Remembering Rory

November 3, 2011

There is a framed black and white photo hanging in my parents’ living room. It’s of me at my third birthday party, posed on the sunny garden wall while most of the other partygoers are playing in the background. Sitting beside me and holding my chubby hand in his, is my first playmate Rory. He was from just over the road, close to me in age and the eldest child in his family. Less than a year after the photo was taken, Rory died of leukaemia.

I only have snatched memories of Rory. I remember him calling to the door to see if I wanted to come out to play (it was the sixties, and our suburban cul de sac was a safe playground even for three and four year olds). I remember his little toy horse on wheels, which he called ‘Jossie’. Most of all I remember my mother gently explaining to me one day that Rory had gone to heaven. I cried and cried, though I must have had only a minimal understanding of death and its finality.

I’ve looked at that old photo many times over the years and wondered how my friend would have turned out had he survived. Rory’s parents somehow got through their unspeakable loss, have stayed together to this day and have raised two daughters. They still live on my old street and I often wonder how they coped with the devastation of losing their precious little boy, every parent’s worst dread.

Recently I ran into Rory’s mum Mary. She was very keen to know if I still remembered him. We began to talk about him, and for the first time I heard the story of the lead-up to his death. It was even more heartbreaking than I had imagined.

A few months beforehand, Rory had been admitted to hospital with complications following a bout of mumps. He recovered and was sent home but, to Mary, he was ‘never the same child’. She knew there was something wrong.

He was generally unwell and suffered repeated episodes of tonsillitis. She wore a path to the GP’s surgery to try to discover what was wrong, but time after time was dismissed as an over-anxious mother. The attitude she got was very much ‘there there dear, calm down it’s just tonsillitis’. But she knew.

Rory was given an appointment to see an ENT specialist, but it was months away. Eventually, in desperation, Mary took it upon herself to phone the consultant at home at the weekend. He wouldn’t hear a word of apology for calling him at home, and agreed to see Rory the following week. When Mary brought her son to the outpatient appointment, she also brought an overnight bag for him. Because she knew.

Sure enough, the consultant felt that there was something a lot more serious than tonsillitis going on, and admitted Rory immediately for tests. Mary says that leaving her son behind at the hospital that day was the hardest thing she has ever done.

When the results came through, her deepest fears were confirmed. Rory had leukaemia. It was at an advanced stage and he passed away just four days later. She told me that she still cries for her lost boy, more than forty years on. After she left, I cried too.

Before we parted, I asked Mary what her GP had said to her after Rory died. He apparently said he would always regret not listening to her and that in future he would pay much greater attention to mothers. Because they know.