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My wife killed herself when she couldn't have a baby .. I'm saving jail children of Nepal in her memory; THE MOVING STORY OF ONE MAN'S HUMANITARIAN CRUSADE.

SMALL hands gripped the thick iron bars and four pairs of wistful eyes peeped through the heavy padlocked gates of their prison home.

The little boys could see very little beyond the police guard who, with his fixed bayonet, watched their every move. They could glimpse nothing of the mountains of their beautiful homeland of Nepal.

But they could see the man who had come from far away to kneel at the gate and promise them release.

Former British army officer Lt Col Philip Holmes reached a hand through the rusting bars to touch their innocent heads and pledged to set them free in memory of his beloved wife, Esther. She had killed herself in despair because she was unable to bear children of her own.

The moment he found her body hanging in the hallway of their home one gloomy January lunchtime, Philip's comfortable life as a dentist in the Royal Army Dental Corps became instantly meaningless.

So over a matter of months he transformed it completely.

He quit the army, travelled to a land he had never seen before and set up a charity to provide homes for children in Nepal who have no choice when their parents are jailed but to be shut up with them in the cramped and squalid conditions behind bars.

Now he was frustratedly wrangling with Nepalese bureaucracy over his plans.

As he waited outside the gates of Tansen jail for official permission to take the first four children to the bright and comfortable home he had prepared for them, he thought of how Esther's heart would have burned at the sight of those little boys' yearning eyes.

It still burned, but now it burned in him. He would give these children a childhood, he promised. They would be Esther's children.

ESTHER Benjamins was a vibrant, talented and highly successful woman who had everything in life - except a baby of her own.

She and Philip, who is originally from Northern Ireland, met on a ski lift in Austria in 1985 and right from the start she knew the handsome young officer was the man for her.

"She pursued me, in a way," he said with a smile, remembering how she kept turning up at his different postings.

In the early years Esther, who was Jewish and from Holland, worked as a counsellor to survivors of the holocaust - and took on part of the terrible burden of their memories.

"I think there was a great despair inside her over what happened in those camps. The extermination... and all those little children. At the end of the day her own childlessness at the age of 43 seemed to mirror that despair," says Philip.

Eventually Philip was ready for marriage, but before the wedding in 1988, he and Esther made two agreements.

One was that the large family they planned would be brought up in the Jewish faith, and the other that his career would take precedence over her own.

"I always knew Esther didn't want just one kid, she wanted three or four. And, like so many couples, we just thought we would get married, have kids, and do the normal things that families do.

"But it just didn't happen like that, and no doctor could ever tell us why."

As a result she spent her ten years of married life on an exhausting schedule of commuting weekly between Britain and Holland.

She had two degrees in social work and two law degrees and six months after the wedding landed a job as a lawyer working four days a week in a small town three hours from Amsterdam.

"It was a horrendously busy lifestyle but she was totally remarkable for energy and strength. She really was tough... nothing scared her, not even death itself at the end of the day.

"She had a very busy job but did all her duties as a wife at home too. Yet she still always had time for people.

"The way she did it all took people's breath away. They would say: 'Oh, you're lucky you don't have kids with that lifestyle.'

"They didn't understand that it was for that very reason she had that lifestyle. She would say: 'If I had a kid, I would stop work tomorrow'."

Esther tried everything to overcome her infertility.

"The whole IVF business was horrendous, absolutely horrendous," Philip recalls. "It was so highly charged and we decided we couldn't live like that. Plus you have the added despair of failing.

"In her last year she was talking of having another crack at it, but I said no. Looking back, if she had tried and failed again and then committed suicide, I'd never have forgiven myself.

PEOPLE kept suggesting we adopt, but she wanted my child, not someone else's. She was quite adamant about that."

At the beginning of 1998, Esther was health was already failing and she never took up the position. She had hit burn-out.

Philip was shaken as he watched her crumble before his eyes and for months cast about desperately for a solution.

"Esther went through such a rapid deterioration, from an energetic, tough lady to this shell of a woman, that it was quite frightening.

"To me, it felt like Esther slipped through my fingers. There seemed an appalling inevitability about it and that I was left as a bystander. The impotence of it was very difficult to deal with.

"She was beautiful and had always been so elegant, but she began to look awful, and she knew it. Her life became unliveable. She took to disappearing to her bedroom if anyone called.

"It was difficult for her to see friends with children, especially babies. She couldn't look out of the window in case she saw a pram going past.

"Towards the end she barely recognised herself... she even lost the capacity to weep.

"She told her GP she was contemplating suicide and consulted a clinical psychologist, but she didn't want to live her life on medication and realised that unless the doctors could conjure up a baby, they had nothing to offer her. Also she was adamant that she didn't want to go into psychiatric hospital.

"She would say: 'I'm not mad. I just want a baby'."

"We always talked openly about everything in our marriage and it was the same about her depression and thoughts of suicide.

"She said to me: 'Get rid of me, divorce me, go and find another woman and have children.' I told her, no, it's you I married and that's the important thing."

Nothing Philip tried could penetrate the black cloud enveloping his lovely wife.

"In the end her depression put up a appointed a judge but her mental barrier between us. She spent a lot of time looking out of the window, away in her own world.

"I realised that all I could do was be there for her, and love her and support her and give her time to find a way through for herself.

"It was not to be. We still loved each other, very much, right to the end. But it wasn't enough."

However, by Christmas 1998 Esther had seemed much better. She signed up for courses in t'ai chi and interior design and took out a year's membership of Friends of the Tate Gallery. Philip's hopes rose.

On New Year's Eve he suggested they ignore the celebrations and go to bed as they had done the previous year, but she said she wanted to see this one in.

"At midnight she came into the room with two glasses of sherry and said: 'I want you to have a good 1999.'

"What she was actually saying was 'Have a good 1999 - in spite of what's going to happen in two or three days time'.

"I know she loved me right to the end. She had been telling her family how sweet I had been to her, preparing the ground for her death."

On Monday, January 4, Philip returned to their home on an army estate in Hampshire, and found Esther's body with a brief note saying that life without children was unbearable.

"I was not surprised exactly, but it was still the most awful, profound shock," Philip says.

"My overwhelming feeling was of terrible sadness and waste. I touched her and found she was cold... I knew there was nothing to be done.

"I feel that the way she died was the way she lived. If something was wrong she would go straight to the heart of the matter and solve it, no matter how radical an action it took."

SINCE Esther's death, Philip has spent hours raking over everything that was said between them, examining whether all had been done to help her, trying to find a meaning in this ultimate act of despair.

Eventually he found peace, because he realised that she was at peace.

"I know she was not trying to get at me. I was the last person she wanted to hurt.

"She didn't want to drag me down any longer but to free me up to do something useful and positive with my life, though she would never have guessed at what I have done.

"Many people feel anger with a loved one who commits suicide, but not me.

"Esther had been so selfless for so many people over the years and was probably doing the first selfish thing in her life.

"She had carried an awful burden for a long time and if I could have done something to ease it, I would have done. Now I will carry the burden of her suicide, and do it gladly.

"The pain of it will never go away, but I will bear it because of Esther.

"I have not felt guilty either. You can do nothing more than talk things over and love someone and still be there for them. I knew I had done my best for Esther and couldn't have done anything more.

"But she had been such a bright light to so many people, and I wanted to rekindle it.

"I couldn't accept that tremendous woman being snuffed out forever in some unknown little army home on some very dull Monday morning.

"I wanted to continue the beliefs she held so passionately. I am locking horns with childlessness, depression and death and not letting any of them defeat me. Or her.

"I thought about how I had had a great life until then. A wonderful childhood, good education, excellent job, and the greatest privilege of all - Esther.

"Now it's my turn to give.

"It is pay-back time."

-The Esther Benjamins Trust is a UK-registered charity (no 1078187). Donations can be sent to PO Box 316, Dorking, Surrey RH4 2FG. Website: www.charitynet.org/ebtrust

TOMORROW: THE JAIL CHILDREN OF NEPAL
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Swain, Gill
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 16, 2000
Words:1800
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