Upset by article about woman who died in Crane Street fire

This letter is in response to an article that appeared in the Fairfield Citizen News about the mother and daughter who died in Crane Street fire.

To the Editor:

Shameful, cheap, irresponsible, reprehensible.

These are the words that came to mind when I read the article [in The Fairfield Citizen News] on March 14 about Maureen Gerrity, the Fairfield woman who perished in a fire with her daughter, Katie. We had hoped that she would die with some dignity, but you have ruined all hopes of that.

You painted a picture of a mentally diseased, dirty and uncaring alcoholic woman. With this lone article you managed to besmirch the reputation and life’s work of a woman who figuratively and literally gave her life for her daughter. You chose to focus on her faults and her short-comings rather than the  love and dedication of a woman who desperately needed help yet was forsaken by the system.

The writer and its contributors had zero interest in the real story. They focussed on the dirt. There wasn’t nearly as much press given to this woman’s struggles, which no one could begin to comprehend. Nor did they delve into the deep devotion she had for her child. And what about talking more about the system that so obviously failed them?

At best, the article did a superficial job citing the failure of the system and its custodians. You might have examined a little more deeply how this woman and her child died because of the systems indifference to their plight. Instead — and I love this — it was much more important to mention the urine and feces being in the toilet. Can you imagine that, urine and feces in the toilet? It’s scandalous!. Just out of curiosity, where do they put the urine and feces in their home?

My name is Brian Walker and I was Maureen Gerrity’s neighbor. My wife and I lived next door to them for several years and we helped Maureen and her daughter, Katie, on various occasions in different capacities.

We know what she went through on a daily basis, caring for her child all by herself. We know what a devoted mother she was to her daughter, Katie. We also know about some of the demons that Maureen faced. We’ve even been in their house and know what it looked like. We know, first-hand, how it was kept the majority of the time, which was nowhere near the deplorable conditions emphasized in the article.

For those of you who have this repulsive image of Maureen based on the unforgivable article, let me set you and the writers straight. Maureen’s daughter, Katie, had a condition known as Angelman’s syndrome. This disease is characterized by intellectual disability, lack of or minimal speech (in Katie’s case it was unintelligible), an inability to walk, move or balance well, seizures, stiff or jerky movements, tongue thrusting, spontaneous outbursts of laughter and giggling, as well as walking with arms up in the air to name just a few.

Another trait which I am unsure was unique to Katie or not was her tendency to remain awake for 24 hours or more at a time. I remember hearing stories from both Maureen and her cousin about how Katie would stay awake for 48 to 72 hours straight — yes, straight. Katie required constant supervision, by the way, which meant that someone had to stay awake with her. So, when Katie was awake Maureen had to be awake as well.

The average person would have given up or would have given up their child. But Maureen did neither. She embraced her daughter, Katie, and her condition. Rather than commit her to an institution or group home, she kept her close, at home. Was that the right decision? Was she capable of handling all that responsibility by herself? Maybe not, but she decided to put her daughter and her needs before her own. She cared for Katie and she gave her as close to a normal life as she could.

Many parents who have special needs children will often times shield that child from the world. Not out of shame or anything like that but instead to protect their child from a world that can be very cruel and unforgiving. For many, this means keeping them home more than you would a “typical child” (a child without any issues). Sometimes the child’s condition necessitates this. If the child has outbursts or is aggressive or violent then bringing them out into the community could be difficult at best. Many parents choose not to do this. But not Maureen. Instead she exposed Katie to as much of the world as she was able to.

Katie attended Warde High School and was more or less mainstreamed. She took Katie to the beach, they went to church, they went shopping, to amusement parks. Katie even went to her high school prom with a young man. Can you Imagine taking your child to all those places, a child who without assistance could barely walk? A child whose movements were so disjointed and uncoordinated that she needed help navigating an empty sidewalk let alone a crowded amusement park”

Unless you’ve lived it, I honestly don’t think you should even attempt to answer that question. If you think you know what it’s like because a relative of yours has a special needs child — sorry, you’re wrong. I have a son who is on the autism spectrum and my family has no idea what our life is like and how difficult it can be at times

Maureen was proud of Katie and she did everything in her power to make that girl’s life as complete as it could be. As I said, she sacrificed her own life in the process. How many men do you think wanted to be a part of Maureen’s life given the challenges that she faced day in and day out with her daughter? The answer is not too many. It takes a rare individual to want to involve themselves in that type of situation. But you know what? Maureen gave up that possibility for her daughter.

How many of you would do that? Oh sure, it’s easy to say you would do it, but to be there, to actually live that life staying up for 24 hours at a time, tending to her teenage daughter’s every need from bathing to feeding to toileting, to endure all those challenges and difficulties all by yourself, your answer might be different than what you imagine. Until you’ve lived that life you don’t know what your answer will be. To say you would without that sort of qualification is either ignorance or an outright lie.

You see, I know something about it. As I said, my son is a special needs child. But I will also tell you that I cannot imagine what it was like to be in Maureen’s shoes. My son does not require half the attention that Katie required of Maureen. And my wife and I are able to split that responsibility between us. Maureen had no one save her cousin, Jack. Which brings me to another point the paper so blatantly and irresponsibly left out.

In our 15 years of living next to Maureen, the only family of hers that we saw consistently was her cousin Jack. At times you would think that he was her only family because he was there for her and for Katie when ever they needed him. No one else. I firmly believe that if it were not for him and his devotion to both of them that Maureen would have broken down a long time ago.

For all intents and purposes, Jack was her only family in this area. There was no one else in her family that she could rely upon for any sort of assistance. Her siblings were not there for her nor was any other family member that we saw. Outside of her cousin Jack, she was effectively on her own. Alone. And while Maureen’s ex-husband, Katie’s father, was there for his daughter, we have to remember that Maureen was with her for the majority of the time tending to her every need, fending for the two of them — by herself.

Thanks to the article and its contributors, this poor woman will now be remembered as a slob and a hoarder who did an extremely poor job caring for her disabled daughter rather than the caring, devoted — albeit troubled — mother that she was. The next time you think about writing a piece like this at least have the common courtesy and decency to include some more of the good things that they have done, as well as ways that this could have been prevented. At least then it might be a useful piece. Remember, reporting should be balanced and fair and it was not — at least not in this case.

 

Brian Walker

Fairfield

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