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The children of Air-India

Continued from Page 3

She tried hard to be good. But the little girl, who loved to cuddle in her daddy's lap while he played the mouth organ, lost her impish smile. And when her grief-stricken mother put her in daycare, she fell apart. "I used to yell every time she dropped me off: 'You're leaving me like my father left me.' "

Then she would cry for 2 hours. "The kids hated me." After several months, her mother let her stay home.

A strong swimmer, Mr. Berar wanted his girls to swim as well. He signed up Preeti for waterbaby lessons at the municipal pool that summer. When the time came, she refused to get in the water.

But kindergarten wasn't optional. She cried every day. She drew weird pictures, in white and royal blue, the colours of the foaming Celtic Sea that had claimed her father's body, and never gave it back. The title she gave her drawings: Torture.

Other children avoided her. When she finally stopped crying at school, she still cried herself to sleep every night, straight through elementary school. She was never invited to birthday parties and had no friends until Grade 11. She blames herself.

"I used to be very mean. I would rather say something mean to you than something nice. I just wanted attention, I guess."

Her father had owned a ceramic-mould factory in Punjab when his parents arranged for him to marry a beautiful young woman named Sukhwinder. They had Reena, then emigrated to Canada in the early 1970s. He opened another mould factory in Burlington, and sponsored his two brothers to join him. He also sponsored his parents. They were admitted to Canada two years after his death.

He never wanted his wife to work outside the home. After his death, she became a silent partner in the factory, but money was tight. At 39, Sukhwinder found menial jobs (lunchroom supervisor, janitor) at school that didn't take her from her daughters. On weekends, Reena watched Preeti, and their proud, reserved mother worked on a mushroom farm.

The three girls reacted differently to their father's death. While Preeti was prickly, she says Reena felt guilty. Mona, once talkative and bubbly, grew silent and introverted. They all tried to help their mother. Mona and Reena learned to cook. Preeti took over mowing the lawn and shovelling the snow. They never asked to go to school dances. "We just assumed it was a 'no.' Even going to the movies was an issue."

Ms. Berar still lives at home, and works as an aesthetician and makeup artist while studying for a certificate in reflexology. She still has the last present her father gave her, a Sesame Street garage for her third birthday.

This week, she sat in her living room, surrounded by ceramic figurines from her father's factory, and considered the man who bought the parts for the bomb that killed him.

"The person who did it was a Sikh. We're Sikhs as well," she says slowly. His sentence, a plea bargain that works out to five days for each death, has brought only more pain. "You don't get a sense of closure. You don't know what happened on the plane. You don't get to say goodbye."

She has never learned to swim. A few years ago, she did the Canadian thing and vacationed in Florida. Naturally, she went to the beach. "I walked into the ocean and I walked right out," she says. "I just couldn't do it."

-- Jan Wong

'The last thing he told me was take care of Mom'

ROB ALEXANDER

Hamilton

Lost his father at 15

The phone call woke him. Then he heard his mother scream. Rob Alexander jumped out of bed and ran into her room.

"She said, 'The plane went down.' "

The first days passed in a haze of tears and agonizing uncertainty. By week's end, the news was final: no survivors. Bodies and body parts began to wash up, but not that of Dr. Mathew Alexander, a surgeon and chief of staff at West Haldimand General Hospital in Hagersville, Ont.

Mr. Alexander remembers that it had been raining the day his father left for Pearson International Airport. His mother didn't feel confident about driving him. At 15, Rob didn't have his licence, so his father took an airport van from Hamilton.

"The last thing he told me was take care of Mom."

He did his best, and looked out for his sister, Tania, too. She was 11, and had been closest to their dad. Then there was little brother, Jamie, 9, who had trouble understanding what was happening.

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