Reading, writing and washing-up
MY EDUCATION WEEK: Paula Lynch Ahern, who is dyslexic, took part in last night’s episode of the RTÉ series ‘A Story With Me In It’, with help from author Kate Kerrigan
At eight this morning, as I am getting Jonathan and Amy ready for school, there’s a knock at my door. It’s the camera crew and they’re early. The house is a mess and there is no way I’m letting them in to film my washing and put it on national television. “Get back in your car and wait! If you film my house in this state I’ll kill you!” It’s week five of filming, and keeping the house ready for telly has definitely been one the hardest parts.
The director suggests coming with me on the school run. Amy is delighted; Jonathan has a conniption. He’s 11 years of age and starting to smell himself, if you know what I mean.
Sat down tonight to watch the first episode of A Story With Me In It on RTÉ. It was amazing to see Noel Phelan, who left school without reading and writing skills, sitting down to write a letter to his daughters in New Zealand. It was also scary to think that it will be me on the show soon, reading my own story.
I sat down this morning to put the final touches to my story. Over the last six weeks I have been working on a piece of writing about my life. I have been helped by the author Kate Kerrigan. It has been great to have her as a guide, because I only really learned how to read and write in the last two years.
I have dyslexia, and while it was diagnosed when I was at school, there wasn’t the same kind of help then as now. I made it as far as the Junior Cert and then I left school. I tried to go back and learn to read and write when my son Jonathan was born, but it was too hard, so I gave up.
By the time Jonathan was nine years old he was better at reading and writing than I was. I couldn’t help him with his homework. My mother, who was also planning on going back to school, convinced me to give it another try. Two years later and I’m writing my own story. It’s hard to believe.
Today I went to visit the neo-natal ward in the Coombe Hospital for the first time since my daughter Amy was born five years ago. I needed to do it, because her birth is the subject of my story. It was very difficult. Amy was born three months premature and weighed just over two pounds. She spent three months in intensive care and has five holes in her heart.
That period in my life was very tough. I used to drive into the hospital every day to see her, not knowing if she was going to survive. I was in an awful state myself because she was born by Caesarian section and I was not supposed to be driving – it wasn’t good for my recovery. But the buses weren’t reliable and I had to be with her.
Going to the hospital today helped me to imagine again what those days were like, to face them and write them into my story. When I went into the ward and saw all those wires and machines, and heard that awful beeping that was such a part of my life during those months, it all came back in a rush. I had dreaded today but I’m so glad that I did it. I finally got a chance to thank the nurses for all their help.
Amy is great now. She’s our miracle baby.
Tonight, when I sat down to write, I was confused. The experience in the hospital today was so strong. I could easily write about that, about Amy and her birth and amazing survival. However, there’s another side to my story and I’m not sure how, or whether, I should include it. It’s my mother’s story.
I spoke to Kate and she suggested that my mother and I should come to her home in Ballina and have lunch with her and her Mam. Off to Mayo, so.
Spent a very interesting day in Ballina with Kate, her mother and mine. My Mam spoke about her experiences of losing a child 34 years ago. I have always known that my mother lost a child, her first, in childbirth. I also knew that Jonathan (that was his name) was born and died in January, within a week of Amy’s birthday. I knew that when I was going through the pain of Amy’s early days my mother knew only too well how hard it was. Only she never even saw Jonathan. I have struggled with how to deal with this in my own story, or whether I should deal with it at all.
In Ballina my mother spoke about losing Jonathan in a way I had never heard before. She described how she went through three days of labour only to be handed a death cert at the end. She spoke about how she felt like a failure. It was not the first time she felt like a failure, she said. She had always been made to feel like a failure at school, too. She did not want the same for me.
I went home and finished my story.
A Hole In My Heart. That’s what I’ve called it. Today I read it out to a group of friends and neighbours in the local school. I’ve never written anything before, and I’ve certainly never read anything out loud to a group of people. I was terrified. At one stage I asked Deirdre, my literacy teacher at An Cosán in Tallaght, if she would read it for me. In the end I did it myself. I managed to hold in the tears. I’ve had to do a lot of that during the making of this programme. There were so many times when I felt like crying but I swore to myself that I would hold it in in front of the cameras and not start crying on TV.
The crew have left. I can relax on the housework for the first time in six weeks! I’ll actually miss having them around, and Kate, who gave me such a lot of guidance and help. I’m now reading a book – her book. It’s not something I’ve ever done before.
My story is written and I’ve done the scariest part and read it out to others. I really feel like I’ve achieved something. I feel like an Oscar winner. I won’t stop here. I’m going to keep writing, and turn my story into a book. Kate is going to help me. I’m also going to start writing letters to my family living down the country and in New York. Watching Noel Phelan writing that letter to his daughters this week reminded me of all the things I can do now that I could never do before.
Tonight I will celebrate with my husband Stephan and my mother Ann – they have both been so supportive and pushed me when I needed to be pushed (which is often). My son Jonathan, despite his mortification when the cameras were around, was also a great help. When I didn’t feel like sitting down to write he would keep at me. At one stage the two of us were sitting at the kitchen table with our laptops. He was doing his homework and I was helping him. I was writing my story and he was encouraging me. It felt really good.
This week I was
Watching:A Story with Me In It featuring Noel Phelan, who learned to read and write in his fifties so that he could write letters to his daughters in New Zealand
Listening to: Garth Brooks
Reading:Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan