The Bruinou.com Story - (A dedication to my wife, Renee Ash - RIP) FeaturedWritten by Charles Ash
This is a slightly edited version of the dedication and eulogy I read at my wife's funeral on 12 August 2017. My late wife, Renee Ash, was a critically important person in the development of the website www.bruinou.com as well as the struggle to bring the TV show "Colour TV" to your screens in 2012. I'd just like to acknowledge her, tell our story and let everybody know a bit about what we went through in our lives while building this website and lobbying the SABC for media for Coloured South Africans.
Renee and I were married for 16 years and 2 days at the time of her passing. If ever there was an example of opposites attract, it would be us. Renee was born in Cape Town, 2 November 1976, her family moved to Durban soon afterwards and that is where she was raised.
I met her in 2000, in Joburg, at a mutual friend's house. I thought her brother Wesley was her boyfriend, when I found out he wasn't, I made my move...which was strange...because I didn't really have any moves.
It wasn't long before I was madly in love with Renee. I was drawn to the way she was so real, so not-fake, so unpretentious, so loving, so caring, so sincere, so selfless and so beautiful, I thought I had hit the jackpot when she agreed to be my girlfriend. At the time, I was trying to start a website aimed at creating a media space for the coloured community, it was called www.bruinou.com and I was taking it upon myself to write about issues facing the coloured community.
Renee fell pregnant with our daughter Chloe and around that time, I moved to Cape Town to start work as a trainee systems administrator. After 3 months, I was made permanent and so, I decided that Renee and I should get married and start our life in Cape Town.
I was 22 years old at the time, very young by most measurements, but I reasoned this to myself:
- (a) I would probably never find somebody as good, beautiful and real as Renee to marry me…
- (b) She was pregnant with our child...and I was starting to write articles about how the problem in the Coloured community was that we have too many broken homes, unmarried mothers, absent fathers...I would be the world's biggest hipocrite if I didn't do the right thing and marry this woman I loved and who loved me and who I believed, we could build a future together.
We decided we would elope and get married in Cape Town. So, one weekend, I drove up to Pretoria to fetch Renee, who was heavily pregnant at the time and we packed my car with whatever we thought we'd need...and we drove down to Cape Town, in a car with no heater, in the middle of winter. We had no place to stay, so we slept at family friends, Aunty Des and Uncle Reggie, the next day, we did some hunting for a flat and we found one. We moved in that same day, with only a single mattress, a 2-plate stove and the few things we brought in the car...and although it was a freezing, rainy Cape Town winter, we had each other and we were living the greatest adventure of our lives.
We got married a month later, on 4 August 2001 and a month later, on 5 September 2001, our daughter Chloe was born.
I remember seeing Chloe getting born and holding her in my arms for the first time. I felt such a powerful sense of purpose and duty...although I was emotionally and mentally unprepared for being a father, I was going to give it my all and make my daughter proud. Renee simply changed from Renee, into this motherly superwoman, being a good mother came so effortlessly to her, I still had to learn this father thing.
While in Cape Town, I was determined to shine a light on these coloured issues and I landed a weekly column with a popular website, World Online, where I wrote about my experiences as a coloured person from out of town, experiencing the city for the first time. I soon had about 3000 subscribers to my mailing list and so I decided that I needed to pursue this Bruinou.com thing.
After a year, we left Cape Town and moved to Durban. I landed a really good job and life was good. 2 years later, we decided to grow the family and we had a son, Cody Ash who was born 2 years after Chloe. We didn't know it at the time, but Cody would come to be the greatest challenge of our lives.
I carried on working on Bruinou.com and the website traffic was growing rapidly. It was an exciting time, Renee was always so supportive, I really could not have asked for a better, more supportive wife. She had my back and I had hers, but regardless, because of personality differences, youth and naivety, cracks were starting to show in our relationship. Renee was simply too good for me. She didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't party and cause complications, she was always so dignified, so proper, so much like a lady...and she had these really high standards and expectations of me...and if you know me, you'll know that I loved being the life of the party, I loved being around friends, laughing, having fun, socialising...we had lots of arguments, but we stuck it out because we had soooo much going for us and we were so committed to each other.
When Cody turned 2 years old, we noticed that he wasn't as talkative as his sister, heck, he didn't say anything and he behaved very strangely. We suspected something might be wrong and so we took him to doctors and for multiple tests. A few months later, the diagnosis came in, Cody had severe low-functioning autism and he would never be able to speak or even understand communication. I was beyond devastated...Renee...she just did what she always did...step up and do what needed to be done...me...I fell apart. When I think back to those days, I feel like something broke inside of me and it broke between us...it was like the end of innocence and there was no going back for either of us.
The irony for me and what I found so unbearably depressing and cruel about this situation was that I had made a career out of communication, I was a web developer, an IT professional, I used to write articles for various magazines, I had one of the busiest websites, I ran an exciting brand, Bruinou.com, but no matter what I did, my son would never know it and we would never be able to have a conversation, because his autism would not allow it. They say “Life is cruel”...for me, this was life at its cruellest.
The pressures of trying to deal with such a severely autistic child put so much strain on our relationship, we fought and argued so often, I didn't think we'd make it. I did the most shameful thing in my life, I blamed Renee for Cody being the way he was...and Renee, being the person that she was, seeing that this was something that helped me deal with autism, she took the blame and let me think that it was all her fault. This was the person Renee was, a selfless, compassionate person who cared so deeply for the wellbeing of her family, she would shoulder blame for something she did not do or was in no way responsible for, just because it was for the greater good and it helped me cope. I will live with this shame of blaming her for Cody's autism, for all the days of my life, the pain I caused her, the things I said.
Although dealing with such a severely autistic child was so incredibly difficult, we both agreed that no matter what, we would never put Cody in a place of safety or a children's home and he would always live with us so that we could guarantee his safety. We could not possibly imagine a future where we were safe in our beds, but our son, who could not speak or understand communication, was in some home, far away from us, possibly being abused or miserable or cold or hungry...the thought just broke us and so we agreed, that no matter how difficult it got, we would ALWAYS look after Cody...this was our sacred rule, our personal happiness was not important, the well-being of our kids was the primary concern. Renee was like a lioness when it came to the protection of our kids and her family.
By 2005, I left my job, I landed an investor and I set out to pursue my dreams of becoming an entrepreneur, with 3 of the best friends and business partners a man could ever ask for. We had an office in La Lucia Ridge and Renee was 100% behind me. She believed so much in me, she would follow me into every battle, believing in me, supporting me, protecting me and looking after me no matter what, all while making sure our house was a home and our children were extremely well taken care of. The business venture didn't work out, so after 2 years, we decided to move to Gauteng, because our son got accepted into a school for autistic kids in Centurion. So began our life in Centurion and dealing with the emotional ravages of autism.
It was around this time that something clicked in my brain and I started to write articles about what the main issue is affecting Coloured people. Why was the Coloured community so anomalously dysfunctional? Why did the Coloured community have the highest rate of foetal alcohol syndrome in the world? The highest rate of drug abuse? The highest levels of incarceration in the country; the highest levels of violence in the country...why were we as a community, at war with ourselves?
I started to think about how dysfunctional my own family was, about how difficult is is having a child that cannot speak, a child that has no voice and that cannot express themselves. I thought about South African society as a family of races and the reason why we were not thriving as a community, is because like our son, Cody, the Coloured community of South Africa, was the autistic child in this family of races. The coloured community, like our son Cody, was stuck in repetitious patterns of behaviour; self-injurious conduct; had no regard for the future or its own well-being; was deeply misunderstood and without a voice ie. without any radio station or media in South Africa, the Coloured community, like our son Cody, was incapable of expressing itself. I knew what I had to do.
All this time, the website Bruinou.com was a big problem for us. Renee hated it because it took so much of my time and instead of making us money, it was costing us money. She hated the way I was not being acknowledged; that I was unable to get support and even though I poured my heart and soul into it, nobody seemed to really appreciate it. Renee hated seeing people she loved being hurt or treated unfairly. She would fight for the people she cared about, whether they liked it or not. She was a fighter.
Once I told Renee how I could relate autism to the Coloured community and the lack of media aimed at Coloured people, we knew that we should use Bruinou.com to take the SABC to court so that we can get a national radio station and give the community a voice, it's like we fell in love again...our child, who could not speak, had given our lives a new purpose...we would work towards making this a reality.
I wrote an article called “Everything I know about Coloured people, I learnt from my son, Cody Ash”. In this article I wrote about how my kids taught me 2 of the greatest lessons in life. I wrote about how my son had made me realise the fundamental importance of communication and how the Coloured community was living a lesser life, without its own state-funded media. I wrote about how it was critically important that our children, like our daughter Chloe, should have equal access to state media and be able to express themselves as equals in society. Things just took off from there.
I told everybody I came across, about how we need to take the SABC to the Constitutional Court over the lack of media for Coloured people and some people started to listen...many did not. I met a guy by the name of Ronald Dyers and we started a non-profit organisation called SAME – The South African Movement for Equality. We met multiple times with the SABC board and when we stated how massively discriminatory it was that 9% of the population, the Coloured people of South Africa, had no voice, the lights came on for them too. It was a massive uphill battle to make progress on this issue and no matter what, Renee was always there, in my corner, encouraging me, helping me, running the house, taking care of the kids and just being the amazing mother and wife that she was...I was so, so lucky to have her.
By the end of 2009, we settled out of court with the SABC, they would give us budget to do a TV show and that was that. We didn't get the SABC radio station we wanted, but we got to do the TV show “Colour TV”. In being one of the writers of the show “Colour TV”, I was by this point, completely exhausted, deflated from the lack of support we got from the community and almost totally out of steam. The harm to my family was too much, I could not justify pouring all my life energy into this project while neglecting my family's well-being. When “Colour TV” aired for the first time on SABC2, Renee and I cried tears of joy, we did something big. It was our hope that others would step up and take this media crusade further and see it through to the end, but nobody except Ronald Dyers, gave it all they could, to no avail. I felt like I had let my community down by stepping out of the race, but the reality is that Cody was an incredibly difficult child and Renee was struggling, our marriage was hanging by a thread and I needed to focus on her and on them.
The next few years, I was in and out of various jobs, miserable...because I didn't like working for somebody else, but doing what I needed to because I had to provide for my family. Renee basically gave up her life, her plans for her future and her dreams, just so that she could be there for our son Cody and our daughter Chloe. She supported me 200% in everything I did and although we had drifted apart in some ways, we had a respect, appreciation and sense of purpose and duty and responsibility to each other and our kids, that helped us get through just about anything.
Cody's autism meant we could not go to many places, so we saw a radical decline in friends who visited, family who visited and our movements were also constrained. We couldn't go to restaurants because Cody would grab food from people's plates and scream his lungs out. When Cody got too big to push around in a trolley at shopping centres, we just stayed at home, trying to stay productive and finding ways to keep ourselves entertained. I'd resign from jobs, try start a new business, then when that failed, get another job, lick my wounds and ride out the depression until I got strong enough to do it all over again.
3 Years ago, Renee had a migraine aura with complications, its symptoms are exactly like those of a stroke, except that unlike a stroke, there is no permanent damage and no blood vessels are ruptured in the brain. The experience shook us to the core and Renee became a radically new person after she recovered. She was so much more open to new experiences. She was less argumentative. She was more supportive about everything. She stepped up and wanted to help me run this business I was operating on the side while working. She took over the management of my accounts; started sending invoices; quotes; writing proposals; calling clients; doing support and basically being the business partner I craved for all these years...she excelled at everything I was terrible at. It was amazing. We worked well together and we were happy. We were going to rebuild ourselves, buy a new house and make up for lost time living in autism's cocoon. We were going to make a triumphant comeback, we were going to win over autism and not let the emotional trauma of it all, defeat us.
A few months ago, we decided to pack up our life in Centurion and to move to the family farm in northern Limpopo. We figured that if we had high speed Internet like the connection we had in Centurion; each other; less stress; more peace; more quiet and more healthy food to eat...that we would be fine. I had landed a partnership with the non-profit organisation “Autism South Africa” and I would start doing a series of talks at corporate companies to raise awareness about autism and by moving to the farm, I could have the script written for this within 4 months. The talk was going to be the story of our struggles and how we overcame them, it was going to be called “Dealing With Autism” and it was going to be our new start in this life. “Dealing With Autism” was going to be part comedy, part motivational, part educational, but a fully life-affirming talk that we wanted to move people with and stir something in their hearts. We did a promo advert for the talk and we waited for it to be edited and approved by “Autism SA” before we could start marketing it and taking bookings. Three days before Renee was admitted to hospital, we got the green light from Autism SA, we could start marketing the talk and taking bookings. We watched the advert together and we both cried, this was us turning this autism affliction into something positive, things were going to change for us...but it didn't turn out that way.
Within 3 days, Renee complained about stomach pains, by that night, she was in excruciating pain and had to be rushed to hospital. Within 12 hours she was on an ambulance to Polokwane hospital for emergency surgery. A week later, her kidneys failed and her lungs were starting to fail. She was in a critical condition and I called her family to let them know that they should come quickly. The doctors said she could go any minute, but I knew that my Renee, would fight this to the bitter end. By the following day, she was opening her eyes and she was starting to breath on her own. Her kidneys started to work again and we rejoiced that Renee was getting better. The doctors said she wasn't out of the woods yet, but for us, she was breathing and improving and so...hope lived.
Renee passed away on 6 August 2017, after a short but intense fight with haemorrhagic pancreatitis. I don't know how I'm going to cope without her. She was such a massive, ever-present, consistent, reliable, positive part of my life. She deserved so much better than she got, I now know what I need to do in this life. I'm going to continue with this talk “Dealing With Autism”, I'm going to keep her memory alive and I'm going to tell the world about how autism took away my wife and my son's life. I'm going to spread awareness about autism and I'm going to make her so unbelievably proud. I'm going to tell the world that angels are not magical creatures, they are real people...and I know, because I married one, her name was Renee Ash. I loved her, I respected her, I appreciated her...I just wish I told her this more often when she was alive.
To Renee's parents, thank you for raising your daughter the way you did. Thank you for letting her share her life with me. To my daughter Chloe, your mother and I are so proud of you. Although Cody demanded so much of our attention, your mother and I loved you both equally. Please continue to make us proud, do your best in everything you do and become the strong, successful, inspiring woman your mother and I always believed you would be.
Thanks for the memories Renee, thank you for making me a better person, thank you for loving me when I hated myself and I thought I was unloveable. Thank you for believing in me and for having my back all those times you did. Although I am broken inside, I will rebuild...and I will make you so proud. We all miss you, we'll miss you forever.