Copyright 2010 by Maria Francis
I was six when they all shuffled into the good living room looking very serious. They were all tall carrying folders coming in from the rain. It was early and my new foster mum of a few months, dressed me up in my usual attire, a red polka dot dress with cream polka dots, white tights and black sandals, she tied my black curly hair in two pig tails with red bows. I was made sit on the good arm chair in the good living room facing everyone to give me their news. One of them said, 'Maria, there is a reason we are all here today, there has been a terrible accident.' I noticed that one of the social workers was crying and hiding her face behind a tissue. I forget the rest to be honest as I remember I couldn't understand what was so serious. They told me that my mother had just died in a tragic house fire. I replied 'but, I already have a mum look, there she is.' I pointed to my new foster mum. The lady crying excused herself from the room. The serious social worker came over to me and got on one knee and said, “you have a mother who gave birth to you, she is your birth mother and you need to understand that she is dead and is never coming back”. I looked at her confused and said. “Okay, Can I go play now?”.
The death of my mum was indeed one of great tragedy. It will impact me forever and is still even hard to write about today. I remember the small paper cut out social services gave me years later in my life book. This was a book they compiled with information to help children understand where they came from. It read: 26 year old women dies tragically in a house fire. The Fire brigade was called to the scene of the blaze at 5 am to but the woman known locally as Hannah Francis was pronounced dead on arrival. She is survived by her husband and three young children. Foul play is not suspected. It was later on the local news.
I remember the wake in Armagh City where my mum now called home. It took place upstairs in a small room in a council house. The room was packed with three types of people. One third were social services, then of course my dads family, my many aunts and uncles and finally my mums side of the family, the O'Donnell travelling community from Limerick City. My mum was estranged from them for some reason still unknown to this day. She ran away when she was thirteen, found on the streets in the north and taken into a children's home run by the Sisters of Mercy who took great care of her until she turned eighteen and married my dad. Co-incidentally the Sisters of Mercy became my home too as I spent the first six years of my life under their special care.
The O'Donnell's disowned her because you don't run away if you belong to the travelling community and came back only to claim the body and return her to Limerick. My aunt told me later in life that the O'Donnell's caused a security alert in Armagh city at the time, they arrived up from Limerick and smashed all the windows on my relatives on the Francis side and threatened my dad saying that it was my dad's fault their daughter had died, they said that if their daughter wasn't buried in Limerick where she belonged that he would be buried next. My aunt said that the air in the room during the wake so was so sharp and hostile you could cut the tension with a knife and became a very unsafe place. There was a stand off between the two sides. The O'Donnell's stood on one side of the room and the Francis family on the other. My aunt told me that my mums side didn't let us stand with them and they made me stand on their side. I have no recollection of this. I remember everyone being very tall, all I could see was a sea of legs packed into a small room, with my estranged relatives pushing pound coins into my hand telling me to buy myself some sweets.
Sister Paula who genuinely loved me, took me home from the hospital the day I was born and kept a watchful eye over me the day of the wake. My mum was in a coffin by the window and she lifted me up to see into the casket. I remember being very frightened of seeing what a dead persons face looked like. But she was really beautiful. Her face looked like a little girls, she had tight sandy coloured curls around her pale face. She had lovely high cheekbones, with delicate features and light freckles. She looked just like a porcelain doll. She was wearing a peach coloured satin gown but the rest of the coffin was covered from the chest down as I think she was very damaged from the fire. Sister Paula, told me to touch her head, I said I didn't want to, she made me touch her head as she told me, your mum is dead and can never come back. Her head was cold which shocked me and I finally said, 'Okay.' I remember remarking years later that I can only remember the wake and not the funeral, Sister Paula told me that we were placed under child protection as there was a strong indication that the O'Donnell's had plans to kidnap us and raise us with them in Limerick. As we were children of the state our welfare and safety became paramount at the expense of my mothers funeral. I understand of course but can't help but feel a deep pain and loss when I think of it, as that wasn't just any funeral. It was my mothers. I never got a chance to say goodbye to her, why was she taken from me like that? I would really have liked a hug from her or at least to have remembered one. It's the feeling of knowing she can never hug me that upsets me the most. If I could make a selfish wish for one thing, it would be just that, not riches, not even to have a normal family but just a hug from my mum as nothing can come close to a loving hug from your mother. Why did God take her from me? Did he not know that I needed her to take care of me? To love me? To be my mother? Why God does the things he does we will never understand, I guess one day when I get up there I can ask the big man himself.
My mum and dad were still kids themselves when they had me, they were barely eighteen and were truly terrible alcoholics. Its almost impossible to make a family work with one alcoholic but with two, you can forget it! It's a disease you know. I understand that they loved me, they just couldn't take care of me. I have one brother and one sister. I was six, Matthew, my brother was four and my sister Serah , was only a baby, she was two.
My mum and dad were split up at the time of my mum's death. I've been told that they tried hard to make things work as they really loved each other but were taking time to work things out. My mum was seeing a man about town at the time and he was really crazy about my mum too, she had a power over men that they seemed captivated with, anyway my mum and this man were bad alcoholics and went out about town on Halloween night together. They got in a huge argument over something and my mum ran off home. She was very drunk and upset at the time, so she had a cigarette and lit the fire in the living room, she curled up in front of the fire, fell asleep and dropped the cigarette where she later died. By the time the fire brigade battled the blaze and found my mum, she was already gone. Luckily, we were placed in protective care at that time, being brought up by the loving sisters in the children's home, otherwise we would have perished too.
By the time my sister came along it was clear that my mum and dad weren't going to make it as parents so my sister who was two at the time, was fostered temporarily into a loving family home just outside of Newry. She was really happy there which put me at ease. Matthew and I remained in the children's home together. I'm really so very grateful to my mother for having my brother and sister in the short time that she did have with us. She gave me a beautiful brother and sister to treasure and call family and no matter what happened to us along the way, we would always have each other. When I look back, I think my mum had fulfilled her destiny by having children of her own and it was just her time to go. She was desperately unhappy giving her own painful childhood journey and the alcohol helped her escape the incredible amount of emotional pain she was in, so god gave her a little family of her own and entrusted us to the care of the state.
They say your closest to God just before you die, so I like to believe that god took her to watch over us and protect us, where she would be safe and happy from heaven. Its funny, even though I am now fully grown and my mum left us a long time ago. I know she has never been very far away. She left a little piece of herself in Matthew, Serah and me. In our hearts, she will live on forever and never be forgotten. My best friend Tracy said to me one day growing up, “God took your mum because heaven was missing an angel”. I cry when I think of this as I like to believe that this is true.
Veronica was my mums social worker when she grew up in the children's home and went on to become my social worker for a short time. She said that my mum was a really feisty character, very outgoing and always up to mischief. If she was your best friend she was extremely loyal and protective but if not, then god help you. She said mum was very popular amongst the boys and would climb trees in the grounds of the children's home at bedtime and the staff would have to climb the trees after her to try and get her down. I really miss that I didn't know her but those stories will always stay with me with who I imagine her to be.
I've heard very mixed stories about my parents love for each other, the social workers always told me that my mum and dad tried to take care of me and really loved us and each other on their good days. Sister Paula explained to me that when one was sober and trying to be a good parent that the other was still drunk and struggling, which would have been very difficult on both of them. My aunt on my dads side however, had a different story, she said she recalled my mum telling her once, “Over my dead body, Patrick Francis will not get those children!” She had no idea at the time that this indeed would come to pass only a few months later. I have only my own memories to go by, in fact I only have two memories of my parents, one is of my mums face that day, as she lay in the coffin and the other is a memory that will remain imprinted in my mind for the rest of my days.
In the early days, the sisters of mercy would allow us home on trial weekends with our parents as they wanted to make a go of things as parents. Matthew and I would spend the weekend with our parents and the rest of the week in the children’s home. I don't have any memories of my time at home, in fact neither of us do except for the events of one night in particular....
One night when my brother and I were at home asleep upstairs in our council house in a run down estate in Armagh city. I heard my Dad come home drunk and yelling. I remember as I heard the front door of the house slam that I felt very scared for some reason. Looking back on it now I know I was terrified of him. My brother and I shared a room upstairs in the house, we both had cartoon bed covers. Matthew's was of the cartoon warrior called 'He-Man', and mine was off the Princess warrior called 'Sheeba'. My father was yelling something downstairs about there being no butter in the house and I was terrified that he was going to come up the stairs to us, no sooner had I thought this and dad came thundering up the stairs demanding to know where the butter was, I remember saying: “Please Daddy, I promise I don't know where the butter is!” and feeling relieved as he left and went back down the stairs again to mum. Shortly after, I remember my mother screaming, “Please Patrick don't!” and I heard an almighty crash, then lots of crashes and then my mothers screaming. I felt the need to help mum and find out what was happening but I was very frightened, so I crept down the stairs, this is the only way I know what our house must have looked like as I remember the layout from this memory only. I told Matthew to stay in bed and not to come but he was too scared and wanted to come with me, I kept putting my hand out to keep him behind me. We both crept down the stairs, took an immediate left and left again to the kitchen at the back of the house. I remember hearing the sound of dishes smashing and the terrified screams of my mother. I was so shocked at what I saw that I pushed Patrick back behind me so he wouldn't see, but it was too late and he saw what I did. My father had my mum underneath him on the floor, there were glasses and broken cups and plates everywhere, my dad was punching my mum in the face and kicking her in the stomach, she looked up in horror and screamed: “Please Patrick not in front of the children!” I'll never forget the look on my mum's helpless face as she realised we were both standing there watching dad beat her half to death in front of us. She had blood streaming from her face and was lying amongst the broken dishes. She yelled at us to run and get out of the house. I watched in horror as my dad took my mum with great force in both his hands and lifted her from her position on the ground, over the kitchen sink and put her straight through the kitchen window, there was an almighty smash with sheets of glass flying in all directions.
The memory cuts and we're upstairs looking out the window on the same night, I heard a siren in the distance and there were blue flashing lights of what I think we're police cars. I remembered later seeing my mum in hospital with a cast on her arm and signatures signed all over it in different coloured pen. This is the end of the memories I have of my mum and dad together.
Looking back now, being put in care, gave my brother, sister and I, a chance at a different life, for the most part, a better one. Yes, it came with it's problems, mainly ones with identity, we never really felt like we belonged anywhere or to anyone but at least mum left us with each other. My brother and sister are the biggest gift to me, one which I treasure in my heart every single day.
They say that we each get 2 guardian angels protecting us at all times when we're here on earth. Apparently we can call on them for help any time we want, the only time they can't assist us is when it's our time to go to heaven, as was the case with my mum. But I must have three in that case. When I was in the children's home as a teenager, I used to close my eyes and pray really hard that my mum would appear at the bottom of my bed and tell me that she loved me and that everything would be okay. I envisaged her in a bright glow of white with wings and a halo like how my guardian angel is supposed to be. I'd pray and squeeze my eyes together so tightly that they'd hurt but I knew when I opened my eyes, there at the bottom of my bed would be my mum. I was so convinced when I opened them that she'd be there that I became frightened and prayed to god immediately to reverse it, pleading with him that I wasn't ready yet. Sometimes I scared myself so much that I'd have to sleep with the light on. I did this over and over until I was grown up enough to understand things more.
One of the staff members of the children’s home, whom I admired as she was young and cool said that when you pray for a guardian angel you will see within a couple of days a white feather, and this is your symbol of proof knowing that your wish was granted and would indeed confirm that you have your very own guardian angel. She said she still had her feather, I asked her to show me as I didn't believe her and low and behold she actually had one, it was long and white and looked like it was plucked straight from a dove in heaven. I prayed and prayed and still to this day I've received no feather, never mind a pearly white one. I remember at the time feeling very upset and couldn't understand what I was doing wrong. But now I know...
I'm different from everyone else, god had entrusted me with a special task that's different from normal children and that is one of faith. I must have faith that god has a very special plan for me and that one day he will tell me all about it.
Maria works in advertising in the Republic of
Ireland and currently lives with her partner in Dublin. Her dream is
to become a writer and is currently writing her first novel entitled
'A Star in Heaven' about her experiences of growing up within
the Irish foster care system.
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