© Christopher Earls Brennen


``And for the rest of your life, you will say, ``Yes, that's
where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned.'' And
the pain of that will never, never go away, because the loss
of that dream is a very significant loss.

But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't
get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special,
the very lovely, things about Holland.''

From ``Welcome to Holland.'' by Emily Perl Kingsley.

In May of 1949, my mother gave birth to her fourth and last child, a girl whom my parents named Paula Gay Brennen. Paula was a victim of Down's Syndrome. In the terminology of the time she was a Mongoloid, a name which is no longer used today because of its obvious racial connotations. Though Paula's condition was immediately apparent to my father, it was some months before my mother became fully aware of the problem. Indeed she initially ascribed Paula's passiveness and lack of appetite to the fact that she was female. It is hard for me to imagine the mental agony that both my mother and my father must have gone through at the time. My mother's hair turned from black to silver in a little more than a year. From much later snatches of conversations I know that they not only suffered the traumas of ``If only'' and ``Why us'' but they also had to face the very real uncertainities of the effect on their three healthy sons. My father, in particular, must have wrestled with the possibility that adverse future effects might dictate that he should remove Paula from the family environment. Fortunately his fundamental belief in the strength of the human spirit prevented him from making such a tragic mistake.

I suspect that the reader unfamiliar with the circumstances has already concluded that this chapter is a tragedy. Of course my parents would rather Paula had been a normal, healthy girl. And no one could deny that this genetic accident caused my mother and father great pain. But the story is not a tragedy. The ending is quite different from that which anyone could have anticipated at the time. Indeed my own personal perspective is that the rest of the story is a triumph of the human spirit. Her life was a canvas filled with the colours of love. And so it is with tenderness in my heart, not pain, that I tell this, Paula's story.

The chronology of her life is simple fabric. Though more susceptible to the common aches and pains Paula grew up healthy and strong in the robust world of her three older brothers. Whenever possible she was included in the rough and tumble of boyish games and revelled in the praise for her modest athletic accomplishments. Backyard cricket was one of her favorites and allowed full reign to the majestic fantasies which are so much a part of that sport as they are of baseball. Later on, at the age of about fifteen, my brother Michael managed to teach her to swim, a feat which, at least in that time and place, was regarded as almost impossible. Paula gloried in this new found skill and went on to compete in the Irish special olympics, where, incidentally she also won several gold medals in the cricket-ball throw. So, while she was young and active, she experienced the joys of companionship in competition. Yet she could put the joys of victory and the agonies of defeat in perspective by holding out her hand at the end.

In other more complex activities she would remain on the side-lines content to participate in the feelings of others. Then she would never judge, indeed I am not sure that she was capable of judging. Rather she would empathize with the feelings of those for whom she cared. And the simple humanity of her transparent feelings were there for all to see, written large in her eyes, her smile and her tears. I think I speak also for my brothers when I say that it was easy to love Paula. Part of the reason for this was selfish for the love would never make demands and would never be qualified by filial competition. The other part was stranger, more mystical, for one could recognize in Paula much that was gentle and good in life. It was almost as though evolution had produced this genetic defect to remind the rest of us, by contrast, of man's inhumanity to man.

And so there grew in each of us, Michael, Colin and myself a special feeling for those less blessed than ourselves, a sense of responsibility for human-kind. It immeasurably enriched my life and, I believe, that of both of my brothers. That this part of Paula's triumph was second-hand diminishes it not one whit in my eyes.

But there was a larger arena in which Paula's life was a triumph. To describe this I must digress to outline the social conditions in the rural community in which we were raised. As a small boy, I thought that Down's Syndrome was exceedingly rare for I knew of only one other child so afflicted. That other child was a boy called Jackie, a few year's older than Paula. Jackie was the son of a local bank manager and his wife who lived on a street corner in the centre of the village of Magherafelt. Jackie lived on the sidewalk and was molded in the age-old form of a village idiot by the attention of those who idled away their lives in that street corner forum. He learnt how to play the fool for those who loitered aimlessly. And the end was sadder still. After his father died Jackie lived alone with his mother. Several years later his mother died in her sleep and it was several days before Jackie was found pining away at his mother's bedside. I never learnt what happened after that and I do not think I want to know.

Paula and my mother Paula with my mother and father

In those days social services or facilities for the mentally handicapped were very limited indeed. There were no such facilities anywhere close to our village. However a school for mentally-handicapped children had recently opened as an extension of a mental hospital in the town of Antrim about 20 miles from Magherafelt. It may have been the first of its kind in Northern Ireland. So, when Paula was about eight or nine years old, my mother began to drive her there on a daily basis - a very long commute by the standards of the roads at that time. Paula appeared to enjoy and learn from this experience so a year or two later my mother and father decided to try to wean her from the family by having her boarded in that facility. It was a belated attempt to experiment with my father's earlier inclination to relieve my mother of her burden. I remember the emptiness of our home during that first week or so of Paula's absence. My mother resisted the temptation to visit her, resolving to overcome her maternal instinct. But when, about ten days later, she telephoned only to learn that her daughter was quite ill, nothing could stop my mother and father from immediately driving to Antrim to bring Paula back home. Apparently Paula had quickly declined during her stay at the hospital and, for the most part, refused to eat, bringing upon herself an illness, probably physcosomatic in origin. Worse still, there were strap marks on both wrists. On the way home my father, fearing advanced dehydration, stopped in Toomebridge to buy her an iced lollipop. Back in Magherafelt, the hospital physician and old family friend Bertie McConnell spent the night tending to Paula and may have saved her life. And, thankfully, she did recover her physical health completely. But a salutary lesson had been learnt. Perhaps it was the only way in which the early doubts could have been resolved.

For my parents this incident brought into clear focus the lack of local facilities for the mentally-handicapped and, in particular, the need for a day school for the children. So they began to lobby without rest for some facility of this kind however modest. But where was the demand, the authorities asked? Fortunately, my father had acquired a fair knowledge of the local rural families due to his medical visits to their homes. And he, almost alone, recognized that many mentally-handicapped children were raised, lived and died in parentally-imposed isolation in the farmhouses and villages of our community. The country people kept their shame to themselves. Armed with such knowledge my mother and father began to be heard and it was a banner day in our family when a recently abandoned old two-room school building in the village was opened as the first school for the mentally-handicapped At first only a few children attended and, of course, Paula was there, quickly relishing the fun and games. Gradually the numbers swelled as more and more of the country-folk recognized that the old stigma no longer existed. I recall the incredulity with which the community recognized the number of mentally-handicapped children who lived, previously unseen, within the walls of the cottages and farmhouses. And so began a movement whose inertia was unstoppable. A few years later a brand new facility was built to house, not only a school for the younger children but also a day-centre for the adults.

But much more had changed than the existence of buildings. A radical change had occured in the attitude of the entire community. No longer was it acceptable to hide these people in backrooms. No longer was their existence a stain upon the family for had not the doctor convinced them that it was an accident of nature that could be visited on any couple. Now they could love all their children without shame. More than this, it was no longer acceptable to treat those who did see the light of day as freaks and sources of amusement for street-corner loiterers. Paula, like many of the other children, learnt many minor skills with which to contribute to the community. Many learnt to count money and how to run errands for their parents. And in my village it was often a source of pride for me to watch the child and the village shopkeeper conduct with dignity that most mundane transaction, a simple purchase.

Such was, in part, Paula's gift to the larger community. Of course, you may say, such reforms were inevitable. But in every field of human endevour, someone has to be first, to provide the initial, the most difficult move. It is also, of course, a lasting tribute to my mother and father who overcame their personal feelings to change forever the fate of the mentally-handicapped in our community.

Paula lived with my mother and father in their large and increasingly empty house providing solace, comfort and companionship to my parents in their later years. After my father's death she and my mother moved to a modern bungalow in Magherafelt until my mother could no longer manage. During these later years my mother did something very wise. She cultivated a relationship between Paula and a local family of caregivers who gradually inducted Paula into their family. When my mother had to move to a nursing home, Paula went to live with this family in their home just a few hundred yards from the nursing home. Paula would visit with my mother everyday and enjoyed an almost seamless transition in her life. After my mother passed away, Paula continued to enjoy the kind and warm environment of the lovely family of Nan and Charlie Stewart. She passed away quietly on Jun.15, 2010, at the age of 61, living more than twice the span that we were told to expect when she was born. In her own special way, she contributed to her world a gentleness and a love that will be long remembered.

Last updated 11/15/00.
Christopher E. Brennen