I’m lucky my mother is still alive and enjoying life, and so grateful that for the past few years we make an annual trip to London where we take in visits to palaces, museums and other major attractions. We’ve always been close. I think I got my sense of humour from her and her quiet determination to survive whatever life throws at you.
She’s 85 now, although she won’t thank me for saying so. When I did a radio interview on the John Murray Show some months ago, she upbraided me for mentioning her age. That’s mum for you. I admire her spirit though, and, though we have rarely talked in depth about it, how she coped in the wake of my accident.
The Ireland of 1956 was a very different world then. She had another child, my sister Lorraine who’s just a year (and four days) older than me, and was sharing a small terraced house with my dad and her mother. And then I was burned and her world turned upside down. I know she was wracked by guilt in the years that followed because she had left me and my sister alone while she ran across the road to the shop, but I have never blamed her for that. In those days people did that. Unfortunately, she and I had a large slice of bad luck that January day and I ended up in hospital.
What went through her mind in the aftermath? Terror, I’d imagine, not just because I was badly burned, but as the days went by she realised the extent of my injuries and, as I discovered when I became a parent myself, she worried about how I would cope as I grew older. What kind of a future would I have? Would I always look the way I did?
For the next 2.5 years I was a patient in the South Infirmary in Cork, about a 15 minute walk. It wasn’t easy taking it in turns with her mother and spending the night by my bedside and then going home in the morning to mind her two other children – my brother John was born while I was in hospital. How did she cope while looking at her damaged son lying in a hospital bed and grieving as she must have been? And how did she get through those days and nights?
I suspect mum’s determination and her love for me got her through. Whatever she felt inside she must also have had a strong belief that I would survive initially – I was expected to die in the weeks that followed the accident.
Mum is a very quiet person. She prefers to keep bad news to herself, and has this great facility to keep a secret if asked. What I love most about her is her laughter – it’s just incredibly infectious.
The more I think about it, the more I am in awe of mum and the other mothers of facially disfigured children who must be leading double lives, who must be grieving on the inside, but not showing it because they know what their children are going through.
Mum has given me only a glimpse of how she feels. I know she tried to protect me without suffocating me as I grew into my teens and found life more challenging. She knew I was called names, that others stared at me. She knew how hurt I was, and always said eventually life would work out. She was right. I know she suffered with me, felt my pain at every setback, understood my loneliness, and was someone I could always confide in. She never treated me differently to my brother and sister, and I’m grateful that she didn’t. It stopped me from being spoilt and arrogant.
I’d love to know how other parents of facially disfigured children are coping. Perhaps one or two of you would let me know.