Grace: A Life of Broken Promises

IMG_5359Greg Howard A candle burns in a makeshift alcove where Grace Farrell died Feb. 20.

Twelve days ago, the frozen body of my childhood friend Grace Farrell was found on a few sheets of cardboard in an alcove at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church on Avenue B in the East Village. It was a tragic end to a sad and troubled life.

Mary Grace Farrell came into my life when she was barely seven years old and I was 16. I grew up in Saint Vincent’s, a children’s home run by the Daughters of Charity in Drogheda, Ireland, and it was there that Grace spent three relatively happy years.

Grace was a beautiful and engaging child with a bright, sunny disposition. She was warm and affectionate and full of fun. She smiled often and loved to laugh, deeply. In many respects she was a normal child, though her early years were anything but.

Being born to a young, unmarried couple in 1970’s Ireland would make for a difficult life. Grace’s mother, realizing this, faced a Solomon’s choice of sorts. She could keep her baby and face that lonely and uncertain road together or she could give her up for adoption in the hope of a better chance. She bravely chose the latter path.

For the next six years Grace, by her own account, lived happily with her new family. Alas, the adoption was never finalized and Grace was returned to the foster care system. She was quickly placed in another home but it lasted only a matter of months before she was turned over to the local authorities again.

She was then sent to Saint Vincent’s to await an uncertain future. Grace never understood why the first placement failed, but she surely felt the awful rejection that came with the experience.

Grace was a very intuitive child and at times shockingly honest. She often reflected on how alone she felt in the world with no one of her own that she was connected to.

When asked why the second foster home didn’t work out, she explained, “Do you know the way you can’t put hot food into a cold fridge? Well, I was the hot food and the foster family was the cold fridge.” She was just seven years old.

Grace was a child who loved easily and wanted desperately to be loved in return. She made the most of her short time at Saint Vincent’s. This gentle soul found her place in the group, sought out her kindred spirits among the pack and fought for the affections of those who cared for us.

She loved time alone with the staff. We all felt special when it was one on one, and Grace was no exception. Like any small girl she liked being taken along to run errands in the town, check out the latest styles in the local clothing stores and maybe stop for a special treat at a downtown café. At bedtime she loved an extra few minutes alone with one of the house parents to review the day and talk about what was on her mind.

But those moments alone were fleeting and ultimately did little to fill the deep void Grace felt in her life. She was eventually reunited with her paternal grandparents, and came back once or twice after that to visit and say hello. She seemed happy. I never saw her again.

In 1993, Grace and I both emigrated to New York, though I didn’t know her whereabouts until I read about her untimely death.

I will never know nor fully understand the demons Grace faced in life. Although she was eventually reunited with her birth mother, her sense of loneliness persisted. In recent years her life seemed to spiral out of control. She moved to the streets and developed a growing dependence on drugs and alcohol. A life of rejection and disappointment had finally taken its toll.

Her life was one of missed opportunities and betrayal. She was let down by the authorities in Ireland and the adults who passed through her life. Ironically, one interpretation of the word “grace” is favor or good will. Sadly, it would seem little was shown to her when it truly mattered. As a young child she was bounced around like a ball from one home to another. She searched in vain for answers. By the time she reconnected with her family it was perhaps already too late.

New Yorkers who noticed her passing — if it registered at all — saw Grace as another sad statistic, the first homeless person to die on the streets of New York this year, an immigrant from Ireland who lost her way, a fledgling artist with untapped potential. But those of us who knew her will remember her as a sweet child with a generous heart.

Emmanuel Touhey is a journalist. He lives in Washington, D.C.