The Fosterling in Irish Mythology

The Fosterling in Irish Mythology
The Fosterling in Irish Mythology

Ireland has a strange history when it comes to the care of its children. Sometimes, it seems as if they were treated as possessions to be traded rather than flesh and blood to be cherished, our country’s future.

We have a dark legacy to come to terms with, as we discover pits at nursing homes packed full of the remains of babies and young children; stories of babies torn from mothers at the Magdalene laundries and given into slavery in exchange for a donation, and people within living memory who have no idea of their true identity because they were adopted or fostered outside of the law.

In ancient times, fosterage played an important role in Irish society, but the process was governed by strict and complex rules as specified in the Brehon Laws. It was something practised by all classes, but particularly by the wealthy and the noble.

It strengthened natural bonds of kinship between various branches of a clan. In a turbulent world, it also served as a means of negotiating political advantage and gaining allies, and in war, fosterlings could be held for ransom.

Sometimes, a child was fostered out of goodwill, but generally a fee was paid to the foster parents. This was graded according to the child’s rank, so for example, three cows might be paid for fostering a farmer’s son, but eighteen cows might be paid for the son of a king. In those days, cattle were used as currency.

Fostering a girl was far more expensive than fostering a boy. The reason for this is unclear; perhaps she required closer supervision, or perhaps it was more complicated to teach her women’s skills.

The legend of Princess Tuag might indicate why the cost of fostering female children was greater than fostering males. Tuag was the daughter of High King Conall Collamhrach, but he was killed after only five years of rule. The princess was fostered at Tara by the new High King Conaire, and had a great retinue of ladies and waiting women to serve her. She was so beautiful that no man was allowed near her, for she was destined to be married to a great King, perhaps to Conaire himself.

When she was just fifteen, however, Manannán the Sea-God decided he would take her for himself. He sent his druid, Ferdia, to steal her away from Tara. Ferdia disguised himself as a woman, and sang a sleeping spell over her, and thus managed to escape with her.

He carried her to the mouth of the River Bann, and set her down on the sand whilst he went to get a boat in which to take her to Manannán’s land. She was still sleeping. As the tide rose, a great wave washed over the Tonn and carried her out to sea, where she was sadly drowned.

No doubt Conaire had to repay his foster-fee to Tuag’s family.

Children were often fostered as young as one year old, but seven was more typical. Often, strong affections resulted from fosterage at such a tender age.

We see this in Irish mythology with regard to the God, Lugh, and his foster mother, Tailtiu. She was the only mother he had ever known, and when she died, he was so overcome with grief, that he founded the annual Festival of Lughnasa in her honour at Tailten (Teltown in Co Meath, between Navan and Kells), where she had lived and was buried.

It was expected that a foster child be reared in accordance with the role they would fulfil in life as an adult. Foster parents were responsible for ensuring the child was taught the knowledge, business, or trade suited to their rank. If the quality of the fostering was found to be inadequate in any way, the foster parents would be subjected to a hefty fine of two thirds of the original foster-fee.

Lugh was known as the Samildanach, or ‘Master of all Arts’, because Tailtiu had seen to it that her foster son was taught not just in the battle arts, but many other skills also, such as healing, playing the harp, composing poetry, working metals as a smith, to name but a few.

Fosterage was considered complete if the child died, committed a crime, or was married. For a girl, marriage was legal at fourteen, and for a boy, seventeen. If the foster parents had no children of their own, they were entitled in old age or sickness to be supported by their foster children.

The laws which governed the fosterage process were very detailed and complex and controlled even the minutiae of their daily lives; stirabout (a type of porridge) was given to all fosterlings for breakfast, but only the sons of kings were allowed to flavour it with honey. Fresh butter was given to the chieftains’ sons, but the lower ranks had to make do with salt butter.

Even the colour of their clothing was controlled by the law. The lower ranks could wear yellow, black, white or beige, but children of noble status were allowed to dazzle in red, green and brown. Purple and blue were reserved only for royalty. This probably had much to do with the scarcity and costliness of certain dyes.

If a child committed any crime, it was the foster parent rather than the natural father who was liable for the offence.

When Diarmuid ua Duibhne, a warrior of the Fianna, committed an offence against his leader, Fionn mac Cumhall, he was already a young man, and so his foster father, Óengus Óg, Denann God of Love, was not held responsible.

Diarmuid eloped with Grainne on the night of her wedding to Fionn mac Cumhall. Deeply offended, Fionn chased the love-struck pair across the length and breadth of Ireland, even when Grainne grew heavy with child.

It was Óengus, foster father, not biological father, who stepped in and intervened with Fionn, thus calling off the hunt and arranging an uneasy truce. However, Fionn was to get his revenge many years later.

If a fosterling was physically marked in any way, either through being struck by the foster parent, or injured whilst in their care, the foster-fee was forfeit. If the child became seriously ill, or diseased, the foster parents had the right to return it to its natural parents.

If a child died, and the foster parents were found to be negligent, the child’s biological parents were fully entitled by law to seek direct retribution.

When Cuchullain was born to Lugh and the mortal woman, Dechtine, daughter of Ulster King, Conchobar mac Nessa, the nobles of Ulster squabbled amongst themselves over who should foster the boy. The matter was only settled when Morann the Wise intervened and chose a team of six foster parents for their own particular skills, who all had a clearly defined role in the boy’s upbringing.

Interestingly, Fionn mac Cumhall was fostered at birth by two women. They took him to a secret place in the forests of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, to raise him away from the reaches of his father’s enemies. Bodhmall was his aunt and a druidess, and saw to his education, whilst the mysterious Liath Luachra trained him in hunting and the battle arts.

But perhaps the most famous fosterage story of all in Irish mythology is that of Deirdre of the Sorrows. Deirdre was the daughter of the King’s storyteller Fedlimid mac Daill. Cathbad, the King’s chief druid prophesied that the child would grow up to be so beautiful that kings would go to war over her, much blood would be spilled, and Ulster’s three greatest heroes would be exiled.

Hearing this, many people called for her death, but the King of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa, refused to have a baby murdered, and took her into fosterage. He gave her to a druidess named Lebhorcham, and ordered her to be reared in the forest in isolation, where she could cause no harm.

Deirdre grew up into a beautiful young woman, and one day quite by chance, meets Naoise, a warrior frrom the King’s court. They fall in love and fearful of the King’s wrath, elope to Scotland with Naoise’s two brothers, Arden and Ainnle.

Conchobar tracked them down, and had Naoise and his brothers killed. He married Deirdre, but then decided to give her to the man who had murdered her lover, Naoise. Distraught, Deirdre threw herself from the chariot, hitting her head on a boulder, and so was killed.

These myths are tragic indeed, but pale beside the true stories which have been emerging in Ireland in recent years. Brehon law, although altered by the Christians to fit with their beliefs, continued into the middle ages. These laws, so ahead of their time, protected the rights of not only the fosterlings, but the foster parents and the birth parents too.

That they came to be scrapped in order to pave the way for the abuses which are still coming to light even now was a step not into enlightenment, but ignorance.

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A Christmas Short Story Santa’s Gift

A Christmas Short Story | Santa's Gift
A Christmas Short Story | Santa’s Gift

I watch my children launch themselves gleefully at the pile of presents under the tree, but take no pleasure in their joy. My heart feels cold and hard as a stone, and the bitter taste of guilt catches and won’t wash away in the back of my throat.

Sarah is the oldest. Always the thoughtful one, she organises her younger sister to sort the parcels into three piles, one for each of them. It’s meagre pickings, I think dismally, but they don’t seem to notice. Caitlin normally resents Sarah’s bossiness, but on this occasion normal hostilities have been temporarily cast aside. Jojo, not even a year old, crawls happily through the chaos, more absorbed in the crunch and rustle of the bright paper than what it conceals.

My brave bold trio, who already in their short lives have seen a side of it no child should have to witness. I won’t have their childhood stolen away from them, I just won’t.

I pull Jojo onto my lap. She wriggles, trying to free herself.

“Girls,” I say. “Open some pressies for your little sister.”

They show her how to tear the paper, and she cottons on quick, squealing with delight, shredding the paper and mashing it into a squidgy mess with damp, pudgy hands.

When all the secrets have been revealed, it is Sarah who comes to me with a hug. I am surprised to see sadness in her eyes.

“But Mammy,” she says solemnly. “There’s nothing here for you.”

I gulp back the lump which has formed in my throat, and force a cheery smile. “Santy only brings presents for the children, didn’t you know that? Anyway, your Nana will be over later, and she will have a little something for all of us.”

“Hooray, more pressies,” whoops Caitlin, who has overheard, and Sarah rolls her eyes.

“You’re so materialistic,” she says smugly, and I stifle a grin as she stumbles over the unfamiliar word, my first genuine smile of the day.

I set Jojo back down, and go to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. The window is a black square; it is still early, but I can see lights twinkling vaguely in the windows of some of the neighbouring houses, and know that inside, the same ritual will be playing out, only without the guilt.

I lean on the worktop as panic overwhelms me. I am gasping for breath, my heart hammering so hard, that for a moment, I fear a heart attack.

It was the worst thing I have ever done, and I will never forgive myself, but if I have to, I will do it again. For my girls.

“Is Dad coming today?” Sarah is standing in the doorway, clutching her new Barbie. Of the three of them, she was always closest to her Dad, and his leaving hurt her the most. He hadn’t even said good bye. Just woke up one morning a couple of months ago and said he’d had enough, walked out the door as casual as if he was heading to Tesco.

I can’t say it surprised me. He’d threatened it many times, but I never believed he was strong enough or desperate enough to see it through. And at first, I just felt… relieved. No more rows, no more accusations, no drunken violence. To be fair, all of that only started after he was laid off the previous year, and couldn’t find work. I’d thought we’d muddle through, that love would lift us up above all that. Of course, I was wrong. Everything always comes down to money in the end.

Then the relief faded and reality kicked in; Christmas was coming, I had no man, no money, and no one to turn to for help. But I was fiercely determined to make Christmas special for my girls.

I sold my wedding ring, paid the gas and electricity bills, and bought a frozen chicken and a Christmas pud. The girls wouldn’t notice the difference between a turkey and a chicken. They probably wouldn’t even eat the pud, but Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without one. That left precious little for gifts.

Nevertheless, I was drawn to Toys R Us, even though I couldn’t afford to buy anything. I drifted up and down the aisles like a ghost with big, hungry eyes. Sarah wanted the latest Barbie. And there she was, the last one on the shelf. I gazed at her longingly. She was beautiful, layers of puffy princess-pink organza wrapping her svelte tanned form, an impossible confection of overblown feminine perfection smiling blankly from the chaste prison of her box. I reached towards her.

“Excuse me.” An arm snaked past me and snatched the doll from the shelf. Outraged, I turned to glare at the thief. It shouldn’t have mattered; I couldn’t afford it anyway, but for a few moments, in my head, that doll was Sarah’s.

A woman in a grey coat with a fur collar and very pink lipstick deposited the Barbie on the summit of a mountain of toys in a shopping trolley, and wheeled it past me. It was full of girl toys, all the things I would have bought my daughters, if I could. Next to Barbie nestled Frozen’s Elsa, which had been top of Caitlin’s wish list. Tears stung my eyes.

I rushed out the store, mind in a turmoil. What was I going to do? My head ached, and I leaned against the cool shop window, thoughts fluttering as wildly as my heart, searching desperately for inspiration.

When the woman in the grey coat emerged with her purchases all bagged up in the trolley, I followed her. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have a plan. I was just obsessed with the over-indulgence of her shopping spree, and the unfairness of it all. Her daughters were getting too much, while mine were getting nothing at all.

She had parked in a far corner of the car park beside a crumbling brick wall. Badly, I noticed contemptuously, as the wheels of her car protruded into the neighbouring space. I lurked behind a big four wheel drive, watching. Tall whispering evergreens shielded us from the main road beyond.

There was no alarm on her car. She piled the bags in and locked up, pushed her trolley back to the store, and then headed towards TK Maxx.

As if you haven’t spent enough, you bitch, I thought, made irrational with jealousy.

In that moment, my passions consumed me; anger at my husband for abandoning us, fury at my helplessness, jealousy of this woman’s affluence, fear of my children’s disappointment on Christmas morning, repugnance at my inability to provide for them.

These terrible, powerful emotions took control, they moulded me into the shape of someone I barely recognised, an aspect of myself I abhorred, but did not resist. I thought of my daughters’ happy smiling faces, and that was all the motive I needed.

I worked a brick loose from the wall, and hurled it as hard as I could at the passenger door window, more from rage than anything else. The glass shattered. I didn’t expect it to, but it did. I knocked some of the shards out till the hole was big enough to fit my arm through, then reached in and unlocked the door. It clicked open.

I stared at the treasure inside in disbelief. It couldn’t be that easy. But it was.

I didn’t take everything; I couldn’t completely destroy their Christmas. I just grabbed two bags and ran, hoping one of them contained Barbie and Elsa. When I got home and emptied them onto my bed, there they were, glorious and bright and beautiful.

But as I wrapped them, my hands trembled, and with the adrenaline gone, feelings of self-loathing began to push at the boundaries of my mind.

Dad does not come, but Nana does. The girls jump on her immediately, and give her no peace until she laughingly hands out her gifts.

“Where’s Pete?” she asks, looking around and noting his absence. “I bought him a book. Does he know how to read?”

“Mam, don’t,” I protest, and burst into tears.

She wraps me in her arms for a moment. “I’m sorry love. But he does wind me up, the way he treats you sometimes.”

I push her away and retreat to the kitchen. The chicken is roasting, pots bubbling away on the stove, giving the false impression that I am in control. The window is lined softly with steam, whilst outside a grey sky drizzles relentlessly.

“He’s gone,” I say, and the whole story comes out, a torrent which cannot be dammed. Only when the flood has abated am I able to stop and sip at the mug of hot, sweet tea Mam places in my pale, shaking hands.

“Oh love, why didn’t you tell me all this before? I could have helped. You’re not alone, you know.”

“You’re a pensioner, Mam, struggling as it is. I couldn’t burden you with my problems too.”

“But stealing…”

“I know. There’s nothing I can do about it now. I can’t give them back. I have no idea who she is.”

“If I ever get my hands on that rotten good-for-nothing husband of yours…”

“Stop it, Mam. He’s still their father.”

“I know. He doesn’t deserve them. Or you.”

Our conversation is interrupted by the ring of the doorbell.

“Daddy,” shriek the girls, rushing to answer.

“Talk of the devil,” Mam mutters darkly.

But it isn’t Pete. Two tall policemen fill the doorway. I feel so weak, I think I will faint. The girls gaze up at them shyly, clutching the evidence. Behind me, I hear Mam’s sharp intake of breath, and am aware of her scooping Jojo off the floor.

My heart sinks. CCTV. The car park must have CCTV.

“You’d better come in,” I say, leading the way back into the kitchen. “Mam, make another pot of tea, will you please?”

“Sorry to do this to you, Sue, today of all days, but we’ve got Pete again. He’s in the nick now, drunk as a skunk,” says the elder of the two.

I sit down quickly, before my legs give way. So they haven’t come for me after all. I let out a long, shaky breath.

“He walked out on us, about two months ago, Ed. Haven’t seen or heard from him since.” How many times has this happened in the last year? So often, I’m on first name terms with the local coppers.

He left, I say to myself. He is no longer my responsibility.

“You’ll want to come and get him,” Ed replies, taking something out of his pocket and laying it in the middle of the table. A little square of paper.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a lottery ticket,” bursts out the younger officer, face pink with excitement. “That’s why he’s so drunk;  he’s been celebrating. He’s only gone and won the lottery!”

Ed scowls at him, but then directs a smile at me. “It’s true. We checked. I know that man has taken you to hell and back over the last couple of years, but he’s asking for you and the kids. Maybe he can finally clean up his act, with your help.”

I can’t speak.

“Do it for the girls.” Mam’s voice comes out as a croak.

But I can’t, even for them. They are my life, yet I will not be bought. I have hit rock bottom and committed a crime. I won’t make things worse. I won’t condemn them to a life with a drunk and aggressive father.

“What will happen if I don’t help him?”

Ed shrugs. “He’ll get turfed out when he’s sober, cash in his winnings, and use them to drink himself to death most likely.”

There is a sob from the kitchen door. It is Sarah.

“Mammy, is Dad dead?”

“No darling,” I soothe, opening my arms and enfolding her. “He’s just not very well, that’s all.”

“We can look after him,” she says, wiping her eyes, and pulling away to look at me hopefully.

Ed clears his throat. I know what he’s thinking; the money will make everything better. “It’s a considerable sum,” he says.

I level a cool stare at him. “I married Pete for love, not money. He was the one who let money come between us. Keep the ticket. We don’t want it.”

“Susan, no,” gasps my mother, but my mind is made up.

The two men gape at each other. Raw, ugly greed darkens their features as they weigh up my offer. Ed pockets the ticket.

“What ticket? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, getting stiffly to his feet.

I shrug on my coat and kiss the girls. “I’ll be back soon,” I say to Mam. “Take the chicken out of the oven at three.”

I hold my head high as I step out the door, fully aware of all the neighbours’ curtain twitching.

As we leave, Ed ruffles Sarah’s hair and winks. “All I wanted for Christmas was the day off.”

“I asked Santy for my Daddy back. I’d rather have him than a hundred Barbies,” she announces.

“The big man was obviously listening.”

She nods solemnly. “I’ve been very, very good.”

He looks uncomfortable, can’t meet her steady gaze. “Well, that’s more than can be said for the rest of us.” Then he follows me into the police car.


Why I Won’t Let You Mind My Special Needs Child

Carys on holiday 2012.
Carys on holiday 2012.

It’s not that I don’t trust you. It’s not that I think you won’t take proper care of her, or that I think I’m a better parent than you. It’s nothing arrogant like that at all.

But there is a lot of potential for things to go wrong. In particular, Carys could go into heart failure at any time. It’s a fact we have to live with, although to look at her, so robust and full of life, you would never think so.

She also has a tendency to stop breathing when she coughs, or a little bit of food lodges in her throat, or she takes too big a swig of juice, because her little system is too weak to cough up effectively.

I know that you are just as capable as me in dealing with situations like that. Every parent knows what to do when a child coughs or chokes. Every adult knows when they need to call an ambulance for events they cannot deal with themselves.

So that’s not it either.

My friends are precious to me, because I know I am not an easy person to be a friend of. I’m a bit of a loner, I spend a lot of time tapping away at my computer or visiting ancient piles of stones in the middle of nowhere, when I could be socialising.

Or Carys is sick, or like now with the Wilbargar Therapressure, going through something which can’t easily be managed outside of the home.

My friends are precious to me, because I have no family around to help out when things get tough or I’m not coping very well. I know I lean on you quite a lot at times.

But still I don’t ask for you to mind Carys.

The reason for that is something I feel sure many other parents of children with special needs will understand. It’s because my friends are precious to me that I won’t let you mind Carys.

Maybe that doesn’t make sense… I mean, who can I trust more than my nearest, dearest friends? But it’s not about trust. The thing is, I don’t want to lose any of you.

If you minded Carys for me, and something went wrong, I know that you would never forgive yourself, even if I did, because that’s the kind of person you are, and that’s one of the reasons I love you for.

And even though I know what the risks are with Carys, and even though I know you would have done everything humanly possible for her, there would still be a nagging doubt in the back of my mind, a doubt I would not want to acknowledge, but which would gnaw away at me from it’s little dark corner forever.

You would feel guilty, and I would too; for leaving her just so I could go and have fun, and for putting someone I care about in such a horrendous position.

I don’t want to do that to us. I value my friends, and don’t want anything to come between us. And that’s why I won’t let you mind Carys.

The Fairy Child

magic flower on water

I got long-listed for the third and final time by Fish… I’m not doing it again. Here is my story.

They say that the fairy folk, the Sidhe, are wont to steal a human child, should they wish it, and replace it with one of their own. I wouldn’t put it past them. When my daughter looks at me with those mesmerizing eyes, so very pale blue and clear as water, I know that she is staring right through me into the shady realm of her origin, a world beyond my comprehension. Her eyes are like a mirror; they reveal little, only reflecting back at me someone who, at times, I would rather not see.

She cannot be explained by the rationale of science and medicine. She is locked in a world without language, without movement, and I know that what goes on behind those eyes is as alien to me as my reasoning is to her. And yet we have learned to accept and love each other, to want and need each other, with an intensity which goes beyond explanation, a mother-child bond which simply is.

That first night, I barely slept. My new, tiny daughter lay in her crib, snuffling and snoring in her sleep. A beam of moonlight slid between the curtains and lit up Conor’s face where he lay as if unconscious beside me. He looked relaxed, the lines of daytime concerns eased smooth by the peace of slumber. Carys’s mop of black curls was a dark shadow against her crib’s pale bedding.

How is it that one’s worries are always magnified out of control during the wakeful watches of night? It’s as if that dark wing sweeps aside our powers of logic and reason along with our perception of the physical world around us. Only daylight can restore our sense of perspective, and banish our worries back to whence they came.

As I lay in my bed, giving way to my panic, the silhouette of my familiar wardrobe manifested itself as the monster of Carys’s syndrome; the bulk of the chest of drawers became her swollen, weak heart, the curtains my ignorance. They advanced upon me, wielding their weapons of fear and destruction, but I held my shield steady. I knew that without a weapon, I could never destroy them, but my shield of love could hold them at bay as long as I stayed strong enough to lift it.

I eased myself gently from beneath the quilt, trying not to disturb Conor, and pushed the curtain aside a little, so that the moonlight drifted across my sleeping baby. Bleached of colour by the night, and silvered by the moon, it was no human child which lay there, but some fragile, magical, ethereal being, a mystery just waiting to be unravelled. For some unknown reason, she had found her way to me.

I rested my hand on her, feeling her warmth travel through me. I brushed my hand gently over her tight curls, marvelling at her tiny upturned nose, her full rosy lips, her pointed elfin chin. In her dreams, she was feeding; her little mouth began to make suckling movements.

I sat on the windowsill, drew up my legs and huddled into my robe. Beyond the glass, the familiar vista had taken on an eerie aspect in the darkness, as if I only half recognised it. I had always loved the panorama which only ever unveiled itself to me from here. I had always felt welcomed, protected by it, that I belonged and had my own place in it. But not now.

The uneven paving and the black river of tarmac slid between shadow and the golden glow of a street light. I wished its warm, strident glare would fade, so I could see the stars; I knew they were out there, glittering like a myriad eyes, watching my struggles with cool disinterest. My problems were, after all, of little consequence in the turn of time and the vastness of space.

The humped shoulders of distant hills shrugged indifferently against the dark horizon; they had stood there for aeons, as the tides of man rose and fell with each new dynasty and civilisation.

In that moment, I understood the illusion. It wasn’t the outside that had changed; it was me. The danger I sensed hid not in the shadows and contours of the brooding landscape, not matter how threateningly the night painted them, but in my own frailty and inertia.

I glanced back at my daughter. She was the cause of this inner cataclysm. She was the root of my anguish. She filled the void, yet she had created it too. She slept deeply, innocently. Black curls, silver skin, soft breath. My fairy child, who should have died before she was born. She had fought her battle and won; she had cheated death, and God, the Gods, or whoever was out there, they weren’t happy about it. So they made us pay.

And so, just as they always did when I fell through the cracks between sleeping and waking, my eyes turned inwards, tracing the journey of the past few months which had brought me here; the joy as new life swelled within me; the mind-numbing and bone-chilling ache when the first scan revealed anomalies, and joy took wings and abandoned me; the fear when doctors claimed she would not survive gestation; the apathy of carrying within me a child afflicted by some nameless genetic deviance, and being unable to do anything about it, but wait. Yet whilst the experts urged us to accept the inevitable and discuss funerals, I could feel something else growing alongside this new, tragic little person.

It was hope.

I don’t know where it came from. Not from religion, for wasn’t this proof that a higher consciousness did not exist? My hope felt strong, and in my mind’s eye, I could see it; a shining thread of light, powerful, yet so delicate it could easily be broken by a breath, or a careless word. It wound its way through every fibre of my being, from the tips of my toes to the ends of my hair. And whilst I could not at that point put conscious expression to it, it was to prove a constant and comforting companion. As time went by and Carys stayed with us, my slender ray of light became a magnificent dancing cord of raw energy throwing bright lassoes around every straw I dared to clutch at.

Each morning was a treasured gift, as I awoke and realised that my baby was still alive within me.  My body, wrapped around this child, was being granted another day of precious embrace. I desperately wanted her to be born alive so I could hold her, look into her eyes, and tell her how much we loved her. Just five minutes of life, that was all I dared ask for. If she passed away in our arms, at least we would have told her. She would know.

When she came, albeit reluctantly, she was born three weeks early to a team of waiting attendants. They whisked her away from me before I had time to note more than the thick dark curls, and tightly shut eyes. As if by keeping them shut, she could delay the inevitable.

The next day, I was discharged from the hospital, but Carys was not. Going home with empty arms after giving birth is something no mother should ever have to experience. I was ushered through the door to the sofa, a cup of tea placed in hands which didn’t seem to know what to do with it. My two toddler sons whirled around the room unaffected, their exuberant play breaking over me like the ocean parting around a rock. Like that rock, I was unmoved. The tea went cold in my hands having never been raised to my lips. Without speaking, I drifted upstairs like a wraith and lay on my bed. Sleep did not come. But I belonged more there in the silence, with Carys’s new crib beside me, than I did in the happiness of the living room. I stared at the crib. It was as empty as I was.

Friends came and went. I accepted murmurs of commiseration and utterances of hope, wordless hugs, gifts of toys for Carys, and casseroles and lasagna for the family, so I wouldn’t have to worry about cooking. I let my sons be taken away from me for sleepovers, so I could have ‘time’. Time for what? They left nothing for me to do, but sit and contemplate.

Carys slept for three weeks. On the day she should have been born, she opened her eyes for the first time. The shock that jolted through me as I gazed into them was a turbulent mix of joy, anxiety, and mutual recognition. When I held this strange little being to my breast, it was with the uncomfortable feeling that it was not a baby I was nursing, but a long-lived soul.

We continued the process, Carys and I. We both understood our roles, and played them well. Feeding was a success. A week later, I was allowed to bring her home. The intimacy forced upon new mother and child eased into familiarity. It was loving, and beautiful, but it was overshadowed by the nameless beast which possessed her. And it brought companions.

Whilst the doctors did their tests in order to establish its identity, I replicated their efforts by searching the web, stumbling all the while over its treacherous accomplices; the most hazardous of the bunch, a heart condition known as Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy.

This would be her stalker, prowling along behind her for all of her life. A dangerous killer lurking in the shadows, awaiting its opportunity to pounce should we slip with the medication which held it at bay. We would never shake ourselves free of its clutches. We could never hope to save her from it, but there was no way we were going to let it have her.

Less shy was the attention-seeking Haemangioma, or birthmark, which flaunted itself wantonly, drawing much unwelcome notice from the general public due to its size and ugliness. Its unsightliness, however, paled into insignificance compared to the ugliness of people’s reactions to it. It had first made its debut two days after Carys was born, a shy blushing creature, seemingly innocent and of no consequence. But once it had established its claim, it grew with a speed and malicious enthusiasm which astounded me. Day by day it expanded, turning a deep, shiny red colour, a sinister parasite claiming its territory on my daughter’s face. The surface wrinkled and puckered, forming little hills and valleys, a menacing roseate island in the soft smooth sea of Carys’s forehead. When it began to drape itself over her left eye, surgery was decided upon in order to save her sight. Save it they did, but the monster never completely let go.

Epilepsy completed the deadly trio, although lesser culprits waited in the wings to join them. The seizures pounced on my daughter day and night, relentlessly jerking her body in their cruel, hard grip. Watching as she shook and twisted like a rag doll under their control, there was nothing I could do but administer increasing amounts of drugs, and count the spasms. I lay by her side, holding her hand and crooning softly, hoping she knew I was there with her, and could take comfort from it.

And thus we settled into our strange new life, punctuated by weekly scheduled hospital appointments, and regular unplanned emergency visits. For a baby who appeared so robust, on the inside she was as fragile as a china doll.

Meanwhile, the mystery deepened. Various detectives came to us in the guise of doctors, but the diagnoses they offered bounced back and forth like ping-pong. Noonan’s Syndrome, suggested one of them, pointing out the long list of Carys’s defects. I turned over the leaflet he left us with. One small sheet of paper. The sum of our knowledge. The sad fact was, the doctors knew nothing about my daughter. This was uncharted territory. As her parent, I knew a fraction more, but unfortunately, a thousand times nothing still equals nothing.

Blood tests revealed something incredibly rare. Carys was born with Cardiofaciocutaneous Syndrome, quite a mouthful, but then, anything less just wouldn’t do it justice. We took the news stoically; wasn’t it always good to know the truth, no matter how much it hurt? Knowledge would surely give us the tools to work with doctors and therapists to create a plan of treatments and cures, set goals for the future.

But for a family with a unique child like Carys, there is little moving forward, only stumbling around in the dark, lurching from one medical disaster to the next, and hoping, praying, if that floats your boat, for a guiding light.

In those early days, I was so angry. I blamed everyone; the strangers, who treated us like freaks; the professionals, who treated us like an exhibit; the friends who treated us like we were made of china while they tried to hide their normal, perfect lives and normal, perfect children; even my family, who weren’t around when I needed them. I had never felt more alone.

For a while, I hated what the coming of this child meant to my life. Would I be changing nappies for the rest of my days, mashing food, listening to tantrums over causes I didn’t understand, singing nursery rhymes to an adult child who keeps patting her head for yet another performance of ‘twinkle twinkle little star’ ?


Would I ever climb a mountain again, hitch-hike across South America, stay out late drinking wine with friends, and not worry that I have to stay sober in case Carys goes into heart failure during the night and I have to get her to hospital?

Probably not.

And then I feel guilty for being so selfish.

This dark side of me is relentless still. It haunts me, never leaves me. My cruel, faithful shadow, waiting eagerly to enfold and absorb me when times are tough. I try to avoid it, but it seeks me out in unexpected places when my defences are lowered, and sometimes I fall into it and get lost. It feels like drowning, like sinking into murky depths no matter how hard I swim, the dappled sunlit surface fading from view far above.

The big black cloud we were learning to live under was spreading its gloom ever wider over our lives. Beneath it, the fairy child shone her light like a firefly caught in a storm. She became my teacher, revealing layers of existence I had previously been impervious to. When she smiled, it was with her whole being. When she reached out for me, she hugged with intensity. She loved fiercely. She didn’t judge anyone, no matter how cruelly she was judged in return. When she reached forward to pat a stranger’s cheek, it was because she had seen through to the goodness in his heart, and she responded to it. She alternated between bringing me deep joy, and terror. I understood that message; that in order to appreciate what is good, one has to experience what is bad. Being Carys’s mother was a never-ending lesson in what really mattered in life.

One day, the Sidhe will come and take their child back. The doctors will say her heart gave out, but I will know the truth. It is a moment I dread, but know I can’t avoid. Until then, Carys remains my fairy child with the silver-blue eyes, the silent voice, and the ever-living soul. The greatest gift ever given and received.

As dawn highlighted the horizon with delicate morning hues of apricot, pink and gold, Carys stirred and murmured in her sleep. Soon, the fiery orb of the sun would rise above the hills and begin its trek across the sky, defending my sanity and banishing my night terrors to the domain of darkness where they belonged. Bathed in its reassuring warmth and light, my courage would be replenished. Carys would wake, and the daily routine would begin anew.

Shivering, I went back to bed. Conor reached out an arm, half-awake, and pulled me in close, and in that warm, safe place I finally fell asleep.


For Our Lost Children | A Poem

Butterfly and dandelion

Another morning dawns bright and clear,

a winter’s day, cold and still.

I should be glad,

but I’m gripped by fear,

heart heavy, slowed by an aching chill.

I feel only empty and sad.


I miss their smiling faces.

They smiled a lot. I see them everywhere,

just a fleeting glimpse, a flash of light,

then they move on to other places.

Stuck in the moment, I can only stare

into the void left behind by their flight.


They were too quick for me, for us.

They lived their whole lifetimes

before we were ready to let them go.

So we endure, comforted by memories, pained by loss,

guilty of love, of ignorance, of hope, our human crimes.

We did our best, I hope they know.


Life goes on, we are told,

but for a while it passes us by.

Lazy is Time; sly, cruel, unkind,

beating us with remembrances, ragged and bold,

softening emotions, smoothing grief while we cry,

eventually bringing peace of mind.

To Grow or Not to Grow | A Parent’s Decision


This week, we have been called upon to make a tough decision about Carys.

She’s very small, about the size of a five or six-year-old, yet in nine weeks’ time she’ll be nine years old. Her hands and feet are tiny; she wears a shoe in an infant size 10 (Euro size 28, Us size 11), and it still has plenty of growing room. I believe that size equates roughly to the size of the average two-year old. Told you she was small.

All the blood tests have consistently indicated that she is producing growth hormone; it’s at the lower end of the scale, but it’s still within normal limits. She has grown in the past 18 months… by a whopping 6.5cm – woohooooo! But it’s way below where she should be. Continue reading


Red heart and a stethoscope

Re-blogged from Tuesday, October 25, 2011.

When a child is born, we are so full of hopes and dream. How frail those dreams are, how easily dashed and broken.

Whilst I still carried Carys around within my body, knowing only that what she had was fatal, but not knowing what it was or why she had it, my most daring dream was that she would be born alive so I could hold her and look into her eyes, and tell her how much I loved her. Just five minutes of life, that was all I dared ask for.

I didn’t know then how feisty, how determined, how powerful my little daughter was. Despite everything medical research and doctor’s experience told us, she hung on in there and fought and struggled against all the odds to hold on to this precious scrap of life she had been given, whatever it’s baggage. Continue reading