Saturday, September 1, 2012

Thalidomide and the death of a dream..

German based pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal issued an apology - the first in fifty years- to those whose lives were affected by taking the drug designed to counteract morning sickness to the late fifties. This drug was prescribed up to 1961 when it was withdrawn. More than 10,000 babies worldwide were born with limbs missing or foreshortened because their mothers had taken the thalidomide drug. Goodness knows how many miscarried. Of course the babies themselves are the chief sufferers as they grew to adulthood; many never reached adulthood, but mothers fathers siblings and extended families - all their lives were touched too because of a defect in the drug. Scandalously it continued to be prescribed long after doctors had notified the company of their concerns

Listening to the debate on radio/tv/social media about this apology this weekend brought it home to me the tragedy that befell my parents in April 1960. Mam and Dad married in 1959 and were delighted to find they were expecting a baby very shortly after their honeymoon. They were both in their early twenties, he a Garda she a shop assistant with only primary education. It was a brave new world for them. An adventure they were on together - Dad a country lad while Mam hailed from the sophistication of Marino in Dublin. On the 15th of April 1960 they were walking up Griffith Avenue towards their new home in Willow Park Crescent in Ballygall (then Finglas, then Ballymun now Glasnevin!!) chatting about the visit they had just had with Mam's parents and laughing at the antics of the new pup they had 'adopted'. Something startled the pup and she scarpered out onto the road and unfortunately was hit by a car, she died immediately. Mam was awfully upset and she felt the baby leap within her. They wrapped the dog in a bag and carried it home to bury it.

It was three or four days before Mam realised that she hadn't felt the baby move. She'd leave it another day. She couldn't be bothering the doctors with imaginings. Sure she was only seven months - it might be normal for the baby to settle down and be quieter in the last few months. She had no information barring what she could glean from hushed conversations between her mother and neighbours, she was the first of her girlfriends to marry, her older sister was married but living in the States. She was a complete innocent. On the fifth day of stillness in her womb she took herself to the GP who immediately referred her to the Rotunda Hospital. There it was confirmed that there was no heartbeat.

It was the practise at the time to wait to see would Mother Nature take her course and when she didn't labour was induced on April 25th . To have knowingly carried a dead baby inside her must have been so frightening and horrific - no counsellors then! The baby was whisked away and my Mother never saw her first son. She was never allowed hold him, never really allowed grieve My Father was allowed see his dead son and all he ever said was 'She was better off not knowing.' The baby was buried in the Angels plot in Glasnevin Cemetery - stuck in Limbo forever according the Catholic doctrine of the time. Poor little soul! Poor sad parents. They believed for years that the shock Mam had received when the dog died had in some way startled the baby in here womb. In later years Dad did say that the baby had been thalidomide and had decomposed somewhat in the ten days.

God love them - those two youthful souls - their little piece of Paradise ruined. It must've made them grow up very quickly  It is no wonder my arrival eleven months later meant total unparalleled joy for them. Mam said she never ever took her eyes off me. I'd well believe it for in my mind's eye I can still see that face, all smiles and laughter leaning in over my cot to greet me. Her smiling face. The first face I loved. Poor old Dad didn't get a look in in the love fest between the two of us! He must have been so happy to see her restored to some semblance of the carefree girl he had married two years previously.

With the passing of time  we can look at our parents' past and see the events that shape them and us. When we are living an experience we only have the now - and it is only later with the wisdom of hindsight and the mellowing of years that we can see, analyse and forgive all the shortcomings perceived or real of our forbears.

Sleep soundly big brother, wherever your little soul wanders. I grew up hearing all about you. You were loved even though you may not have had life outside the womb. I would love to have met you. It is ironic that thirty years later to the day she gave birth to you my mother found herself again in a hospital - this time at my bedside following my first traumatic mental health hospitalization. Dates had huge significance for Mam - it shows that she never ever forgot her son. Her real first child.  

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