Joe McNamee

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Finding a light in the dark

After Erbie Underwood overdosed last month at 18, his mum was determined his story would have a positive outcome, says Joe McNamee

WHEN Karen Underwood found Erbie in the morning, he was cold, but alive. He walked downstairs to the ambulance. In the hospital, though near unconsciousness, he was lucid, able to talk. Through tears, Karen told him they would survive this episode. But two days later, Karen’s beloved 18-year-old son was dead.

Tomorrow night in Cork Opera House, just a month after Erbie’s passing, comedian Des Bishop and Karen will host a concert in aid of Bounce Back, to raise funds for a home for Erbie’s basketball team, Fr Matthew’s, and for a youth café, a recording studio and a youth facility providing psychological support to young people and their families. Suicide prevention is its core ethos.

Karen and her family moved to Ireland from southside Chicago in 1997. When she and her husband separated, he returned to Chicago in 2002, but Karen and her children, daughter Christiana and son Erbie, remained in Cork. Karen also began singing. By day, she works with children with autism, but is also a performer, most recently touring Ireland with her acclaimed Nina Simone show.

“Ireland is my home,” says Karen. “The Irish have been really good to me and my family — especially through all this. My daughter would tell you she is Irish, though she still has a bit of an American twang.”

Ebie’s ‘twang’ was different. “Erbie was as Irish as any Irish lad,” says Karen. “Put a hurley in his hand and you’d know it; close the door on a crowded playroom when he was six or seven and you wouldn’t know he wasn’t a Cork lad. When his uncles came to visit or we’d go to Chicago, they’d call him over, ask him questions just to listen to him. And then they’d just laugh —they loved it, they called it his Irish brogue, they thought it was the coolest thing in the world, this bright-eyed, brown face, and a big old Cork accent on him.”

Erbie threw himself headlong into sports: hurling with Blackrock HC, a stone’s throw from his house, and soccer with Avondale, just around the corner. But basketball won out.

“He got his first basketball hoop aged three,” says Karen, “He loved it, he loved the film Space Jam. Erbie and basketball were meant to be —and it was discovered he had pure talent.” But Erbie was more than a talented athlete.

“He also had pure talent as a friend,” says Karen. “When people were down, he would listen to them, make them laugh. If I could have said this kid was bullied or teased, maybe because of his race … but he wasn’t, he was loved.” But, though popular with students and teachers alike, he was not academic.

“He was the class clown,” says Karen. “He had absolutely no intention of doing anything with a book and it melted my brain, to have a son not even trying. I also saw a young black man — and the world wouldn’t be the same for him as for everybody else — and I pushed and pushed but UCC, CIT were not going to happen for him. I was studious, Erbie’s dad was studious — we never thought we would have a child who wasn’t. I grew to understand, as he got older, he was going to school to be with his mates, not for academic reasons — but it still melted my head.”

Karen changed tack. “Normally, me and Erbie would fight tooth and nail over bad grades but I made a decision not to argue, I accepted he was going to do different things. And he had a lot of anxiety about what he would do after school — he even wrote that in the letter he left, that he didn’t feel he was good enough to do anything. But I said, ‘if you can’t get in the front door, there’s always a back door or a window’,” she says.

Together, they researched alternatives and “his eyes started to light up,” says Karen. But there was still the Christmas exam results. “He’d burned me a couple of times, hiding grades, and, sure enough, they had been hidden, he was just too embarrassed to show me. Erbie never wanted to miss a day of school but he didn’t want to tell me he’d given up on school. The grades came in that Wednesday he ingested the tablets. He was sulking about them. I believe it was impulse.”

There will be an inquest into Erbie’s death but it adds to Karen’s torment that this was a domestic stockpile: sleeping pills, over-the-counter painkillers, Christiana’s hayfever tablets.

“In A&E, I said, ‘Erbie, I love you no matter what.’ I started kissing his eyelids. We both started crying, his tears mixing with mine, and I said, ‘you know what, we’re going to get through this, this is not something you’re going to suffer through with shame or on your own cos I love you no matter what’ and I kissed him, every bit of him. And he asked me, ‘Mom, do — and he named two particular friends — know’ and I said ‘yes’ and he started crying again and said, ‘I’m so sorry’. He wanted to come back but he’d gone too far, he couldn’t come back.

“Kids just don’t understand the finality of the decision or maybe he thought I would find him in time — and I did. I thought he was going to be fine. Two days later, he was being turned over to the medical team but he stood up to use the toilet and he said, ‘I’m sorry’ — his last words — and he collapsed. Then the nurse was on his chest giving him CPR. He was laid out in this room here.

“Of course, I cry. I do weird things, I sniff his shoes at 2am in the morning when I can’t sleep. I took him flowers for Valentine’s Day. Some days, I get mad and kick all the flowers off the grave, then I have to tidy them up. So, I grieve, make no mistake, but if I’m gonna stay here, this has to be something with a positive outcome.” Bounce Back is that positive outcome.

“I was sitting with my family when I decided, ‘I’m gonna start a charity’ and they went ‘woah!’ I said, ‘excuse me, I’m clinging on to life here.’ This is not something I do out of strength, this is because I want to live, because of guilt I feel that my son took tablets belonging to me, because of all the pressure I put on him over school, because of all the times I didn’t go to a match. This is me wanting other parents to know if you’ve a child who’s not for school, he’s not for school. Just leave him. If your son or daughter is in the worst job, earning the least amount of money, they’re still on the time side of life. I wish my son could still get a job sweeping the streets, picking poo off the road,” she says.

“It’s hard,” she says. “I get my strength, really, from people. When my brother went back, he wrote to me saying, ‘I thought I came to help my sister bury her son but I was actually sent to understand what humanity really is, and I learned that when I came to Ireland’. Now, here is a black man from the southside of Chicago who never experienced anything like the amount of love he felt was palpable on this visit.”

This support extended to Bounce Back, with Bishop, printers, designers, everyone refusing to take a payment. “Bounce Back will be about suicide prevention on a very grassroots level. I did the best I thought I could with my son, but I lost him and I can’t get him back. Erbie himself wanted to come back, but he couldn’t — because of an impulse. As far as I was concerned he was sharing, open, but when it came to school … I don’t know … but the bottom line is a wonderful bright light has been snuffed out because of his own doing and, the question is, ‘what can I do about it?’.”

Karen will join the other performers on stage. That may seem strange to parents who have lost children, but each grieving is unique: “The last gig Erbie saw me perform was Singing Nina, in Portlaoise, and he said ‘wow that’s my Mom’ — and that’s how I can go back to the stage, put on my public face so I can hear Erbie saying ‘wow, that’s my Mom,’ again,” she says, “so I’m not sniffing his shoes or clothes or looking through his things.” So she can cope? Softly, she says: “Absolutely, absolutely, and I’ll be coping for a long time.”

Bounce Back - A month's mind for Erbie Underwood takes place tomorrow night, Wednesday, in Cork Opera House.

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