A mother always knows best. Doesn't she? For single mum Kate O'Hara, there was no decision to make. Her daughter Rosie is one of a small percentage of Irish children with a disorder that prevents her from being vaccinated against measles. All Kate can do is hope that herd immunity keeps the disease at bay, and her little girl safe.
For Madeleine Harrington, it was a leap of faith she wasn't prepared to take. Which is why she and her husband decline controversial measles jabs for their daughter Clara. All she can do is pray that it's the right decision and if her little girl becomes sick, she gets through it unscathed.
The two girls have just started primary school in the same class. And when one day, tell-tale red spots appear on Clara Harrington's chest, and Rosie's a few days after, both mums fear the worst…how can this be happening when all they wanted was to keep their children safe?
A stunning and addictive powerful new book club read that explores every mother's worst fear and hardest decision from beloved Irish bestselling author Melissa Hill.
Enjoy a free sample of Keep You Safe.
The bell rang out and on cue they started to approach all at once, like a stampeding herd.
Standing back to let the first wave pass while shivering in late March wind and cold, I pulled my gloved hands out of my pockets and tugged my woolly hat a bit more firmly down over my ears, tucking my wispy dark hair underneath it. Another blast of wind hit me in the face, turning my cheeks an even brighter shade of pink.
I knew that I could just stay in my car and keep warm while waiting for my five-year-old, Rosie, to emerge from Junior Infants class at Applewood Primary. However, she and I have a ritual of sorts and the typically inclement Irish weather wasn’t going to stand in the way of it.
Each and every day after school, I wait for Rosie just outside the school building, a bit down the front path by the main hall.
During the more temperate months we walk the half-mile home together to our two-bed cottage in Knockroe, a small satellite town about forty minutes’ drive from Dublin.
I have never failed to meet Rosie in our chosen spot since she started school seven months ago. I was determined to never let her exit the class and not have me there – at least until my daughter told me that she wanted to walk home by herself or with friends. I wasn’t one of those helicopter parents or anything like that, but, come hell or high water, I would make sure I was there – especially since Rosie was still having nightmares about that one time after preschool.
The day when no one was waiting.
Hard to believe that fateful day was almost two years ago – it still felt like only yesterday. A chill worked its way up my spine – one that this time wasn’t triggered by the cold.
In her preschool days, my husband Greg had been the one responsible for picking up Rosie. Working from home as a freelance software designer, it was he who had more flexibility and usually had the opportunity to step away from the office he kept in the spare bedroom, and head over to the preschool to pick up our daughter. Since I work as a nurse at a clinic in a nearby town,
I generally keep more irregular hours.
I had long been thankful that my husband could play such an active role in Rosie’s childhood, especially while my own commitments prevented me from being around as much as I would have liked.
My commitments are different these days.
Because there had been one time when Greg couldn’t make it to the preschool at the allotted time of 12.45 to pick Rosie up.
Not because he didn’t want to, had forgotten or neglected to pay attention to the time, but because he had collapsed in our kitchen earlier that morning while making himself a cup of tea.
Sudden Adult Death Syndrome had ended my beloved husband’s life in seconds; he likely didn’t even realise what was happening.
I wasn’t aware that I’d been made a widow when the preschool teacher called me at work that afternoon to say that they couldn’t get in touch with Greg at home. That terrible realisation didn’t come until later.
Calling our home phone as well as Greg’s mobile, trying to figure out what was going on, I remember feeling irritated that
Rosie and her teacher had been left waiting. I was annoyed at Greg and wondered where he was, especially since I couldn’t get an answer on any phone. So I told my supervisor at the clinic that
I needed to head out; pick up my child in Knockroe, drop her home to her dad and would then come back to finish my shift.
It was only after I had sped the short distance there, apologised to the preschool teacher and hustled my daughter back to the house, that I realised my life was forever changed. If I could go back to that moment so I could enter the kitchen first in order to prevent Rosie from finding her father immobile on the floor, I would.
As it was, there was no changing the past, but I would do my damnedest to make sure that I was always there at the end of the school day so that she didn’t fear the same thing happening to me. She’d already had a tough enough time of it for a five-and-a-half-year-old.
My daughter was everything to me – all that I had these days.
Rosie’s classmates started to appear, refocusing my thoughts and preventing me from once again going down that dark road of introspection as I examined our lives without Greg. Scanning the crowd of Junior Infants, I immediately picked out Rosie’s bright green winter hat, shaped like the head of a T. Rex. My little girl had never been the princess type. She adored dinosaurs, wolves, dragons – anything fierce and scary – perhaps even more so since her dad died, and I often wonder if in her own little way she finds comfort in their strength.
‘Mum!’ she called, waving a hand, as if I hadn’t spotted her yet, her dark curls bouncing as she moved, green eyes wide with excitement. She dragged her backpack – dino-themed again – slightly on the ground and I walked forward to grab it. I didn’t want to have to shell out for another any time soon. As a single parent, I now did everything I could to avoid unnecessary expenses, especially when we only had my salary to depend on.
Though both in our late-thirties, my late husband and I had been one of the burgeoning number of Irish families who, despite both being gainfully employed, still couldn’t quite afford that first step on the housing ladder, and the money we’d been saving to buy a house (minimal at best, as the rental house in Knockroe wasn’t cheap) now had to go towards day-to-day household expenses, as well as the creation of a small contingency fund – just in case.
These days, I was a big believer in contingencies.
‘Hey, honey,’ I answered, closing the distance between us. ‘Here, give me that, don’t drag it.’ Rambunctious by nature, Rosie was hard on shoes and on school belongings, and was growing out of her clothes at a pace that staggered me. She took my hand without breaking stride, and walked determinedly towards our battered old Astra while I trailed in her wake.
‘Be careful, don’t step in the mud,’ I cautioned automatically.
‘And why don’t you have your boots on? Where are they?’ I looked disbelievingly at the flimsy ballet flats she currently sported.
‘They’re in the bag. I don’t need them; sure we’re only getting in the car.’ She shrugged and not for the first time, I was taken aback by how much like Greg she sounded. Always so easy-going and carefree, while I was the one more inclined to worry.
We reached the car and I opened the door so Rosie could jump in the back seat. ‘Buckle up. Car or not, I’d still prefer you to wear your boots in this weather, hon. We don’t want you coming down with a cold and your boots are warmer.’ I shut the door and headed around to the driver’s side. Climbing in, I fished my iPhone out of my pocket and handed it to her. ‘Here you go, DJ,’
I said pre-emptively, knowing that when Rosie was in the car she liked to take charge of the music, usually opting for the American rock anthems so beloved by her father. ‘So what happened in school today?’
I started the car and pulled out of the parking area as the heat blasted, and Rosie summoned up the Eagles’ ‘Take It Easy’ and began telling me about her day. She outlined all that had occurred, from the new letters they were learning to the Brachiosaurus picture she had drawn in art. I hummed words of encouragement until something she said caused a tinge of panic to flutter through my heart.
‘And they sent Ellie home after lunch because she’s sick.’
‘What’s wrong with her?’ I asked casually. Ellie Madden sat beside Rosie in class. I wasn’t a hypochondriac or anything – as a nurse I couldn’t be, or I’d drive myself crazy – but I was always keenly aware of my daughter’s health, as well as that of her classmates.
I had to be.
‘She has chicken pox,’ said Rosie dramatically, though she kept her attention firmly focused on my iPhone.
Chicken pox. I quickly felt myself relax, though I felt for poor Ellie and her parents.
Such diseases were a normal rite of passage for school-going kids – especially so soon after the Easter holidays when infection tended to be rampant amongst friends and families meeting up during the break. But chicken pox was something I had dealt with firsthand with Rosie a couple of years before, so at least I didn’t have to worry about it. But that didn’t mean I was worry free either.
‘Ah, I see. I wonder are there many in your class who haven’t had it yet.’ I tried to think of what other poor kid – and parents – from the school might soon fall victim.
‘Ms Connelly asked around after they saw the spots on Ellie’s neck. There were only a few: Kevin, Abigail and Clara, I think. I can’t get them again, can I?’ Rosie peered up from the device then, concern in her eyes, as I turned into our driveway and parked outside the small two-storey house we’d moved into as a family two and a half years ago.
As I got out of the car and helped Rosie gather her things, I shook my head.
‘No, you can’t,’ I confirmed. ‘I mean, technically, you can later as an adult but it’s called shingles then.’ Rosie was a naturally curious type and loved soaking up facts and general knowledge.
My more traditional West Cork parents found it strange the way Greg and I had always talked so honestly to her from the get-go, instead of dumbing things down for kids like their generation often did.
‘Good,’ said Rosie as she walked into the house. ‘I hated being itchy.’
Though Greg and I had met, worked and lived in Dublin for all of our five-year marriage before Rosie came along, we both hailed from small-town backgrounds, and had hoped that moving to a closer-knit community in a more rural setting would be good for Rosie – particularly when she started school. So when I was offered a nursing position in a recently opened clinic in the larger town of Glencree – five miles away – we decided the quaint little village of Knockroe was the perfect place to put down roots.
While I loved the place, I still felt a bit like an outsider in the community, especially after losing my husband less than a year after moving there. Because I worked in the neighbouring town, I hadn’t got to know many Knockroe locals all that well, save for the other school parents and a few of the neighbours close by. Most of the townspeople, though kind, tended to leave me to my own devices and, shy by nature, this mostly suited me.
Though I’d had no choice but to come out of my shell over the last seven months or so when it came to the school run and other Applewood Primary-related events, like the Christmas pageant, odd fundraiser and occasional birthday party or play date.
After following my daughter inside, I went into the kitchen and deposited her belongings on the counter. I listened to Rosie’s footsteps on the stairs as she headed up to her room. While she never admitted it, she routinely avoided going straight to the kitchen when she first entered the house. I had never asked her about it and guessed it was a coping mechanism she had devised for herself after dealing with what she had seen on That Day.
I opened her backpack and pulled out her books, lunchbox, as well as a couple of school notes directed to parents. Yep, there was indeed one about chicken pox asking parents to be vigilant. Much like the one we’d got for head lice before Easter.
The joys of primary school.
But these school-related bugs brought to the forefront another temporarily dormant fear I didn’t like to revisit. I hated being reminded of the fact, but here’s the truth: Rosie wasn’t vaccinated for any such typical childhood illnesses – mumps, measles or the like.
I had found out very quickly that when you made such an admission to health professionals, school authorities, or, worst of all, other parents, you were immediately judged. Written off as irresponsible, foolish and downright stupid.
But in reality I wasn’t any of those things – rather Rosie was severely allergic to the gelatin component in almost all live vaccines.
Greg and I had only discovered the issue after she had experienced a horrific cardiorespiratory reaction after her first round of immunisations as a baby. Back then, we were faced with a horrible decision and literally caught between a rock and a hard place.
Our daughter could face a potentially life-threatening situation if she wasn’t vaccinated, but was certain to if she was.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
So after countless hours of research, much soul-searching and finally on the advice of our GP, we had no choice but to opt Rosie out of the standard childhood vaccination programme and hope against hope that herd immunity would prevail.
This was why I was acutely aware of infectious disease warnings from school; I couldn’t afford not to be.
It was my job to keep her safe.
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