This sad story reminds me of Ashley.
When a 15 year old Northern Ireland girl finds out that she is pregnant, it is rarely a cause for celebration. When that girl is the oldest of 4 children living with their parents in a small, publicly-owned, terraced house in a run-down housing estate in an area of low incomes and high unemployment, it is even less a joyful occasion. Abortion was not a feasible option for her because, at that time, abortion for any reason, except for the risk that the mother might die if the pregnancy continued, was illegal. Those who could afford to, travelled to England and paid at least £450 (a lot of money then) to an abortion clinic. Although the baby was not wanted, neither this girl nor her family could afford an abortion.
Ashley was born into this family in 1990. He wasn't well, so adoption was out of the question until a full diagnosis of his problems was made, and it was unlikely even after that. In due course Ashley's mother learned that he had cerebral palsy of the spastic quadriplegia type. He was severely disabled.
Ashley's teenage mother was still at school, so could not be a full-time parent. The baby's teenage father was totally uninterested and refused to have anything to do with him. Ashley's grandparents tried to cope, but with 4 other children of their own, found it very difficult. In addition, the already overcrowded house was clearly unsuitable for this unwelcome addition, and there was no suitable alternative public housing available. The local Social Services department, with the unmitigated approval of his mother and her family, sought foster care for Ashley.
My wife (not Marie - I hadn't met her yet) and I were approved foster parents at that time and had had many successful placements. We also had a “handicapped” son (the official term for Colm, then 10 years old), which made us experienced, in the eyes of the Social Services department, in caring for “handicapped” children and babies. Ashley fell into this all-encompassing umbrella term - “handicapped” - and when he was just over 9 months old, he came to stay with us.
When Ashley arrived, he couldn't sit, feed himself – even hold a feeding bottle - or do anything more than a new born baby. He obviously had severe learning difficulties (which Social Services had neglected to mention prior to placing him with us) as well as his physical problems. He was, however, alert and paying attention to what was going on around him. He could eat mashed up ordinary food. He mostly slept through the night, so he only needed 16 hours-a-day care!
Ashley's family had unlimited access to him, but after a couple of visits settled for occasional phone calls to see how he was doing.
As time went on, Ashley could be seen to be progressing. Although he required full-time care, his infrequent smiles and occasional happy vocalisations made everything worthwhile. I don't know if I was fooling myself at that time or not, but it seemed to me that Ashley was forming an attachment to me. I was most certainly becoming attached to him. I would nurse him in my arms almost every evening until my bedtime, which fortunately coincided with Ashley's bedtime. In the mornings, while my wife was getting our 3 children fed and ready for school etc., I was feeding, changing, bathing, nursing Ashley.
He celebrated his 1st birthday with us. He seemed as happy that day as we had ever seen him. At 11 pm, just before going to bed, he sat on our fireside rug, totally unaided, for a few minutes. I cannot express how happy that made us! Real progress!
My wife rushed into our bedroom, screaming in a panic.
-I can't wake Ashley up!”
I rushed into the next room to his cot. He was lying on his back, relaxed. He looked asleep and had good colouring. Nothing much wrong here...
RELAXED?? Ashley was never relaxed. Alarm bells began to ring. I lifted him. He was floppy. He was warm. He wasn't breathing. He was dead. No! He wasn't dead! Not yet! He was too warm to be dead. I placed him on the nearby bed. Ring for an ambulance! I barked to my wife, and I started to give Ashley artificial resuscitation.
I continued with artificial resuscitation for...oh, I don't know how long...it seemed like a very long time, but it was probably only 10-15 minutes. As I forced air into Ashley's tiny lungs, I heard the fluid collecting there gurgle. It was not a pleasant sound. He was getting cooler, paler, more like a tiny cadaver. There was no breathing, no heartbeat. He was, finally, dead.
This scene still brings tears to my eyes. It's doing that now...
The paramedics arrived about 15 minutes afterwards. They confirmed what I already knew. They had to take him to the hospital to have a doctor check him – would I like to accompany them? In my dream-like trance I nodded affirmatively.
In the ambulance, during the 25 minute journey to the hospital, I was interrogated by an unfriendly paramedic. This was not what I was expecting.
-Who found him?
-Did you give him artificial resuscitation?
-Didn't your wife do that when she found him?
-No, she shouted for me.
-Why didn't she do it?
-I don't think she knows what to do.
-Who taught you to do that?
-The Scouts, when I was a boy scout.
-You weren't doing it when we arrived!
-No, Ashley was definitely dead by then.
-How do you know that – you a fuckin' doctor or somethin'? He was still fuckin' warm! You should've waited for us to tell you he was dead. We might have saved him. You should've kept up artificial respiration until we arrived. You might've fuckin' killed him!
There wasn't much scope for pleasant conversation after that...
At the hospital, the doctor was very sympathetic. He gave me all the time I needed and answered all my questions patiently. It was a typical cot death, he told me. No, there wasn't anything more I could have done. He had almost certainly been dead a couple of hours before my wife had found him. It was possible that Ashley had overheated in his cot and due to his physical problems he couldn't move to get cooler. That's why his body would have been warm, even quite a while after he had died.
The police visited next day – a man and a woman. They were apologetic. They had to do this. It was protocol. There was no accusation of anything being made. They just needed details for their records. They were very considerate in their questioning.
Ashley's funeral was arranged by his family and they generously invited my wife and me to attend the church service and interment of his remains. I attended the short, sad service. My wife, who had not become attached to Ashley, didn't want to go. Not many family members attended. The tiny coffin, covered in a cream fabric with silver decoration, was lowered into the ground at the edge of the small church cemetery. At the graveside, Ashley's grandfather spoke to me. I was somewhat apprehensive about this, but prepared for it. Would his family think that my wife and I had been negligent somehow?
“It was for the best, you know,” he confided to me. “What quality of life would the poor mite have had? His mum is relieved, now that it's all over. Not that she wasn't sad, too. But she had never bonded properly with him...”
I visited the cemetery on Ashley's 2nd birthday. There was no marking on the grave, no stone, no flowers, nothing. The grave was totally covered in weeds and indistinguishable from the surroundings. A visitor to the cemetery would not have known that there was a grave there.
It was as if Ashley had never lived.