Salvelio Meyer)

Fiona was beautiful, funny, crazy, sensitive, feisty, had a wicked sense of humour,was  kind beyond measure, and would  share whatever she had with anyone who needed it, even when she had very little herself. In fact, her kindness was also her biggest downfall.

Fiona lived her life to the fullest, never missing an opportunity to experience something new or exciting or crazy (like taking a shower wearing a rain coat and a hat), and if the adventure included her beloved dogs, so much the better.

My siblings and I did not have an easy childhood – as a family we faced many difficult and stressful health issues.  

Fiona and us

Fiona was born with five fingers and no thumbs.  From a very young age (when she was only a couple of month’s old) she was admitted to the Brenthurst Clinic in Gauteng. Through a series of operations, by moving joints around and grafting muscle to the fifth finger to form a thumb on both hands, her tiny little hands eventually began to function like a normal hand.  This procedure did not happen overnight – over an estimated period of five years she spent a considerable amount of time at the clinic undergoing painful corrective procedures, this meant that my mother had to accompany her, and Vanessa and I stayed with friends.

Shortly thereafter, my mother, siblings and I had to have open heart surgery.  The upshot of it all is that we are all living with Holts-Oram Syndrome. “It is an autosomal dominant disorder that is distinguished by upper limb abnormalities with congenital heart lesions.”

I have one “if only” and that is; if only my parents and or teachers were sensitive to the fact that we were living with post-traumatic stress syndrome, I think  life would have been much kinder and easier to navigate.

Approximately ten years ago, Fiona met a very significant “someone”, who is a lovely, kind and generous American man who resides in Mexico. During his travels around South Africa, he met Fiona.

After visiting Fiona a few times, it was agreed in order to get to know each other properly, she would spend three months in Mexico, three weeks into her trip she suffered a major heart attack and passed away.

The shock and disbelief!

I am still devastated by her death. At the time it felt as if someone or something just ripped my heart out of my body. The pain of losing her was indescribable! Just when her life was seemingly on track…


I am grateful for the experience of worshipping in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I have such admiration for the manner in which funeral services are conducted.  The sobriety of the order of service and the honesty in expressing loss and sadness by the open outpouring of grief is, in my opinion, wholesome and encouraging.  One of the most profound moments is that, at the end of the service, family and friends file past a closed coffin to bid farewell to their loved one.

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World” is an incredibly moving and poignant experience. The characters and the storyline resonated with me in such a beautiful and profound manner. There is truth and honour in desiring to have that one, or many more conversations, with those we have lost, remember or grieve for.

On completion of the book, I sat at my desk, picked up my phone, pressed the record icon and phoned my sister.

I laughed, I cried, and I chatted away, and then cried some more.

Some of the conversation is deeply personal and private; however, I told her that she would have hated lockdown.  Not being able to see her friends, enjoy a pint or two, or have a chat and a laugh would have been the worst kind of punishment.  I shared with her all manner of things… the current political landscape, the drought, life post-covid, those who had sadly passed on, and the odd bits of innocent “skinder”.

My father had a saying: “That’s that, now wait until I tell you this”.

My “this” to you, dear friend is…

I felt so happy, free and unburdened.

 Make that phone call.

“We all have something to tell those we have lost”

Fiona (right) and I

“My fairest child, I have no song to give you,

No lark could pipe in skies so dull and gray,

Yet, ere we part, one lesson I must leave for every day,

Be good, sweet maid, and let whoever wants be clever;

Do noble things, not dream them all day long;

And so make life, death, and that vast vale forever 

One grand sweet song”

Charles Kingsley

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  • Klara Kopanaki Pitsiladi

    What a beautiful and TRULY touching story about your dear sister, Fiona! I was VERY moved when I read it and I too will call my loved ones and tell them how much I have missed them…. Thanks for sharing all these wonderful stories with us, Gail! Sending you huge hugs!

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    It’s pretty worth enough for me. In my opinion,
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    • Gail Charalambous

      Thank you so much, I really appreciate your positive response.

  • Beautiful thank you….I’m phoning my late father Helmut. Lots to say, but most of all, I never ever got to tell him that I loved him.

    • Gail Charalambous

      Thank you Nina, may the phone call bring you peace

  • Beautiful Gail.

  • Salvelio Meyer

    Very moving. I remember Fiona well.

    • Gail Charalambous

      Thank you Salvelio. She was very fond of you and Louise

  • Samantha

    Beautifully written, so very sorry for your loss Gail. Sending you much love xx

    • Gail Charalambous

      Thank you my Sam. She was such a special person,

  • Michelle

    Gail this is a beautiful and poignant tribute to your dear beloved sister. Gail in my time of knowing you you’ve always spoken so fondly of her. I am so fortunate to be in your bookclub and I look forward to reading The Telephone at the end of the World.

  • Anne Bizinos

    Fiona must have been an amazing person. So vibrant, funny and caring.
    I had a friend like Fiona. Elaine came into my life for a brief period of time, but her ability to see the humour in any situation has left an indelible impression on anyone that knew her. Like you, she was a born story-teller. So her stories live on.
    I really enjoy this wonderful journey through all your life experiences.

    • Gail Charalambous

      Darling Anne, she was one of a kind. Thank you,

  • Sanette Cavallari

    This is touching, moving, I am in deed making that call tonight ! To my wonderful and beautiful friend Willis, who departed too soon!

    An incredible message also of patience and sacrificial motherly love in this writing – in the reconstructive surgery on those little hands…5 years…of believing, trusting, pushing through!

  • Quite a journey Gail, and a wonderful lesson of how to speak to our loved ones lost in whatever way.
    Thank you

    • Gail Charalambous

      Thank you Terence. I appreciate your friendship so much.

  • Thank you for sharing!

    Thank you for sharing!

  • Belinda Smailes

    Oh Gail,
    This resonates so much with me.
    In my case i had literally put the phone down after having a good chat and laughs with my sister – not knowing that would be the last interaction my sister would have with anyone. Within minutes of our call she was in a coma and then gone .
    So yes, everyone … make that call.
    Much love

    • Gail Charalambous

      Oh my beloved Belinda, my sincere condolences. May you find comfort, peace and solace. Take your time grieving.

  • Oh Gail, this brought tears to my eyes. I’m so sorry that your beloved sister passed away, especially at a time in her life when she’d found true happiness. I only realized the other day, when I had a question for my Mom, that I just couldn’t pick up the phone and ask her ( as her memory was phenomenal at the age of 100 years when she passed last year).
    Continue writing, it’s in your blood.
    Thank you for sharing


    • Gail Charalambous

      Oh my precious Janine. Thank you for your wonderful comment. Take care and much love