Wednesday 24 May 2017

Missing Mathew

I never used to do the Lotto. I just never expected that I would have that level of good fortune in my life.

The flip side is also true, however. I never expected that I would know any great levels of misfortune. My husband and I were just an average suburban couple, hoping to ride on the back of the Celtic Tiger and, all in all, we generally felt we got out of our life what we put into it -- no more, no less. We were even.

Eight years on, my perspective is a little different, and I now see life as being a bit like an earthquake. When an earthquake hits, some people are killed and others emerge unscathed. There is no reason why some survive and others don't, but for those that do, they are thankful and they are glad.

I suppose we, as a couple, were relatively unscathed. We dodged the falling debris -- family sickness, children with special needs, financial outlays for the care of an ageing parent. We had few worries, and we never questioned why we were so lucky any more than to say to ourselves, "Thanks be to God, we don't have that kind of worry".

We were happy, and we were relatively carefree. That is, up until a December day in 2002 when we were told the baby I was carrying was seriously ill with a complex congenital heart condition.

People often say to me: "Do you ever ask yourself, 'Why me?' In truth, I never did, only because I just couldn't believe it was happening to me. It was me, my ordinary life. Nothing really bad ever happened to me. Of course, we had our share of problems, but they were just everyday worries, nothing that couldn't ultimately be solved.

When faced with the magnitude of this new problem, I realised I had no control over the outcome. None whatsoever. The doctors were unable to confirm how serious the condition was, and we were told we would have to wait until the baby was born before we would know. They were certain, however, that our baby would need to undergo a series of operations and, even at that, his life expectancy was poor and his quality of life would be seriously compromised.

Even as I'm writing this, and it is many years later now, I still find it very difficult to comprehend that this actually happened to us. I think that this suspension of belief was how I managed to get through the rest of my pregnancy.

I mean, the baby was kicking fiercely; I could almost see his heels coming out to meet me. How could a sick baby do that? Of course they had an explanation for it: the baby was perfect while inside me. The issues would only kick in when he was born. They say you shouldn't wrap your children up in 'cotton wool'; I just wanted to wrap my baby in my womb forever.

We were living in an era dedicated to perfection, or at the very least, the pursuit of perfection. Superficiality ruled the day, whether it was material goods, having a good night out or a charter of personal goals that had to be achieved. But nature came along, threw a wobbly and our life has never been quite what it was since.

When I went to write 'Ten Fingers & Ten Toes', I realised that my fears at that time were twofold: one, the terrible fear that our baby would die, and, two, the guilty fear that our baby would live and our lives would never be the same again.

This duality of fear is at the core of my book, but I haven't tried to explore the rights and wrongs of that statement. It is what it is.

However, while all this crap was crashing against the sides of my brain, we still had to maintain normalcy, deal with the smaller issues and the everyday problems that still existed. When people said I was great for coping, I used to look at them and think, "What in God's name am I supposed to do? Run around naked and scream and holler?" We still had three toddlers' needs to meet, a normal childhood to deliver to them and we had our pride.

Our child died. He didn't get to have an operation.

Then came the sympathy. I found this very strange. Up to this point in our lives, neither my husband Niall nor I had lost a person close to us -- another lucky dodge. Suddenly our youngest child was dead, and everyone was offering us their sympathy.

They were kind and nice, but I found it all to be misplaced. I knew that I would one day go to the beach again; I would lick an ice cream again; hell, I might even make love again. I was not dead. Matthew was dead. People were sad for me, but I was sad for Matthew.

After losing him I felt redundant. I was all geared up for sleepless nights, random feeds, endless nappy changing and soft, sweet-smelling skin. When I came home from burying him, I walked into the house and found I had nothing to do. I tried to look to the old routine, but that's just what it was -- old -- and I had been really looking forward to the new one.

The other thing was that no one really wanted to talk about it. We had just done our house up, and it was a great distraction when anyone came to visit. But, as I say in my book, I could almost hear their thoughts: "Lovely house, shame about the baby." I used to think to myself, "We are now the benchmark, the lowest denominator".

I was convinced our guests would later be saying, "Well, at least we don't have Niall and Yvonne's worry" when they were in the privacy of their own homes, and I imagine they were glad. Sure, weren't we like that ourselves once?

I sometimes wonder whether I wrote 'Ten Fingers & Ten Toes' to still the silent scream that yelled inside me every time I was asked the question: "How many children do you have?" To those of you who know, whether it was an embryo that never took, a miscarriage that was never revealed, a still birth or a cot death that is just too heartbreaking to talk about, you know how many children you have, but how do you answer the question?

I always wanted to tell the truth, but I had to admit it would be a 'conversation stopper', it would make people feel uncomfortable. Best to keep it quiet -- best all round really.

So, when asked the question, I always say "three", but the scream inside me contradicts me, yelling, "You have four, you have four!" The guilt that floods me each time I deny my fourth child does not ease with frequency.

In the days, weeks and months after the death of Matthew, I really did want to talk about him. I wanted everyone to know how he was, what he looked like, who he looked like. Yet no one ever asked me. Just as I later learned how not to make people feel uncomfortable, they did not want to cause me discomfort. So no one got to talk about him. A further denial if you like, but done with the best of intentions. The only words of comfort were that Matthew had spared us; that had he lived, it would have been a hard life, a drain on us, a drain on our children and a lifetime of worry.

In the year after his death, I thought about this a lot and, to be honest, I got a certain level of solace from it. Then a neighbour of mine gave birth to a very sick child. I watched her leave every morning for Crumlin Children's hospital, day in, day out, and God did I envy her. I knew then that I would have done it, I would have done it gladly and I would have done it proudly. He was my son. 'For better or for worse' has a home in parenting too.

I developed a routine in the weeks after losing Matthew. After dropping my other kids to school, I would make a quick visit to his grave. It wouldn't be for long -- two or three minutes max. I wouldn't wail or cry, I would just stand there and look into the grass under which he lay.

I guess I needed something to do, for him. I needed him to dictate some part of my daily routine -- surely he deserved that. I told no one that I did this. I knew they would think that I wasn't coping, that I was depressed, that I was going mad. I thought they would think it weird. In fairness, I would have thought me mad and weird too, if I had not become a new 'me' post-Matthew.

Then my mother came to visit, and she questioned the exaggerated school run. I couldn't lie to her. Neither could I look at her while I explained. She listened and she nodded, and she told me it was all perfectly normal. I looked up at her then, and I thought she was the one who was mad. "Sure," she told me, "didn't Jesus himself want his own mother brought up to heaven, body and soul? You go, you be near your son's body, only next time bring me!"

We are just an ordinary couple living an ordinary life. Sometimes life throws up on you, but at the end of the day we still make love, humour still has a place, and I have four children.

PS: I now do the Lotto!

'Ten Fingers & Ten Toes' is out now

Irish Independent

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