Friday 14 December 2018

Battling back to have the last laugh

Aidan Comerford had it all - a beautiful wife and family, a good job and a lovely home. Then his daughters were diagnosed with autism, he lost his job and almost lost his house. Yet, he tells our reporter, he kept his sense of humour, and even won a prestigious comedy award

Aidan Comerford and his wife Martha
Aidan Comerford and his wife Martha

Ciara Dwyer

When Aidan Comerford was growing up in Carlow, he knew exactly what he wanted in life - a wife and children. He had seen his parents' happy marriage and planned to duplicate it. One Friday night, in the Portobello Bar in Dublin, fate intervened. Aidan's colleague was leaving, so they gathered to bid her farewell. Her friend Martha joined the work crowd that night. By the end of the evening, he was sitting beside her.

"She was erudite, whip-smart, really funny and beautiful," he tells me.

Seven days later, sitting up in bed, Aidan told Martha that he loved her. The feeling was mutual. That Christmas, he was at mass with his mother in Carlow, when she asked how the romance was going.

"I told her, 'I'm going to marry this woman, we are going to have kids, and it's going to be great'."

And it was. His story sounds like something out of a Richard Curtis film. It has all the romance of Love Actually, and the humour too.

When he met Martha, he worked as a structural draughtsman and in the evenings he was going around playing music. He wrote his own songs.

"At the time, I was trying to be Damian Rice," he says. "The first time Martha saw me play a gig, I may have been barefoot. It's embarrassing to think of how seriously I took myself, but she saw through that.

"Martha was intimidatingly intelligent and I knew that I had to raise my game for this woman," he says. "I started reading again. Not long after we met, I gave her a Christmas present. I wrote a short story for her and bound it up nicely. It was dreadful, one of the worst things you'll ever read," he says with a big laugh. "But it was the principle of doing it."

Life was going well. Aidan had a good salary - thanks to the property boom, his work was in demand - and having re-trained, Martha was working as a secondary teacher. They bought a house in Ashbourne. They married and set about starting a family. They had a dream of simple suburban happiness. The plan was to have four children, in quick succession. But nothing happened.

"It was a bit of a kick," says Aidan. "I was the good Catholic boy who was brought up to believe that all you had to do was think about it and the girl was going to be pregnant."

They went to a clinic for tests and as part of the process, Aidan had to hand in a sample of his sperm. In his new book Corn Flakes for Dinner, which chronicles his life as a father, he writes with great comic wit about producing the sample at home; and then the 30 minute deadline to bring it in to the hospital, complete with endless roadworks. The story is typical of Aidan's style. He takes the adversity of fertility problems and tries to find the laughter in them. This is how he and his wife Martha have approached their life, and it has stood them in good stead. Eventually, Martha became pregnant naturally. In January 2006, they had a baby girl, Ailbhe.

"The night that Ailbhe was born, I was the happiest I had ever been," says Aidan. "I had a woman that I loved and a beautiful, healthy child. Even with the sleep deprivation, I was still incredibly happy that first year. I loved being a hands-on father."

By that stage, Aidan had stopped doing his singing and song-writing. He was content to let that dream go.

"Life was absolutely wonderful. We thought, we have this nailed. Let's have another kid. We wanted to have four. Within a month of trying, Martha was pregnant with our second child. Sophie was born in September 2007. She was the world's most pleasant baby."

Life was rosy but gradually, things started to go awry. Ailbhe went from being a very easy-going baby and all of a sudden, she didn't like being touched on the head - which meant that they had to wash her hair in 30 seconds - and she started to bark, like a dog.

"There were major tantrums but we couldn't figure them out. We just thought that it was the terrible twos. Up until then, she had reached all her milestones and she spoke very early."

Aidan and Martha kept a watchful eye on their daughter. They decided to go along with the common sense line; that each child is different, each child develops at their own pace.

"We wanted to be relaxed about it. When she'd repeat the scenes out the kid's film, Finding Nemo, we laughed. Here was our little actress."

But then one day in the doctor's waiting room, Martha heard her repeat these lines again and again. She realised that her daughter was really stressed and that this repetition was her way of coping. It all came to a head one Friday afternoon in November 2008, when Martha phoned Aidan at work. She told him that she thought Ailbhe had autism. She was in tears.

"I remember going home, saying this can't be right. We sat across the kitchen table and we discussed it. Everything fits - sh*t - everything fits."

Martha had been looking up stuff about autism and days before, she had spoken to Enable Ireland about her concerns. They were to learn that their daughter's repetition of the Nemo dialogue is echolalia - where children repeat the words but don't understand them. That hard weekend, as they called it, they talked and cried. To make matters worse, they suspected that their younger daughter Sophie was on the autism spectrum too. Her problems were more severe. She wasn't speaking, she wasn't looking at them and there was no connection with her. Ailbhe was almost three and Sophie was 15 months.

"I couldn't stop crying that weekend," says Aidan. "It's really hard for other people to deal with because it's a grief. Everybody has an ideal view of their family and how it is going to go. In the space of that afternoon, it seemed to have been shattered. On the Monday morning, I sucked it up and said, right, this is going to be part of life now. We're going to have to be good at this. Martha was on the floor but she was also suffering from post-natal depression and she had a sleep disorder. So, we said that we both can't be crazy at once. For the first three months, I was doing everything. I was bringing them out at the weekends, cleaning the house and generally being super dad. I came to an emotional breakdown."

Martha told him to take a break and he headed to Galway for the weekend. She suggested that he do something creative. So he started to do his comedy singing-song-writing again. A year later, the girls started early intervention therapies and he and Martha did a Parents Plus course.

"It was great to meet other parents," he says. "Other people are in this boat too. Very few people had girls with autism and even though we had two children with autism, we weren't having half of the issues that other parents were having - some boys were hitting and biting. Sophie would eventually go on to do that sort of stuff but at the time, we didn't have any of that. Ailbhe was frustrated because she couldn't communicate and Sophie was content to be in her own world."

The girls started early intervention therapy sessions with Enable Ireland in 2009. It was an eye-opener. Therapy helped Sophie, who was non-verbal - to ask with her eyes. And Ailbhe came on in leaps and bounds.

"The thing about therapy is that it gives you hope," says Aidan. "But it is a great unknown. They can't tell you that Sophie will eventually be able to speak and that Ailbhe will go on to mainstream in school."

Aidan and Martha were doing their best, giving their all to the girls. But on Aidan's 34th birthday, he lost his job. The construction industry was in a bad way and soon, they were in danger of losing their home. Aidan suggested that Martha go back to work teaching but that was not an option. Trying to fill out a form, she had a panic attack. They came to realise that her sleeping disorder was crippling - she needs 14 hours of sleep a day. Finally, he managed to get some draughtsman work and even though they were way behind with their mortgage payments, at least now, he could say he had some employment. They needed to hang on to their home. At the same time, Aidan's musical comedy had started to take off. He was performing occasional gigs in Dublin and earning a little money. When the girls were tucked up in bed, he would drive into the city and do a show. Initially, the song-writing thing was a way of letting off stress but when he saw that he could do it and earn some badly needed money, he began to take it seriously. He performed in Vicar Street and the Olympia and was part of the show Singlehood. Hearing people laugh at his songs, spurred him on. He entered So You Think You're Funny? - a comedy competition for newcomers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2014 and he won. He went from scrambling for gigs in Dublin, to agents clamouring for him.

The night that he won in Edinburgh, Aidan was as high as a kite. But back home in Ireland, it was a different story. Martha had brought the girls on holidays to Gowna in Cavan. They regularly stayed in a family member's cottage there. Her parents accompanied her, as she would need the extra help. Sophie did her circuits of the swings and the cottage and Martha watched all this. But then she noticed that after five minutes, Sophie had not appeared. They called out her name, got into a blind panic and were terrified that she had headed for the nearby lake - she loved water. She was missing for an hour and a half. They searched everywhere and finally, Ailbhe told them coolly that Sophie was back. The child was covered in mud and she didn't have her boots on. To this day, they don't know where she went or what happened to her. After that trip they went back to Gowna but now she wears a tracking device.

Martha was just about to call Aidan when Sophie appeared. He tells me that if he had got that call, he would have got on the next plane home and there would have been no comedy win. Nor would he have cared. When he came back, he listened to the story with terror. It put his win in a different light. But still, he talked about going back to Edinburgh with a one-man show. He did that the following year and he even talked about his daughters in the show. He told the audience that they were both on the spectrum, one mildly autistic and the other wildly autistic. The feedback from the show was that it was good but it was the last few minutes, where he talked about his daughters, which proved most powerful. He wanted to do more comedy but Martha put it on the line - "You can do this but at what price? We are going to suffer, as a couple and as a family."

The answer to this dilemma is in Corn Flakes for Dinner, the story of their life. Yes, their daughters have autism but it is about the laughs in between the challenges. He and Martha have a gallows sense of humour and this gets them through. At home, they talk about the 'decapitated grant' instead of the 'incapacitated grant'. Aidan bounces on the trampoline with Sophie and who would have thought that Ailbhe would be brilliant at word-puns.

Any parent of a child with autism should read this book. It gives some much-needed humour for the dark days. Far from being glib, it will be a lifeline for so many.

"Parenting is a massive test but with autism you find out your limits. I'm good with kids and a patient person but you find yourself losing it. A lot of the time, you lose it out of fright. You see your child pulling the flex of a kettle. It has really tested us. It's like extreme parenting but you get used to it".

From time to time, Aidan will watch films about autism - he calls it "touching the sore thing", and he says that it's OK to have a cry. But Martha prefers Game of Thrones instead.

"I'm not laughing at autism but you have to try to laugh with it, along the way," he says. "Otherwise you will go mad." And that has made all the difference.

Corn Flakes For Dinner: A Heartbreaking Comedy About Family Life by Aidan Comerford is published by Gill Books, €14.99

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