WHEN she was 2, my daughter Emma had a terrible accident. She fell off a bed and caught her forehead on the corner of a sheet of glass. My wife, hearing a scream, ran down the hall and found Emma, on the floor, with what looked like a gaping black hole in her forehead.
It was black only for a moment, and then began pumping blood. As quickly as she could, Frieda wrapped Emma’s head tightly in one of those towelling nappies that we used in those days, bundled her and her two sisters into the car, and drove to the doctor. Without even examining Emma, the doctor told her to drive on to the Cork Regional Hospital, around ten minutes away. He phoned ahead, so that when Frieda arrived at the door of Casualty, there was a full team waiting.
Someone phoned me at work, and I raced to the hospital as fast as I could. When I got there, I saw a sight that has never left me. My daughter, tiny, lying in the corner of a full-sized hospital trolley, her head in a huge bandage that was bright red with her blood. I found out later it was the nappy that Frieda had used to limit the bleeding.
The surgery Emma needed involved a lot of stitching – the glass had sliced through skin and layers of flesh, almost to the bone. Luckily, our doctor had immediately realised that plastic surgery would be necessary, and because he had phoned ahead there was a plastic surgeon on hand. Thanks to that, and to Frieda’s quick-wittedness and resourcefulness, Emma made a full recovery. She had a faint scar in a straight line down her forehead, but that faded almost completely in time.
The memory has never faded. I’ll never forget how Frieda averted what might have been a tragedy, and I’ll never forget how easily accidents can happen. But above all, I’ll never forget that image, of a tiny little girl, looking even smaller because of the size of the trolley she lay on, her blonde curls matted in blood, her head in a huge blood-soaked bandage. She was utterly brave, and entirely vulnerable.
It’s a funny word, vulnerable, isn’t it? The thesaurus on my computer offers alternatives – susceptible, weak, defenceless, helpless, exposed. None of them quite capture that sense of being at the mercy of others that the word vulnerable does.
And yet it has become vastly over-used. I’ve seen headlines in the recent past about vulnerable taxpayers, vulnerable homeowners, even vulnerable property developers. Sometimes it seems like we need a new word to really capture what it means.
But I never hear the word used, in its proper sense, without that image from the Regional Hospital in Cork (now, of course, the Cork University Hospital) reappearing in my head.
It’s what comes to mind when I see the images of mothers and children in Syria, in the aftermath of another crime against humanity by that country’s brutal, remorseless dictator. But it comes to mind too when I read about the possibility of a pre-emptive strike by the Trump regime against nuclear installations in North Korea.
Democratic countries don’t launch pre-emptive strikes against others. Military force, especially of the kind contemplated, is seen by any democracy as a last resort. The kind of bombs America is considering using on North Korea would do untold damage to human life, and would have vast, unknowable consequences if they were to be launched – including the probability of a reactive, possibly nuclear, strike, by that benighted country. It is inconceivable, surely, that America would willingly choose to unleash such bloodshed. Or that the rest of the world would stand by and let it happen.
That personal image of vulnerability pops into my head constantly too when I read the reports about mother and baby homes. We know a lot about Tuam, of course, but we know too that all over Ireland, for generations that lasted until recently, women were shamed into giving up babies in institutions. We know the damage, the pain, the suffering this caused. We know how vulnerable (in the true sense of the term) the women were, and we know how vulnerable and alone their children often were.
And we know that this vulnerability was caused by the policy, the attitudes and the actions of the state. That’s why it is surely wrong that the government has acted so quickly to stamp on the second interim report of the Commission enquiring into mother and baby homes.
The main point of the interim report is that there should be redress, especially for children who were forced to grow up in these homes without their mothers. I don’t believe it’s possible to find a greater instance of abuse than the abuse which robbed children of their mothers or mothers of their children. It ranks alongside the physical, emotional and sexual abuse uncovered in stark detail in the Ryan Report.
The Commission of Enquiry into the mother and baby homes acknowledges that, clearly and succinctly, and makes a strong case over a number of pages, citing chapter and verse for its recommendation, that the way to redress should be opened. The government has said no – apparently because it’s afraid of the cost. That is not a decision that should be allowed to stand uncontested.
But I want to finish by telling you what happened to Emma.
I’ve never known whether it was because of that trauma, the physical scar, or the way she had to battle back (or maybe she just learned it from her mother!), but Emma grew up into perhaps the most independent woman I’ve known.
She has always had a strong sense of justice and injustice, and always been able to express her opinions forthrightly. More than that, she’s always been determined to make her own way in the world.
She has built a strong career, and travelled to places I’ve never been – including a long spell working in Russia, learning the language and making Russian friends. The way of the expat, sticking to your own, was never for her.
A couple of years ago Emma married Jonathan (a good choice!), and then around nine months ago, she told us she was pregnant.
With her usual precision, Emma did a PhD in being a mother-to-be. No detail was overlooked in the preparation.
Then last Saturday, Emma went into labour. Throughout what turned into a long night, Frieda and I, and Emma’s sisters couldn’t sleep for the fretting and the worrying. The image that kept popping into my head, over and over, was that memory of a little girl with a blood-soaked head.
But there was no need for it. At 4.30 in the morning, while we were still anxiously waiting, she gave birth to her baby son.
Our first encounter with Carl was when he was fourteen hours old. He was already alert and curious, (extremely handsome, of course!) and had all the signs of growing tall. And the one thing we could be certain of, as we left Holles Street Hospital, was that if he grows up like his Mum and Dad, he’ll be just fine.