This photograph is dated December 23, 1961. I discovered it seven years ago in an album in a box in an attic, where it had been wedged behind another photograph. I had never seen it before.
The boy is me. I’m six years old and I still have that slightly bewildered, terrified look I had for about three years after my adoption a few months earlier.
It’s actually my first post-adoption Christmas. I’m pretty sure Santa — even though he appears to be sleeping standing up — would have terrified me, because all grown-ups still terrified me at that point. For years I was convinced that any adult I didn’t know had come to take me back to the orphanage.
I’m also pretty sure I am clutching Adelaide’s — my Mum’s — hand really, really tightly. I always did when I was out of the house. I hadn’t been to school at that point and she was my anchor every time we went out.
It didn’t matter where we were or what we were doing: I held on for dear life, afraid that the equivalent of the Child Catcher was in the shadows and ready to return me to a world of nightmares and muteness.
But look at that smile on her face. She was the smiliest person I have ever known. It was that smile which resonated with me when I first saw her in the summer of 1960.
I had a squint (and I’ll always be grateful for the squint) and she was the orthoptist I was sent to the health clinic in Portadown. I don’t remember anything about that visit (although I obviously made a huge impression on her), but I did remember her face again when she came to the orphanage.
Nothing else about the half-dozen or so trips to the clinic, or her visits to the orphanage (along with Sam, my adoptive Dad), is stored in my memory. But the memory of her smile stayed with me forever. I can see it as I write this.
There aren’t, in fact, all that many photographs of my Mum with me. I hated photographs — and still do.
That’s why I was so pleased to find this one. It sums her up. The smile. The style. The confidence. And her hand in mine.
Proud of me. Fiercely protective of me. Determined that a frightened, broken-winged little boy, who had endured years of nightmares and bedwetting and almost congenital shyness (I’m still very shy) would be given every chance to rebuild and reinvent himself.
Oddly enough, it was around Christmas when I found it, shortly after I had watched It’s A Wonderful Life. It got me thinking about so many things. What if she hadn’t been on duty that first day I was at the clinic? What if it had been someone else, who had no particular interest in me?
What if she hadn’t been so smiley? What if she hadn’t seen something in me that made her want to help me? What if she had never become an orthoptist? What if she had never existed?
Those are the sort of questions I began asking myself and soon I was realising just how much good luck and how many open hearts are required to produce happy endings.
If she hadn’t adopted me, what would have happened? Would I just have stayed in the “system” for years? I didn’t speak; I was assessed as educationally sub-normal; I never looked at people, because I was clearly embarrassed by my squint.
Would anyone else have taken me to their home and allowed me to begin again? Would I have been given the love and support I needed? Would there have ever been another anchor like Adelaide? Were we always destined to meet?
I was sitting at her hospital bedside when she died in November 2003.
This time she was holding my hand. Holding on for as long as we could, all the while knowing that, when I left her, it would be for the last time.
And in those last few hours I was the six-year-old Alex again: utterly dependent on her and wondering how I would cope without her.
It was as if she knew what I was thinking. There was the briefest of smiles and a very gentle movement in the hand I was holding. She couldn’t talk, but I knew she was saying goodbye.
That’s why I love this photo. It’s the only one I have that fully encapsulates the very special relationship that was already building between us in those early days.
I knew I would always be safe when she was around. And I always was.
No matter how much pressure I put her under — and I was a difficult child as I worked through my own traumas — she never gave up on me.
The gift she valued most from me was getting to know (my partner) Kerri in the couple of years before she died. She adored her and (my daughter) Megan. She also knew — and told me — “You’ll be safe with Kerri. I’m so pleased I’ve seen you find happiness.”
Of all of my possessions, the photograph is the most precious. A reminder of an extraordinary person, an extraordinary relationship and the gateway to what became a wonderful life.