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The children of Air-India

Continued from Page 4

"It kind of makes you grow up fairly quickly. I was the oldest son," says Mr. Alexander, now 32 and employed by a Hamilton insurance company.

The Alexanders were Christians from Kerala State in south India. They had come to Canada when Rob was one, and Dr. Alexander, a cardiac surgeon, requalified at McMaster University.

In 1985, he was 40. He and his wife, Esmie, had two more children. He juggled two practices. They paid off their mortgage. Then came bad news.

His widowed mother was ill back in India. Esmie booked him on Air France, but he feared his mother wouldn't make it and was delighted when a friend managed to get him on an earlier flight, Air-India 182.

Afterward, Mr. Alexander's maternal grandfather and uncle flew to Ireland, hoping to identify the body. It wasn't found. The family held a memorial service anyway.

That summer, Dr. Alexander had arranged for Rob, a six-footer, to attend two basketball camps. He skipped one, but his mother wanted him to go to the other. He did as she asked.

In the fall, he resumed classes at Hillfield Strathallan College, a private school in Hamilton. Mrs. Alexander, then 39, was determined to keep all three children there. It was the only thing she knew for sure her husband would have wanted. The school gave her a break on one tuition. She paid for the other two by selling her husband's two practices, collecting his life insurance, cashing in some investments and borrowing where she could.

Five months later, the RCMP called. Dr. Alexander's body had been found in some wreckage. He was still strapped to the seat, his passport in his pocket. The family arranged a funeral, the children's schoolmates and teachers came again, and all the relatives arrived from Edmonton and Montreal.

Mr. Alexander remembers that he was having Grade 11 exams in advanced French and math. He asked his teachers for an exemption. They said he could have one, but urged him to try, to keep his mind occupied. He did as he was told, and aced the exams. The funeral was held on Nov. 5, the day Jamie turned 10.

The following April, Mr. Alexander turned 16 and immediately got his driver's licence. He began to drive his mother wherever she needed to go. He handled the lawn, recruiting Jamie to pull the weeds. And he took over the grocery shopping for his mother, "when she would trust me." He laughs, now, at the spectacle of a gawky teenage boy, alone, shopping for a week's worth of milk and chicken and bananas.

He had considered going into medicine. He saw his classmates working for their dads, as he had once helped out in his father's office. But he chose economics instead. He was accepted at several universities, but picked McMaster so he could stay home.

When the children grew, Mrs. Alexander didn't downsize. She bought an even bigger house, using compensation from Air-India's insurance company. Each child had received a sum according to a sliding scale of maturity: Jamie got $68,000; Tania $63,000 and Rob, the oldest, $42,000. Considering their father had been a surgeon, it was no more than a year or two of wages.

The children knew their mother, who never remarried, didn't want to be alone. For six years, Tania lived in the house with her husband. Jamie is still there, as is Rob, living downstairs with his wife, Linda.

At their wedding in 1998, his mother walked him down the aisle. His grandfather was there too. Jamie, his best man, made a speech about how proud the family was of Rob. "He said my father would have been proud too."

At that, his voice breaks. He cries almost inaudibly, swallowing, gulping air. He's a man now, with salt-and-pepper hair, but he remembers his father's death as though it were yesterday and he were still 15.

He considers Sept. 11, and how swiftly the United States reacted. The government set up a fund for victims and now is about to go to war. In Canada, it has taken 18 years for one perpetrator to plea-bargain his way to a five-year sentence. And despite extravagant promises from politicians at the time, the Canadian government never paid the victims a cent. It has, however, spent $82-million so far on its investigation.

Each June 23, Mr. Alexander and his family hold a quiet memorial for their father. They never saw their grandmother in Kerala; everyone else in the family was too frightened to fly. She lived another three years, dying at 83 in 1988. Dr. Alexander had been her only child.

-- Jan Wong

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