My brother, the Rain Man
Helen MacBroom (62) only discovered late in her brother's life that he had Asperger's Syndrome. Now, having written a book about his extraordinary life, she tells Judith Cole how he coped
Derek Howe was known as a gentle giant by many who met him, but to his sister he was a beloved brother who faced many difficulties through Asperger's Syndrome — which was never diagnosed.
The condition, a form of autism in which those affected are often of above average intelligence but may have difficulties in certain social situations, was only recognised relatively recently. While help is available now, Derek was misunderstood and often made fun of by colleagues who preyed on his innocence and vulnerability. But he also made many friends — he lived most of his life in Dublin, where he felt more at home than in Belfast, and became well known through his job as a parking meter attendant in the city centre, even having his portrait painted.
In a touching tribute, his sister, Helen, has just written a book about him, inspired by the unusual life he led and a desire to tell the story of this remarkable man.
"Derek had the sweetness and innocence of Forrest Gump and the talent of Rain Man," she says.
"He was gifted musically and had a photographic memory — in spite of having difficulty coping with everyday things like telephones and bills he followed his dream and held down a job in Dublin for 34 years without ever taking a day off."
Derek was born in September 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, and he was joined by Helen, his only sibling, just as it ended, in 1946.
She writes about how beautiful her brother was as a baby and how he brought their parents great joy. The family lived in a small rented terrace in east Belfast, close to the Harland & Wolff shipyard.
"One night during the war, Tower Street, close to where mum and dad lived, took a direct hit and everyone in the street was killed," she writes.
"Dad cycled round that morning to see if there was anything he could do, but the scene of utter devastation overwhelmed him so much he then decided that they were no longer safe living in Belfast."
An infant, Derek was too young to be evacuated but his father found the family a cottage in the countryside near Newtownards, which they loved. After the war they returned to Belfast, relocating in Stranmillis. Their early years together are filled with many happy memories — Derek was the perfect big brother, always sharing his sweets with Helen and protecting her from any bullies who crossed her path. Derek also did well at primary school, showing particular talent for singing and piano playing.
But as time went on, Helen began to sense that all was not well with him. He often shut himself in his attic room and was referred to as 'odd' by people who encountered him — this annoyed Helen dreadfully and she felt helpless.
"As he moved on into mainstream education where class sizes were much bigger than today, it was a matter of fitting in with the other children in order to get along, but Derek could not do this. A child like that would be treated so differently nowadays — they would be helped and encouraged but Derek was just seen as not very bright."
But they enjoyed happy times on holiday, especially at Ravensdale, Dundalk, where they rented a cottage — Derek felt at home there and the people welcomed them with open arms. This feeling of fitting in was to influence his decision to move to Dublin permanently. In the meantime, he worked different jobs in Belfast and saved his earnings. "Derek was a silkscreen printer at a weaving company on the Beersbridge Road, Belfast," Helen says. "But he was so willing to lend people money or do them favours that he was taken advantage of a lot. But he never complained or saw bad in anyone. He decided to go to Dublin because of our childhood memories in which all the associations were good, and people were so friendly and warm."
Derek thrived when he went to Rathmines in Dublin, even though he initially knew no one and had little money. He walked the streets every day looking for work, and as he was physically strong and trustworthy, he got regular work tending gardens.
Later, he secured a permanent job with Dublin City Council, then known as Dublin Corporation, to check and maintain parking meters. It proved to be the perfect job as he was out in the open air, had the opportunity to chat to people on the streets, and was working with numbers — all of which he loved.
"He fast became a bit of a celebrity on the streets of Dublin," Helen says. "Just about everyone knew him. With his larger-than-life frame and his now long, reddish dark beard and exceptionally friendly personality, people wondered who this big fellow was and where he came from."
Derek had many extraordinary talents, and he also had obsessions, such as the colour green and alarm clocks — he carried six around with him, one for each pocket.
However, he couldn't come to terms with 'modern' ideas like telephones, Helen says. Instead, he always communicated with family and friends by letter. Their birthday cards would arrive two weeks early — this habit began when Derek sent a card one year which arrived late because of a postal strike. For the rest of his life he posted them early in case another strike should occur.
While Derek's character endeared him to everyone he met, Helen says some landlords in Dublin took advantage of him as they knew he wouldn't complain about his situation.
"They exploited Derek really badly," she says. "They always gave him a basement room with no lights and still charged him a lot of money. It was a good thing that he didn't see he was being taken advantage of."
Fortunately, Derek had found a home from home at church, which he loved attending and insisted that his family did, too, when they visited him. " Church helped him feel some sense of family and belonging throughout his many harsh experiences in life," Helen says.
Indeed, Derek suffered directly from the Troubles, despite his family believing he would be out of reach from its effects.
"One time when our father was staying with him, they heard a loud bang and the next morning learned that Nelson's Pillar in O'Connell Street had been bombed," Helen recalls.
"A greater shock was to come, however, when gardai came to question Derek, but dad managed to assure them that Derek had been with him when the event had occurred.
"Poor Derek was so shocked — he was incapable of doing such a thing. If dad had not been with Derek at that time I shudder to think what could have happened."
It was only late in Derek's life that Helen discovered that he had Asperger's Syndrome.
On reading papers a psychiatric nurse friend had showed her, she realised that the symptoms were an exact description of her brother. And while no treatment was available for this recently discovered condition, a letter from Derek's doctor confirming that he had a mental condition proved to the council in Dublin that he was vulnerable and therefore needed sheltered accommodation.
He lived independently for the rest of his life in Upper Rathmines and died at home in January of last year, aged 67.
"We were overwhelmed by the large number of people who attended his funeral, from so many walks of life," Helen says.
"The very next day I decided to write a book about Derek — I wanted to pay tribute to this extraordinary man, my brother, who loved everyone without exception, and I also wanted to give hope to people living with Asperger's Syndrome."
Derek; Dublin's Gentle Giant by Helen MacBroom, Athena Press, £5.99, is available to buy from Easons, The Bookshop at Queen's, Belfast, and amazon.co.uk