When people ask me what was it like growing up in Ireland in the 1980’s with a brother who has Down syndrome, I can sadly think of an awful lot of horrible experiences outside of our home.
But inside our home, our eldest brother was just one of us.
We saw nothing ‘special’ about him.
We didn’t see any intervention or doctors or nurses calling.
We just saw our brother who happened to have Down syndrome.
Below is one of my all time favorite childhood memories …
He’s the one that got away with the most.
He was always in the thick of things but was, what we had thought at the time, too innocent to lie to get out of trouble.
We tried, all five of us (our youngest sister was too young to help with this) to teach him to lie.
“Who done this?!” My father would ask as he stared at the Lego thrown carelessly around the floor.
“Germac,” my brother, O, would answer. Pointing at one of us (whoever he happened to be ‘ratting’ out at the time) in case my father wasn’t sure which one of us were which.
We would spend long Winter evenings explaining to O the importance of not ratting each other out to our parents. Each and every time he promised he understood us.
We eventually figured out our brother had no issues with lying, he lied often …
O was clever.
O was, as my father would often describe, as “a cute hoor.” (Cute as a hoor — roughly means you’re some rouge but you’re brilliant.)
Let me set the scene …
We lived in a three bed attached house. My parents converted the attic making it a fourth huge bedroom.
They decided we needed an extension on the back of the house too and a downstairs toilet (fancy considering this was the early 1990’s), which was added to the house after the last baby joined the family.
We were awful excited at the thoughts of two toilets in the house. (Oh to be back when life was simpler, eh?)
The kitchen extension was done over a short period of time but when our parents decided to add in dimmer lights this meant the ceiling had to be interfered with.
Much to our delight.
I have three brothers and three sisters, let me tell you here and now, we drove our daddy especially mad. (Our daddy stayed home with us while our mammy worked long, long hours.)
We discovered a hole in the ceiling through tidying up the ‘hot press’ (hot press in Ireland is like an airing press where the hot tank is built in and clothes are left to air there – it was built into one of our bedrooms).
The seven of us were sent to bed early as we were in trouble for fighting with each other. It was a common occurrence in our house- do a chore then ‘blanket street’. My sisters and I shared the room with the hot press in it; we were the ones to discover the hole.
“Look!” We called our other siblings in. They each took turns spying down on our daddy who was, as usual, busy.
“Oh we can have fun with this,” our brother L exclaimed as we all waited to hear his plan. He was the ‘Hannibal’ (A-Team) of our squad.
Grabbing our eldest sister’s sewing box we lowered the thread down and watched as our dad began to feel something tickling him.
It wasn’t enough.
O then handed us a thin stick. “This,” he laughed as we reminded him to cover his mouth.
We all nodded.
We all swore we wouldn’t ‘rat’ each other out.
And so for two nights we played puck with our daddy.
He’d pass under the ‘holy’ ceiling talking on the phone, we’d lower the stick tapping him on the shoulder.
On the third evening he swiftly turned around and caught the stick, he stared up and said the words every child knows means trouble: “We will see how funny this is when I get up to ye.”
We all scampered.
The boys ran up to their attic room.
My eldest sister ran to her room, while our baby sister curled up in her cot. My sisters and I were left in the room with access to the hole.
He turned on the light.
He checked to see if we had made the hole bigger; we had.
He checked to see if we’d left the stick there; we had.
He also found the spool of thread.
We swallowed hard, knowing we were not to rat the other four out.
“Was it ye all?” His voice was deadpan.
I looked at my sister then back at my dad.
“Was it ye all or just you two?” He asked as he pulled the blanket gently over our 2 year old sister.(Who was pretending to sleep, she wasn’t long learning to be quiet when being interrogated.)
We were a lot of things but rats we were not nor were we willing to take the whole blame.
The following morning we were lined up in the hallway according to age and questioned.
My dad was nothing if not predictable.
We knew all we had to do was keep quiet, give no details and take the punishment (housework) without whining.
One by one we shrugged our shoulders.
“Ye made me do this,” he walked down along the line.
“O, tell Daddy what happened, good boy.”
We needed O to not let us down. We needed him to remember how lying was ok every once in awhile.
O stepped forward and systematically pointed each of us out including the toddler.
“They did it,” he wiped his hands together like he had just done a great job.
“Well my friend, you have got yourself some jelly and ice cream, the rest of you …” our daddy walked the line and said chores instead of our names.
We spent that weekend cleaning, tidying, sweeping, and even helping cover the hole in the ceiling.
Alone that evening we cornered O.
“Why did you tell Dad it was us? You did it too!”
“That’s not nice O and we won’t play with you ever again,” we hissed at a clearly unbothered teenager.
“Oh I don’t lie,” he even used air quotes. “I got ice cream. What did you get?” He laughed.
It was in that moment that we understood that our brother knew exactly what he was doing and he knew the rewards our parents could give were always going to be better than anything we could offer.
We never held grudges too long against each other, things were often forgotten about within a day if not hours; childhood eh?!
Our father eventually discovered O was a player, hence the “as cute as a hoor” expression whenever they describe O to anyone.
O is now in his 40’s and still a cute hoor.
This was originally published over on A Special Purposed Life