Memories on a Birthday



Alison’s first birthday. Not pictured: me blubbering like a baby


At 11.52am on Thursday 9 February 2017, Alison will be five years old. I can’t believe that my not-so-little girl will be five today. I also cannot believe that I, a total dummy when it comes to kids, have been a mummy for the last five years.

Every year since Alison’s first birthday, I’ve always used the ninth of February to look at the year gone by, to marvel at how Ali has grown and what she’s learned. This year has been a particularly busy year in Ali’s life. She started primary school in September and is currently excelling in Irish and reading. In the evening she sits down the minute she comes home from school, anxious to get her homework done. She then spends the rest of the evening churning out some ever-impressive artwork at her desk, each picture better than the last. It makes me so proud to be her mummy.

In truth, it’s only really in the last two years that I’ve started to believe that I deserve to be her mummy.

When the words ‘disability’ and ‘care’ are thrown into a sentence together, it’s often wrongly assumed that the disabled person is the one being cared for. If you google ‘disabled parenting’ there is very little support or advice out there for disabled parents. On top of that, there is a narrative that disabled parents are inadequate, that their children are more susceptible to abuse and neglect, and that they cannot be trusted to make sensible decisions regarding their children’s welfare. Just this week I had a lady write on my Facebook page that she had no idea that people as disabled as I am were capable of raising children and admired my bravery in sharing my story. (She had seen the documentary I did a few years ago, Somebody to Love). Undoubtedly she meant well but it was a stark reminder of how hard our family has had to work to be accepted as part of the fabric of our community.

I find Alison’s birthday hard for many reasons. Firstly, because the sense of gratitude I feel is overwhelming: there are so many women out there who would love children and yet I, the absolute baby dummy, was blessed with the most beautiful daughter. Secondly, because I don’t really want her to get any older and lose all the wonderful innocence she has now. But mostly because it’s been such a struggle to achieve the relative normality that we enjoy now. And thankfully, she has no comprehension of how this family has struggled.

Every year, I’ve always cried as Alison blows out her birthday candles. This is because at Alison’s first birthday party, she grabbed the flame with her little hand, only crying for a split second with pain. She had faced danger, and overcome it. I had faced doubts and ongoing criticism for the first year of Alison’s life from so-called ‘professionals’, and I was not brave enough to challenge them. Instead, I stayed quiet, pandering to whatever I was told in the belief that if I didn’t, my child would be taken from me. I believed I was useless. I believed that I was a danger to my own child. I believed I was not the mother she deserved.



Alison with her daddy on her third birthday blowing out her candles. Not pictured: me blubbering like a baby.


But in spite of myself, the years have flown by and I have managed to get her to five reasonably happy and healthy. I’ve managed to gain credibility as a semi-respectable parent in my hometown and in Alison’s school. And Alison is so intelligent, witty, kind and beautiful that I feel honoured to be her parent. She makes both JP and I proud every day, and for the most part we don’t take for granted the richness she’s brought to our lives. Our world revolves around her, as it should. We just love her so much.



Alison on her fourth birthday – you all right in the corner there mummy?! So embarrassing….


I’ve no doubt that Alison will have a lovely birthday, and all that I can hope is that the emotional scars continue to fade. But please don’t judge me if you see me sniffling over her birthday cake again. This girl is the centre of our world, and by God, we’ve fought so hard to keep our little family together. And, without doubt, it’s been a struggle, but so worth it.


Mastering the Art of Loss

Losing someone you love isn’t a one-time lesson, it’s a process that one must endure for the rest of their lives.

‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’ Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’.


No-one will argue with the statement that in 2016, we’ve lost a lot of people from the celebrity world. People who had such an impact on our lives, even though we never knew them. People who we looked up to, maybe idolised. Some people that we felt we knew personally. There’s no sugar-coating it: bereavement is cruel. Nothing can prepare you for that sudden void that it creates, and nothing ever fills that void, even if you try to.

Grief doesn’t believe in having a timespan, either. This will be our eighth Christmas without our beloved mother (and today is her fifty-ninth birthday) and I’ve already spent four weeks steeling myself mentally against crying like a sap every time I hear ‘Fairytale of New York’ because it was her favourite Christmas song. And this year particularly I’ve felt her slip further and further from me, because I’ve had to grieve for her repeatedly over the last twelve months. My brain frantically clutches onto fragments of memories I have of her like a man overboard clutching onto an inflatable raft.

First, there was David Bowie, on the tenth of January. I’m not a diehard Bowie fan, but Mum was. She used to tell stories of how she styled her hair like his, and there’s photos of her wearing a cross around her neck as he did. According to Mum, Bowie dictated what Mum wore in her late teens/early twenties, one outfit (if I remember correctly) was an orange top with yellow trousers  (which she got caught wearing by one of the Sisters in the hospital in which she was working at the time). Bowie’s death brought those memories back instantly and that day I mourned for time that couldn’t be recalled.

Four days later, Alan Rickman died and it brought back memories of a family tradition long forgotten: the four of us ‘kids’ meeting on St. Stephen’s Day in Mum’s house, eating crap and watching Harry Potter. Some years that would be the only day that we were all together. Alan Rickman was also in Love Actually, where he plays a love rat. I watched that film with Mum and there’s a scene where Rickman’s wife (played by Emma Thompson) has discovered her husband is having an affair (she discovered some jewellery in his pocket but she was given a Joni Mitchell CD for Christmas instead). In this scene, she listens to Both Sides Now, one of mum’s old favourites and even now, even though I’m expecting it, this scene breaks my heart.

In between the deaths of two absolute comedy legends (Frank Kelly’s on the 28 February, my husband’s birthday, and Victoria Woods’ on 20 April), another absolute comic genius, Ronnie Corbett, died. Every Christmas my mother snuggled on the couch and tittered at the antics of The Two Ronnies reruns. She’d probably seen every episode before, but she still laughed until she cried at them.  And after she died, whenever I saw Ronnie Corbett, I saw her and the big smile plastered across her face.

More recently, the passing of Leonard Cohen (11 November) suddenly reignited that sense of loss that each day, I try to keep buried inside me, along with a sense of panic. I explained in last year’s instalment of Mum’s Birthday Blogs that my way of dealing with particularly stressful things is to push them into a black hole and pretend they’re not happening. Thanks to the nervous breakdown I had two years ago, I now deal with what I’m feeling as it comes, though I must admit old habits die hard. And this year, what I’ve been wondering is how much I actually remember. How much of it is real, and how much I’ve fabricated.

For example, her voicemail message which I rang incessantly for a year after she died. What was it exactly? Was it ‘Sorry I can’t take your call?’ Was it ‘Sorry I missed your call?’ Not important, I know, but you’d think I’d remember that much. Her favourite singer as far as I’m concerned was Joni Mitchell but it might have been Alison Krauss, Elaine Paige, Mary Chapin Carpenter. I’ve no idea what her favourite dinner was because she cooked so many. Every year, as the sense of loss heightens, my memory of who she was becomes entangled with who I would need her to be today.

Of course, there are things I remember. Silly, insignificant things. Like the way we used to stop at KFC in Newry every time we went to Belfast (there was no KFC in Tullamore at the time). The time she bought a collection of Harrods Beanie Babies in the pound shop in Athlone. How she used to paint her pictures slowly, using bold primary colours, giving them thought, time and care. How you weren’t allowed to talk during Casualty or Holby City (we didn’t have Sky+). How glamorous she looked after putting on makeup and how she was the envy of so many women in town. How she had a brooch to go with every outfit, even in the noughties.

And today, on her fifty-ninth birthday, I remember thinking how she was invincible, how she’d be around forever, how I couldn’t see my life without her in it nagging me. And yet, here I am, fielding questions from her almost five-year-old grandchild who would’ve loved her Nana Una.

‘Mummy, was Nana Una pretty?’

‘Yes she was honey, very pretty.’

‘Was she a good cooker like you?’

‘A brilliant cook, she did lovely stews, lasagnes and roast dinners.’

‘Did Nana Una like art?’

‘Yes, she did, and she did lots of paintings and drawings like you do.’

‘I bet you miss her very much.’

My dear Alison, you have no idea how much.

Happy birthday Mum. I was never going to be able to stop you slipping away from this world, but you will never slip away from our hearts. And I know that even if all the other memories fade, we will always be left with love.

Mama Mia!

Since writing my last blog post, I feel somewhat lighter, happier, as if I have been freed from a horrible prison. And now I have the confidence to say that there are days when I, an amateur mummy, worry that I’m doing the wrong thing. Have I allowed Ali to eat too much chocolate today? Is that glue toxic? Where did she pick up  on that phrase?  and so on.

I was never under the illusion that motherhood was easy. In fact, I imagined it to be so much worse than it is. Until I had Ali, I didn’t ‘do’ kids. They were dirty, nosey, smelly creatures who pervaded every area of your life. However, no words could describe the love I felt when the nurse placed her in my arms. Suddenly, it felt as if I had changed. I was not Sarah any more, I was Alison’s mummy. And my own mummy was not there to tell me what to do or how to cope with this shift in identity.

It’s almost obligatory at Christmas to think of loved ones who have passed away. In my case, the feeling of loss is intensified by the fact that Mum’s birthday is this Monday 15th December. She would’ve been 57, only a ‘young wan’. It doesn’t help that her favourite Christmas song is ‘Fairytale of New York’ which so happens to be played everywhere about fifty times a day in the run up to Christmas. People look at me in shock when I don’t squeal in delight when it starts. Well, now you know why.

Becoming a mummy myself has been the greatest privilege of my life, but constantly wondering if I’m doing the right thing can sometimes be draining and isolating. Torturing myself by saying ‘I can’t even ask my mum’ doesn’t really help, all that does is send me into a self-pity fest. I find myself wondering how she did it with four; when sometimes I struggle with one, bearing in mind that I have Cerebral Palsy and wasn’t always the self-sufficient being I am now.

There was many a time when I truly resented my mum. Like all the times she made me attend physiotherapy and speech therapy after school when I really wanted to be at home writing poetry. Like the times she made me type out my homework on an old Sirius computer with an eerie green and black screen, when I wanted to write in my copybook like my classmates (to me it’s all the better if the teachers can’t read it). The final straw was when she sent me to the National Rehabilitation Hospital when I was sixteen, for intensive physio, speech and occupational therapy. I was livid because I was missing school, and the auditions for the class play (which I had written). Surely I, living with the disability day in, day out, know best what I need? Mum didn’t seem to see it this way.

Mum pushed me hard, often to the disgust of other parents. ‘Keep that foot straight’, ‘Speak slower’, ‘Look at what you’re doing’, she would bark at me. I would give her the doe-eyed look, the one that said, ‘You heartless bitch’. She seemed to find this hilarious. She revelled in this bitchiness. Often she and I would be about town and somebody would come up to her and say something like, ‘I feel sorry for the poor creatur.’ To which mum would respond, something along the  lines of, ‘You feel sorry for her? What about me, I have to put up with her all the time!’ or ‘My daughter doesn’t need your pity. She has more brains than the two of us put together!’

My mum was not just a mother. She was Una, a sister, a friend and a nurse to half of Tullamore at some stage. When I was pregnant, all of the nurses in the outpatients department had stories to tell about her, which usually ended in ‘well, I will never forget how your mother helped that man/woman that day.’ Mum used to tell me that nursing broke her heart. She listened to so many stories and carried them with her to the grave; to this day I couldn’t tell you any of them, but I know that some of them affected her deeply because she told me so.

Mum was elegant, witty and caring; she could also be forgetful and embarrassingly inappropriate. She spoke her mind at all times, which often had hilarious consequences. She wasn’t perfect by any means, but I couldn’t have asked for a better mother. She is the reason I am who I am today, and if I can do half a good a job with Ali as she did with me, then I would be a very happy camper.

So happy Christmas, I love ya baby, I can think of a better time, when all our dreams come true.

Happy birthday Mum. You may not be twenty-nine and a bit, but you will never have to use the purple rinse either. Thank God for small mercies.