These blogs are categorised both by subject and month. If you have any trouble navigating it, please do not hesitate to contact me
It was late October when I got a call from a fellow activist. Now I have a rule that when someone from our diverse disability community asks for help, I try to accommodate where possible. This lady was ringing me because she was due to give a talk on disabled parenting the next day, but she had other commitments she’d forgotten about. Luckily, I had none scheduled. She was to give a talk to medical students in UCD.
“I’ve nothing prepared,” I said in a panic.
“You’ll be fine,” she replied. “Just wing it, be grand.”
And so against my better judgement, with no notes with me whatsoever, I found myself on the train to Dublin the next morning. I love the train; often it’s the only solitude I get when I spend most of every other day studying, writing or parenting. However, this time I could hear my own thoughts, and I didn’t like them. How come, almost seven years later, I still felt like I’d dodged a bullet, that I’d got away with doing something terrible? Why, after all this time, and all the happy memories I’d made, was there still that little sting, that tinge of unfairness lingering in the bottom of my soul?
Why do I still feel hard done by, robbed of what should have been such a happy time for my husband and I, the memories of bringing Alison home for the first time drenched in panic and fear? And is it, in fact, a bad idea to rake over the painful details of that time over and over again?
I arrived at UCD and after several phone calls, figured out where I needed to be (UCD is huge). I was met by the lecturer, Mary, who was absolutely lovely and very welcoming. We were both nervous because we didn’t know anything about each other.
“So,” she said, after the introductions, “how was your experience of maternity services?”
“Well,” I replied, in a matter of fact tone, “the physical care I received was excellent, but the attitudes of some of the staff were… horrendous!”
“Oh, brilliant!” she exclaimed, clasping her hands in delight. “Well, not for you, obviously, I’ve no doubt, but this is the type of discussion we need to be having with our future midwives and healthcare professionals. I want you to be frank and brutal as possible. Lay it all out there, all the gory details!” I smiled with pursed lips, hoping I wouldn’t shatter like a china vase. Of course I know that in this disability game, you need to have a thick skin. Otherwise you won’t survive – simple as.
The students came in and Mary introduced me, before disappearing to my horror (I hadn’t realised that I was considered to be a guest lecturer). To put the students at ease I told them there was nothing they couldn’t ask me and that I would be honest in my answers. Telling them that I was told that I was a danger to my own baby hurt in all the usual places, but we did have a bit of craic when I told them I knew better than the Public Health Nurse about Alison’s reflux. They seemed absolutely horrified to hear that she visited us for six months solid, on a daily basis.
“Any advice for us future midwives?” came one of the questions.
“Listen to us,” I said. “You’re going to be coming out of this university with six years’ of study behind you, but at the end of the day disabled mothers are – and always will be- the experts. Very few disabled mothers decide to have a baby willy-nilly. This is a decision that we agonise over, and sadly a decision that many potential mothers don’t have the mental energy or the fight to follow through with. Don’t treat us like we’re stupid. Support us, don’t frighten us. Often we are frightened enough.”
When Mary came back in, she was surprised to see us all smiling and laughing, me most of all. I had managed to get ‘down with da kids’ and I could see that I had really got through to them. I was still in pain, but happy. I had changed minds, challenged perceptions through opening up old wounds. And those wounds were slowly healing again.
Alison turned seven on Saturday, so I have been a wobbly yummy mummy for seven whole years now. And although it’s had its challenges, I wouldn’t change it for anything. I missed her birthday as I was in college in Maynooth. On Sunday, we were asked for examples of self-advocacy, and so once again I went through how we advocated for the right to be parents. Our class was horrified, to my delight, because it confirmed to me that what we experienced was wrong.
I can’t change that experience. The comfort I can take from it, however, is that we proved everyone wrong. That we have a beautiful, intelligent daughter who made our lives purposeful and complete. Alison makes me want to be a better person every single day. She’s the one that reminds me why I speak out so much, why I hope one day that the world will be a better and more accepting place for disabled parents.
Recovering from the hurt in my heart will be a lifelong ordeal. But if I can help, encourage and educate others to make the lives of future disabled parents easier, it will be worthwhile. And hopefully, in helping others, my own soul might finally heal.
My heart is heavy, my head’s in a spin
As I try to make sense of this mess that we’re in.
Keep quiet you fool, says the voice I tend to ignore,
You’re turning into the most insufferable bore.
Droning on about rights, injustice and division
And how we still aspire to true independent living.
My high-pitched female voice grates on the ears
Of the suited pen pushers who never seem to hear,
and they even seem to relish the thought of those living in fear –
of the voices they’ve silenced down through the years.
And I wonder how long we can keep up the fight
When some of us are forced to end the day at eight at night,
And we know better than to dare to bite
The hand that feeds us.
We are so fucking grateful,
And like stupid obedient pups we will always be faithful
For the reward of the paltry scraps thrown in our direction.
While the powers that be rule our lives at their discretion.
Sometimes I think I go over the top,
And I wish I could get my racing mind to stop.
I wish I didn’t care about fairness, equality or rights
and that I didn’t feel pain in my heart day and night.
If I didn’t know better, I could live in a cloud
Where the voices in my heart wouldn’t sound so loud –
Just become a ‘yes man’ and simply nod my head
And turn off the brain that is now a mangled mess instead.
And on the worst days, when I’m exhausted through and through
I’m so tempted to shrug my shoulders and say “What can I do?”
Do my words make a difference to anything except my bruised ego,
And if we want people to listen, where should we go?
Had I known that gaining more knowledge would bring so much pain
Would I choose the same path had I my time again?
YES, YES, YES
I say yes to equality, for the right to my own mind,
To leaving the shackles of the past behind,
I say yes to being ‘the troublemaker’ who says what can’t be said,
I shout on behalf of those imprisoned in their bed.
I fear complacency and apathy, of accepting as the norm
The nitty-gritty of my life fitting on an A4 form.
My heavy heart’s on fire, my head spins with voices from the past
That say: If you want to change these things, you’d better act, and fast.
So, it’s the end of 2018, which in some ways has felt like the longest year ever, and yet I remember sitting here writing last year’s post as if it were yesterday. It’s been a busy year, and here are just some of the highlights:
I did a “Begin your Novel” course in January, and I now am 26,000 words into Draft 2. Maybe I’ll finish it before I die.
I had a couple of job interviews, none of which resulted in me getting a job. May I respectfully ask how in the name of chocolate are you supposed to get experience if you need said experience to get a job? Grrr. Grrr.
I threw myself into promoting Independent Living, which I still think is one of the most important philosophies in the whole world, as it recognises disabled people as equal citizens with rights and choices. I blogged about it and also made a video as part of the #IndependentVoices campaign. I also got to work with some amazing ‘young’ people (I don’t believe I fall into this category anymore) and found out that the future of the Movement is in their capable hands. In September we had the launch of Independent Living Movement Ireland, formerly known as Center for Independent Living Ireland.
I applied to be on the UNCRPD supervisory committee, but was not selected. I did get an interview though which was a huge honour.
I gave two lectures to university students – one about the use of technology to students in NUIG via Skype and the other was about parenthood and disability to UCD students (which was a bit impromptu as I stood in at the last minute for a friend who couldn’t make it). Nerve-wracking to say the least.
I wrote an open letter to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar which was published in the Tullamore Tribune and also read out on Dublin South FM (Ger Scully and Sean O’Kelly, if you’re reading this, many thanks).
I started the Certificate of Disability Studies in NUI Maynooth in October, arrogantly thinking it’d be a piece of cake only to find it’s actually pretty intense with a lot of work and reading involved – oops! It’s so much more than getting the piece of paper for me, though. I want to understand the roots of the oppression of disabled people so that I know how to fight against it. That said, I need to stop speaking out in class. I’m coming across as a know-it-all and I will find myself getting beaten up for my lunch money. (If I don’t pass it, I may cry)
I’ve semi-committed to writing another monologue in the New Year with the talented Peter Kearns (Once this course is finished, though – my head is melted)!! Hopefully it materialises.
Oh, and I’m kind of doing some driving lessons! Think the instructor is a little dubious as to whether I can actually do it or not… only time will tell! Fasten your seatbelts!
And finally, I just about managed to keep this blog active (though don’t expect too much before my course finishes in April. Three essays and a group presentation will eat my time). Thanks to all my loyal followers for liking and sharing this pile of drivel. Your cheques are in the post!
Best wishes for 2019! xx
Nine years of birthdays with no candles on a cake,
Watching seasons come and go,
The days dragged, but the years flew.
And here I sit once again, with no gifts, no smiles, no hugs
and nothing new to say,
Unless you count saying ‘I miss you’
in a completely different way.
But this year, as well as the usual
Memories that make me smile,
My mind wanders to the fact
We haven’t spoken in a while.
and I need some validation,
to hear you say the answers out loud:
What do you think of me,
Do I make you proud?
I know that when I share this poem
People will say ‘of course!
How could you ever think otherwise?’
And they’ll say it ‘til they’re hoarse.
But you know I’m a cynic –
I never believe until I see –
And to be honest, the fact I’ll never know
Has really been bothering me.
Because I know I wasn’t easy:
At times, I had to be pushed,
Sometimes I was lazy,
And others, far too rushed.
I remember you there goading me,
Telling me to do my best,
and as I got older
Begging me to take some rest.
Then I look at my daughter,
Your grandchild, brave and strong,
and I realise, for all my mistakes,
She’s the one thing I didn’t get wrong.
And when she looks into my eyes
and says ‘Mum, are you proud of me?’
I realise that the answer
Will ever only one thing be.
And this brings some consolation
at this desolate time of year,
A hope that you’re looking down on me
With a smile from ear to ear.
Because though I cannot know for sure
Or hear it said out loud,
I hope you know I try my best,
and I hope that you are proud.
Happy birthday xxx
I love writing and reading about disability but I fear that I might have done so much of it lately that it has actually melted my brain into slush. When I look at an article by Dan Goodley or Colin Barnes, my brain shuts down and I refuse to take anything in, which is an enormous concern giving the nature of the course I’m doing (in case you’ve missed it, I’m doing the Certificate in Disability Studies in NUI Maynooth. I must be mad).
But during the Study Skills seminar we had this weekend, it occurred to me that the reason I’m not taking anything in is because I’m not being critical – I’m reading but I’m not probing, not asking ‘why?’ or agreeing or disagreeing. And when I thought about it, I thought perhaps that’s why it sometimes feels that we’re moving further away from equality for disabled people – because we aren’t asking ourselves (and the powers that be) important questions about topics that need to be discussed in order for us to be recognised as equal. Questions such as:
- Who has the authority to decide what you can’t do – you or other people? Do ‘professionals’ always know what’s best for you? Do they always act with your best interests in mind?
- Who profits from your impairment? I mean, seriously, a set of four wheelchair tyres can cost over a grand whereas a set of new tyres for the car is around two, three hundred Euro. My tricycle, I’m informed is worth about four grand, whereas you can get a state of the art mountain bike for a grand. An adapted car costs far more than the same model of car, unadapted. Why?
- Why has the head of Irish Rail not been brought to answer a case under the Equal Status Act? If you’re a regular train user you might have noticed that there is a sign saying ‘We comply with the Equal Status Act’ in the wheelchair space. Can that be true if you have to give twenty-four hours’ notice to travel?
- If a disabled person decides that their primary aim in life is to be an absolute twat, should professionals have the right to comment? To stop them? To safeguard them?
- These particular questions are addressed time and again without being resolved: Does the Personal Assistant Service exist now as it was originally intended? Should a Personal Assistant have the right to comment on your lifestyle choices? Do they have the right to refuse to enable you to make these choices if they’re ‘not what’s best for you’? Who knows what’s best for you?
- Should your right to your own Personal Assistant (and the hours you receive) be affected by the availability of a spouse or family member to act as your ‘carer’? What if you don’t get on with your family or they’re just using you as an excuse to claim Carer’s Allowance? (This has happened to people I know).
- To what extent are we our worst enemy? How much of the oppression we experience from outside sources is actually external, and how much have we internalised? And in blaming ourselves for being disabled, how much power are we willingly handing over to the powers-that-be, that make life-changing decisions on our behalf on a regular basis?
- Is it dangerous to ignore the realities of impairment, and can we accept our impairments and limitations without handing over powers to the ‘so-called professionals?’
- What will lead to the defining moment where disabled people can really be trusted to have full control over their own lives and budgets? I mean, why are disabled people being frightened out of trying Personalised Budgets/Direct Payments? Are they really that complicated, or are disabled people led to believe this so that (God forbid) they never truly experience any sense of control over their own lives?
- If the UNCRPD has been ratified, why has there not been significant investment into Personal Assistance in the 2018 Budget? Why aren’t we building more houses for everyone, including disabled people waiting to move out of long-stay institutions and hospitals?
Achieving equality for disabled people lies in tackling these, and other tough questions. It means never settling, never accepting anything as a given without a logical and reasonable explanation. It means not taking equality as a given when many of us know this is far from the case.
When we stop questioning these important issues, we become complacent. And I think we can all agree that we simply cannot afford to do that.
Hi all dedicated Wobbly Yummy Mummy Fans!
For the next six months or so I predict my posting on here will be a tad sporadic, so let me take this opportunity to apologise in advance. I’m studying for the Certificate of Disability Studies in NUI Maynooth, so that’ll be my priority for the next while. But I promise I will update this blog when I can!
In the meantime here is a poem inspired by what I’ve studied so far. Enjoy!
Look at you there, looking at me
As you will me to become whatever you see,
Your handy, capable hero, a huge lump of clay
to be moulded, designed in whatever way
You say, that if you had the choice
(and you say this so arrogantly, with your own voice)
That no way would you spend the rest of your life
Battling spasms, twisted limbs, pain and yet – in spite
Do you honestly think that I cannot hear
That I’m the embodiment of all of your fears?
You tell me I’m great, a pure inspiration.
You don’t know my name! But you think
you still have the right to dictate my place
in this so-called ‘great’ nation.
I’m not here to inspire, or make you feel good
and yet I’m not able to live a free a life as I should.
I carry the weight of your negative assumptions on my back
While you casually remind me of all that I lack.
I’ll never walk properly, my hands are weak
And I sound like a drunkard whenever I speak.
Would I not be happier surrounded by ‘my kind’
where my existence wouldn’t push the boundaries of your tiny mind?
I am not scrounger, or inspiration, or hero,
And I won’t be hidden or locked away either.
I’m a Trinity graduate, a writer, a wife
Who, in spite of your assumptions, has a pretty good life.
My ‘incapacitated’ body bore a daughter full of light,
And she knows that, one day, she must continue the fight:
Fight for equality
Fight to be seen as ordinary –
Fight to make mistakes.
I’d rather be seen as flawed than a fake.
I am not your ‘handy-capable’ hero,
Or an inspiration,
Or a workshy scrounger,
Or a burden, or a waste of space.
This is no tragedy
I am me – spastic, wobbly, gabby
And, ‘in spite’
(To mark World Mental Health Day, 10/10/2018. Apologies for the corniness – I bashed it out over lunch)
I have this voice inside my head
That often drags me down,
And nothing I can say to it can make the bastard drown.
It tells me that I’m ugly, useless, a waste of space
And worst of all that I’m alone in everything I face.
See, people have bigger problems:
Some people don’t have homes –
Others burdened by their mortgages
Or living on their own.
Some are trapped by violent partners
Others will have no tea.
I live a life of privilege that
This isn’t happening to me.
I couldn’t tell my friends or family –
I couldn’t bear the shame
Of having that stigma of ‘attention seeker’
Attached to my name.
They’ll think that I’m a nutcase
or that I need to take some pills.
I might be told ‘snap out of it’
Or that I’m not really ill.
And so I will say nothing,
Until one day when I wake
I decide that I’ve had as much
Torture as I can take.
What started as a grey cloud
Has turned into a storm
And I can see no way out…
Or maybe… just maybe…
A chink of light will shine through,
When I pluck up the courage
To turn and say to you:
‘I really don’t feel like myself,
I don’t think I’m okay.
I just need you to hold my hand.
I don’t know what else to do or say.’
Because, you see, I could say nothing
And no-one would’ve said
That there’s a bomb about to explode
Inside my messed up head.
The agony is tangible, it eats me up inside.
But I know you cannot help me if I proceed to hide.
And so, I must say something
If only so you know
That if you ever, ever feel the same
I need you to tell me so.
Because silence is a killer,
And pride keeps us apart –
And though the sentiments of this poem seem ‘corny’,
I mean them with all my heart.
One last thought, and then I’ll say goodbye:
There’s often more to things than meets the eye:
Smiles don’t always mean joy, laughter can hide sorrow,
So check in on those you love – don’t leave it til tomorrow.
From the desk of Sarah Fitzgerald (the views are my own and do not represent the views of any other disabled person or organisation).
An open letter to An Taoiseach, Mr Leo Varadkar,
Dear Mr Varadkar,
I hope this letter finds you well, or at least as well as you can be, given the current state of affairs. You don’t know me, and it’s unlikely you’ve heard of me: I’m just another BIFFO from the bog, like your predecessor, Mr Cowen. We’ll probably never meet face to face, and it’s a safe bet to say that it’s unlikely you’ll read this letter either. But it would somehow make me feel better to explain to you how I feel about today’s budget.
Firstly, it would be amiss of me to overlook the remarkable progress that has been made in Ireland over the last year for people with disabilities. After an eleven year wait, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities was finally ratified. It was a wonderful, surreal moment, and your Minister with Responsibility for Disability, Mr Finian McGrath, should be very proud. But I’m a bit of a sceptic, and ratifying this precious document should only be the first step of a radical shift in attitude towards people with disabilities in this country.
Taoiseach, I have lived as a disabled person all my life. I am deeply aware of the horrific history of disability throughout the last century, not just in Ireland but worldwide: involuntary sterilisations, mass murders during the Second World War, people growing old in the back rooms of their parents’ houses, their very existence a taboo secret. In some ways, times have changed: we can live out in the community now (if we can access it), we can be educated in mainstream settings and not just in sheltered workshops, we can even get married and have children provided we are hardened against being told that we will always pose a risk to the little people we love most. This has been my narrative for as long as I can remember.
In the last ten years, another narrative has come into play, one that can be summarised as ‘budget cuts.’ You don’t need to be ‘au fait’ with the UNCRPD to agree that the recession had reversed the progress of the Irish Disability Movement to the extent where it has left us visibly shaken as a community. In 2005, I learned about the ‘philosophy of Independent Living’ and was surprised to learn that the expert on living with disability was… me! I learned how to trust myself, how to allow myself to make good and bad choices- something I’m still learning, truth be known. And it’s only now, ten years later, that I can see disabled people starting to trust in themselves and have the confidence to use our own voices.
As part of a collective of over six hundred thousand people in Ireland, I would respectfully ask you and your government to start seeing spending in the disability sector as an investment in our future and the future of this country. We are willing and ready to contribute, yet only thirty percent of us are in employment. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is down to a lack of investment in Personal Assistant Services. Now, when I talk about Personal Assistant service, I mean a service where we, the disabled people, are regarded as the ‘boss’ or managers of this service, a service where we get to pick what needs to be done, when and by whom. Cutbacks over the last ten years has led service provision to be based on a ‘medical model’ which focuses on the level of impairment rather than the level of ability of the individual. Priority in service provision is currently given to physio and personal care. So at the moment, a number of disabled individuals in Ireland are literally being helped out of bed in the morning, only to sit around in their wheelchairs all day, seeing nobody else until somebody comes back in the evening, often at half seven/eight o’clock (my daughter, who is six, goes to bed at half eight) to put them back to bed. The terms ‘carer’ and ‘Personal Assistant’ are used interchangeably by our government and the HSE.
Of course, people aren’t just trapped in their own homes. They may be considered by some of the three thousand people living in nursing homes and long-term stay wards in hospitals to be the lucky ones. Unfortunately, because of a lack of accessible housing and Personal Assistants, many people, including a thousand young people, are living in these settings, which is in direct violation of Article 19 of the UNCRPD. A significant investment in Personal Assistants and housing is badly needed. Life is too short to be incarcerated for a crime you didn’t commit.
I am a thirty-four year old wife and mother, a freelance writer and a die-hard believer in the Independent Living philosophy. I don’t want to be taken care of, or (controversially) to be overly safeguarded. I want to make mistakes, to embrace life, to live up to my potential. I shouldn’t have to downplay my abilities din order to get the support I need to make a real contribution to our society. I shouldn’t have to choose between conserving my energy for writing or having energy to parent when, with the right support, I can do both really well.
I shouldn’t have to ring my local train station twenty-four hours in advance of train journeys, and still cross my fingers in the hope that I’ll have assistance on both sides of my journey. You know the feeling of relief when the plane you’re flying on touches down at your destination? That’s how I feel when I arrive at the train station to find a ramp waiting for me.
And Mr. Varadkar, I am sick and tired of living this way. Being an activist is tiring. People are getting annoyed with me saying the same things over and over again. I get asked all the time: wouldn’t I rather write about puppies, or chocolate, or gardening? The answer is yes, of course I would. Sometimes I wish I didn’t give a shit, that my blood wouldn’t boil as I read about yet another young person trapped in a hospital, or my peers choosing between heat and food because their Disability Allowance only covers the basics of living. And yes, I’m angry – if this was your reality, you’d be angry too.
Today, I urge you to invest in us, to help us change the narrative of oppression, to enable us to contribute to Irish society in a meaningful and tangible way.
Finally, to paraphrase my good friend Shelly Gaynor, we’re not looking for anything special, just an opportunity to have the same quality of life as everyone else.
You owe it to us, our families and our children, to enable us to live the best lives possible.
Autumn is more than a season.
It’s the feeling
Of the world falling down around you –
Yellow and reds:
Heaven and hell.
The closure of warmth,
The fug of turf fires,
A subtle breeze biting your skin,
A familiar darkness closing in.
It’s the season of horror
and hiding behind masks –
A chill leaks into your soul
as you look around
at what is lost.
The silenced children’s voices
now hide behind closed curtains,
Their once glowing faces now white
From the glow of their screens.
Trees sway, unconfident in their nakedness,
Their once plentiful garb strewn to the ground.
Desolate, they wait patiently
For longer days
And a hint of sun.
And so, we go about our days,
Our houses and cars lit to fight the darkness,
Waiting until we see that first green bud
On the old, dependable sycamore tree.
Sarah Fitzgerald, 02/10/2018
The pale pink light gave the room a heavenly glow. Siobhan lay in silence, watching the cavity of her chest rise, then fall, then rise again. The dripping noise from outside her window had stopped; the rain must have finally subsided. It had kept her awake most of the night, which meant that she was not jolted from the security of darkness to give Aoife her night feed. Michael was supposed to be on duty tonight, but Siobhan had supposed that there was no point in waking him up. He’d have only been cranky, and God knows there’d been enough bloody rows between them in the last few weeks to last a lifetime.
‘You’re crazy, woman,’ he’d said to her at the peak of yet another row where she had threatened to leave for good. She’d even had her cabin-sized wheelie packed beside her, although she wasn’t sure what she had put into it. The decision to leave had been, as in times previous, a spur of the moment one, made because she couldn’t bear those nasty voices in her head. This time had been different, however. She had really hurt him.
‘If you hadn’t wanted your precious baby so much, I’d still be normal and not a bloody psycho,’ she’d screamed at him as she walked away, the sound of her own sobs failing to drown out Aoife’s.
She’d come back of course, hours later, and she knew Michael was relieved, even if he didn’t want to show it. They should’ve tried to talk it out there and then, but they were both tired from the fight. The constant fighting. Fighting to make it through the days, the hours. This had been exactly three weeks before, and now the pair of them were walking on eggshells. It infuriated her how he always tried to say the right thing, always tried to give her space. If he could find it in himself to be as much of a cunt as she had been, then she wouldn’t need to carry so much guilt.
A crappy mother, a crappy wife, thought Siobhan as she peeled off the bedclothes and slid into the tracksuit bottoms that she’d strewn on her bedside locker just a few hours before. She picked up one of Michael’s hoodies from the shelf, not because of sentimentality but because the excess material hid her grotesque frame, the extra pouch that now hung around her waist, like an internal bum-bag. She inhaled as she peered into the cot at her sleeping daughter, longing to feel that special connection. Aoife’s thick lips smiled, something which Kathleen, Siobhan’s mother-in-law had insisted was just wind. Well of course it was just wind, Siobhan had thought. It seemed that Aoife was willing to settle in anyone’s arms but in the arms of her mother. Siobhan didn’t know how she felt towards Aoife, but it wasn’t love. It wasn’t hate, either. It was nothing.
What sort of mother feels nothing towards their own baby? A baby that she had yearned for since she was given her first baby doll by Santa at the age of just five years old? Three years of expensive and gruelling IVF had given Siobhan a daughter more beautiful than she could have ever imagined, and yet at that moment, Siobhan didn’t feel that she was cut out for years of self-sacrifice, of putting somebody else first.
Trying to stop herself sniffling in the dark, Siobhan padded towards the door, watching the sleepy scene. It was almost romantic, like a Cow & Gate ad. A gentle inner voice tried to persuade her to take back off her clothes, to lie down and try to sleep, but Siobhan thought it was too late now. She crept into the kitchen and rummaged through the medicine box, pocketing every painkiller she could find.
Soon this pain would be over.
Soon she would be over.
Despite the high winds earlier in the night, Siobhan hadn’t expected to be peppered with cold, misty rain when she opened the front door. She smiled to herself as she momentarily considered bringing an umbrella. Ha! She thought. People who are dead inside have little call for umbrellas.
She walked over the Whitehall bridge. The road was gleaming black from all the rain, and the usually busy Daingean Road was quiet. She had it planned: she would walk a few miles down the canal, then she would take all the pills until she felt a little delirious. At that moment she would succumb eternally to the murkiness, allowing herself to sink to the bottom. She supposed that people might be sad for a few days – her sister Aine would take it particularly hard – but in that moment she was grateful that her parents were no longer alive to feel the pain. She wished that she was more religious, that she believed that she would be reunited with her mam, whose voice she yearned to hear with every fibre of her being. But she wasn’t.
The wind was gathering pace again, a perfect time to venture nearer the edge. This way, she wouldn’t have to jump. She might have been just out for a midnight stroll when she was blown in. Nobody would have to know. She was just about to step closer to the edge when a gravelly voice behind her startled her:
‘Wild night to be out for a stroll.’
At first, Siobhan thought she was hearing things, because surely nobody in their right minds (she didn’t fall under that definition, she supposed) would be out at this hour? When she turned around, the sight of a shadow startled her. Despite the wind, she could detect the metallic smell of vodka from his breath. Yet this person was not staggering: he was trudging along slowly, as if carrying a great weight on his shoulders. She felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck, ready to go on the defensive.
‘Mind your own business,’ she said at last. Couldn’t he see that she wanted to be left alone? It occurred to her that he could be dangerous, maybe capable of rape or murder. But then again, wasn’t everyone? ‘I don’t have any money. Leave me alone.’
She half-jogged further up the canal path. It never occurred to her to walk back towards home, where there would be somebody waiting to protect her. What she did realise, however, is that she didn’t feel that she was worth protecting. She also noted that while she wanted to disappear, dissolve into the earth as though she never existed, she needed to have control over how it happened. God knows, she thought, it’s the only thing I seem to have any control over at the moment.
Her footsteps slowed, and when she was outside her own head she heard the hesitant footsteps behind her. The aroma of cigarette smoke was infused in the sharp October breeze. She sat down on the hill outside the old Daly farmhouse, inwardly cursing herself for doing so as the wetness crept in, leaving her derriere saturated. The violent wind had subsided; all she was left with was silence and self-disgust.
After a few moments, her companion crouched down beside her. He smelt of sweat, of old urine, of hopelessness. Bloody typical, she thought. Trust me to meet a drunk. Her partner inhaled, which started a violent coughing fit.
‘You ok?’ she asked, forgetting herself.
The man nodded. ‘Be grand in a minute,’ he said, wiping the tears from his eyes. ‘I’m well used to it by now.’ He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a long can.
‘You should quit the fags,’ Siobhan said, immediately hating herself for her own self-righteousness. Who was she to talk when she had the entire contents of her medicine box in her pocket, ready to take in one go?
‘I probably should do a lot of things,’ he answered her, his voice quiet. Siobhan heard the snapping of the can, and her stomach turned at the smell of fresh beer, presumably cheap. ‘You shouldn’t be out here so late. These parts can be dangerous for the likes of you.’ The beer trickled down his throat. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
‘What do you mean, ‘the likes of me’?’
He waved his hand, fanning her words away. ‘You know exactly what I mean.’ He rummaged in his pocket. ‘Smoke?’
‘No.’ Her voice was firm. ‘I don’t smoke.’
‘Ha. It must be hard to be so bloody perfect.’
Siobhan was relieved to smell the smoke; sitting so close to him, her bloodhound-like sense of smell detected urine and old underarm sweat, with the slightest hint of shit. She yearned to escape, to be at one with the swirling brown water in front of her. She took a deep breath, then another. Already she felt like she was suffocating. It wasn’t the feeling of comfort that she had been looking for.
‘Perfect. Ha! If only.’ For the first time since they met, Siobhan considered how she must appear in her companion’s eyes: a silly little damsel in distress, a privileged housewife who couldn’t possibly know what real hardship felt like. ‘You don’t know anything about me.’ She stood up, putting her hand in her pocket, feeling safer as she held the pills in her hand. As long as she had a plan, however warped that plan might be, she felt grounded. More grounded than she had felt in a long time.
Her stomach turned to bile as she thought about events earlier that day. It had started as an average day, or at least what she now considered to be average. She found it difficult to believe that just a matter of months before she was the manager of the Tullamore branch of the Bank of Ireland, bringing in quite a generous pay cheque. They’d squirrelled most of it away, of course, being sensible and thrifty. Aoife had been a surprise, a most welcome surprise. Her mere existence was testament to the fact that even the most highly paid and expensive doctors can get things wrong sometimes.
Aoife had awoken at six that morning, demanding her morning feed. Siobhan should have been well-rested; Aoife had slept since half nine the night before. Instead Siobhan had laid awake all night, unable to turn off her brain which was thinking at breakneck speed. What if she had dropped Aoife when she nearly tripped over that loose tile in the bathroom earlier? Aoife’d had a tiny bit of red in her spit-up earlier which Siobhan had assumed was from the strawberry she’d eaten earlier that day, but now she was worried that it was blood. She should’ve checked, and she didn’t. What sort of mother would allow her own child to bleed to death?
Siobhan couldn’t live with the constant inner panic anymore. It didn’t take a genius to work out that Aoife would be better off being looked after by someone more experienced, someone who would appreciate her for who she was. She warmed inside as she thought of Aoife’s blonde eyelashes, the tiny half-moons of her fingernails, the dimples that appeared when she smiled. Aoife was perfect. She deserved better than the fighting, than a mother who didn’t know what she was doing.
Another hacking cough disturbed Siobhan from her daydreaming. She stood up, and adjusted her jacket.
‘Anyway, it was nice to meet you. I really must…’
‘It was this very spot,’ the man said to her, gesturing towards the canal. ‘Where they found her. You know, I come here every night, try to work out why… She didn’t even leave a note.’ He wiped his chin on the sleeve of his jacket. ‘They say she killed herself, but I reckon that’s bullshit. She had three kids… she was happy.’ He lit a cigarette, the blue threaded smoke lingering in the calmness; the wind had passed, as Siobhan had known it would. ‘I’d only seen her the night before. She was smiling, laughing, dolled up to the nines…’
‘Who was?’ She only asked because she assumed it rude not to.
‘Karen. Oh, Karen. Now I’ve made a lot of mistakes – I’m sure that’s obvious – but she definitely wasn’t one of them.’ He pulled hard on the cigarette, as if he was seeking comfort. ‘She had it all, believe it or not – looks, brains – her mother’s doing of course.’ He crushed the empty can into the palm of his hand. ‘You hear stories, don’t you? Tell-tale signs, people losing interest in their lives -goodbye notes – we got none of that. No explanation.’
‘I’m so sorry.’ She didn’t know what else to say.
He shrugged. ‘They say men don’t talk. I don’t talk about Karen. I don’t know… maybe I’m hurt, ashamed… She could’ve fucking said something.’ The trees rustled gently in the breeze. ‘In the beginning, it was so simple. She’d been selfish, a coward – I thought maybe it’d been some silly woman hormonal thing, but they have pills for that now, don’t they?’
Siobhan scoffed. ‘You men are all the same. You think that solutions are so simple. And that we’re hysterical little women who know nothing about hardship. You have no idea what it’s like to have no control over your emotions, having to act all normal when your head is completely frazzled.’ Her voice started to break as she thought of her daughter at home. ‘How it feels to be completely useless and to have someone depend on you…’ Her chest shook with hacking sobs; she could barely catch her breath. The man looked up at her, nodding his head.
‘There,’ he said. ‘It’s out there. You’ve said it. So you’re a crap mum.’ His candidacy surprised her. ‘I suppose you beat her black and blue when she cries…’
‘Well, of course not…’ She was taken aback.
‘Or spend your money on high heels instead of baby formula.’
Siobhan’s fists clenched. ‘How dare you…’
‘Or head off for evenings out and leave bubs home alone. Leave a bottle in the cot, be grand.’
She laughed at the absurdity of the last one. She knew he was joking now.
‘You’d be surprised,’ he shrugged. ‘I’ve seen it. But Karen wasn’t like that, and neither are you.’ He stood up, wiping his hands on his thighs. ‘Go home. Get a nice hot bath.’ Siobhan screeched as he slid his hand into her oversized jacket pocket, taking out the pills and throwing them into the canal. ‘Things will be better in the morning. You’ll see.’
‘How did you know?’
‘Woman, you’ve been rooting in your pocket all fecking night. This isn’t my first time to do this, you know. After Karen, I swore never again. Not on my watch, anyway. If you wanted to kill yourself, you would’ve done it by now. We’ve been here all night.’ He nodded at the orange rising sun and grinned. ‘For all you knew, I could’ve helped you. Murdered you. Look at the state of me. Wouldn’t blame you for making that assumption.’
‘I guess we can never know what’s going on in other people’s lives.’
‘Nope.’ He started to walk away. ‘Unless we choose to tell people. How can people save us if they don’t know that we’re drowning?’
She watched him walk away, and how he walked with a sense of purpose. She supposed he had nowhere to go. But, she realised, he had done an important thing that night – he had saved her life. She was still shaking when she got to the front door. A white-faced Michael greeted her, his face filling with relief as he beheld hers.
‘Thank God,’ he said as she broke down, wrapping his protective arms around her. ‘I was so worried, I thought you might’ve done something stupid…’ Both their faces were awash with tears. ‘I’m so sorry… I’m so glad you’re okay.’ He squeezed her closer to him.
And then Siobhan whispered the words she had always found so hard to say:
‘Michael, I’m not okay. I think I need help.’
He nodded, and finally Siobhan felt the weightlessness she had been craving.