For Co Tyrone lady Esme Charles, the words ‘in sickness and in health’, are of the utmost significance and importance in her life.
The 67-year-old lives five miles outside Cookstown with her husband of almost 50 years, Denis, the man whom she admits “wild horses couldn’t stop me marrying.”
For the last 40 years, Denis has lived with the debilitating condition multiple sclerosis, and Esme is not just his wife - she is also his main carer. She describes MS as the “intruder” in their marriage, but she is both positive and devoted in her approach to how she deals with it, commenting: “I say jokingly to folk who ask me if I am enjoying retirement, ‘I never worked as hard in my life.’”
But she adds with feeling: “Actually I didn’t even think of myself as a ‘carer’ in those early years. We tried to keep family life as happy and normal as possible. I was aware of the wedding vows I took. I care because I love.”
Both Denis and Esme are Christians, and it is this love of Christ that has sustained them through tougher times - such as when they had to together face the death of their son Gareth in an accident.
They both committed their lives to God at a young age, and continued to practise their faith even when they moved to Australia for a couple of years, in 1965.
Indeed, Esme would admit that her early childhood was not the most ‘conventional’.
“My mother was a single mum working in Belfast in the post war years. She couldn’t afford to keep me when I was born,” she reveals.
“Recently I found out that after much pleading, my granda gave in to my granny’s pleas and said, ‘Bring the baby home and we will do the best we can’, and that’s what they did. They put aside their hurt and disappointment to ‘rear’ me in the country. I sincerely believe their decision was God’s long term plan for my life.
“My granny was ‘mammy’ to me and my birth mother was ‘auntie’ - confusing to say the least. The extended family helped out to give my granny a rest.”
Esme’s grandmother was a Christian; her favourite read was the Bible, Esme recalls, and “the breadman brought her the Christian Herald every week.” She told the young Esme all about Jesus and bought her story books about Him. Esme attended Kildress Church of Ireland and went to Sunday School there, and when she was 11, she was invited, along with her cousins, to whom she was very close, to one of the children’s meetings that had started up in the area.
It was at one of these gatherings that Esme says the Lord spoke to her - through the words of a well known hymn, Jesus Loves the little Children.
“The seed ‘all are precious in His sight’ was sown,” she says.
Esme was confirmed when she was 13 - but admits that she knew deep down she hadn’t fully committed her life to God.
“During this period God was speaking to me and I eventually knelt by a leader at the children’s meeting and surrendered my life to Jesus.”
She met her future husband Denis in her teens shortly after he became a Christian, and was 18 when she married him. He was 21. Three months after the wedding, they headed to Queensland, Australia, to start a new life.
“Our Aussie friends were great; they reached out lovingly, they helped us to get over home sickness, helped us settle in to their country and were hands-on when our baby son Darryl was born.
‘‘My faith journey had progressed in Brisbane. We attended a Methodist Church. The young mums who befriended me invited me to their home study and prayer groups.”
After returning to Co Tyrone, Esme and Denis joined Cookstown Methodist Church, which Esme describes as having been “our spiritual home over 48 years.”
Esme trained to be a Methodist local preacher - a lay person who has been accredited by a Methodist church to lead worship on a regular basis - and she also speaks at various ladies’ meetings.
She adds: “Of course we are open to fellowshipping in other denominations. Labels are unimportant. I have been a Christian since May 1960 and that is what is important, to be His child. Prayer changes everything. I give thanks with a grateful heart.”