The love that he forgot: My ex had lost his memory, but I was determined to remind him what we’d had
I loved speaking to Tam and Orla and sharing their incredible story - when a car accident wiped Tam's memory, he had no idea who his ex-girlfriend was. But in time, he fell in love with her all over again and they are now married with a family! Do you have a surprising story to share? #sellmystory#destiny #memoryloss #takeabreakmagazine
I was pulling out my best moves at the disco, when I turned to see a lad smiling at me.
‘You’re beautiful,’ he said.
I blushed as he introduced himself as Thomas.
‘I’m Orla, nice to meet you,’ I said.
I was 17 and knew I would remember this moment forever.
I was smitten.
Soon after, I met up with Thomas – who everyone called Tam – and we started spending more and more time together. I always looked forward to it. Tam was sweet, honest and knew how to make me feel special. He was a true romantic.
‘I think I love you,’ I said.
‘Love you too,’ he replied.
But in time, I felt our relationship fading.
Tam was my ideal man, but while I was already picturing a future together, he wasn’t ready to commit at such a young age.
We dated on-and-off for several years but after another split, I didn’t hear from Tam.
I was heartbroken.
One day, my cousin Marie came to see me.
‘Did you hear what happened to Tam?’ she said.
My stomach lurched.
‘No, what?’ I said.
‘He was hit by a car,’ she said.
‘Is he OK?’ I gasped.
Marie explained that after a night out with friends, Tam had been crossing the road when a car had hit him, lifting him off his feet before he landed hard on the road.
My body froze with fear as she went on: ‘He’s in a coma and on life support.’
‘Oh my god,’ I said.
That night, I lay in bed worrying about Tam.
The thought of him dying had me in tears. There was no way I could ignore the feelings I had for my first love.
Though I was desperate to see Tam, visiting him in hospital didn’t seem right. His family were having a bad enough time without me there asking questions.
Instead I relied on Marie to update me. She was dating one of Tam’s friends, so she always knew the latest.
Almost two weeks later, she told me: ‘He’s out of a coma and in intensive care.’
I was overcome with relief.
But soon after, Marie had bad news.
Tam had been left mentally and physically disabled. His right hip had been badly damaged, and he had suffered such severe brain damage that he had lost his memory – the entire 21 years of his life.
He’ll never remember me, I thought.
In time, I learnt Tam was out of hospital and having rehab to re-learn how to walk and talk.
Roughly a year after the accident, I was out for drinks with friends when I saw him.
‘Thomas McKinney!’ I shouted.
He turned and saw me but looked at me blankly.
Of course, he had no idea who I was.
I decided to leave it but regretted it afterwards.
So when I saw him on another night out, I swigged back my drink, took a deep breath and went over to him.
I stood opposite Tam, happy to be in the presence of the man I knew so well. But to him, I was a complete stranger.
‘I’m Orla,’ I said. ‘I know you won’t remember me, but we dated before your accident.’
‘Did we?’ he said.
While Tam listened, I spoke. I told him as much as I could, from how we had met to the cars he used to drive.
‘You know more about me than I do,’ he laughed.
Reminiscing on memories was like going back in time. But in reality, so much had changed.
When I next saw Tam, we got chatting again and meeting up became a regular thing.
It didn’t take long for my feelings to resurface - they had never really gone away. I just hoped Tam could learn to love me again.
The closer we became, the more he opened up to me.
He said: ‘When I woke up in hospital I had no idea what had happened, why I was there or who the faces were around me.’
Tam had since learnt the people at his bedside were his family.
‘I feel like a burden to them,’ he said. ‘I’ve been lucky with my speech, but it’s like being a child again. I’ve had to learn everything, from the alphabet to how to make a cup of tea.’
‘It’s incredible you survived,’ I said.
‘I know, the doctors told me I should be dead,’ he said. ‘They called me a miracle.’
Tam and I became a couple and I was so happy to have him back in my life. But life was certainly very different.
Tam and I made frequent trips to visit his consultant at the hospital’s brain injury unit and it was overwhelming to hear how serious his brain damage was and how close he had come to losing his life.
Tam had been through so much and I felt terrible that I hadn’t been there for him. I was just glad I was now.
After a few years together, I found myself in the bathroom staring at a positive pregnancy test.
I was excited, but what would Tam say? I had no idea how he was going to take it.
Sure enough, he was in utter shock.
‘A baby?’ he said.
Tam was only just learning how to live his own life from scratch, let alone become a father.
‘I just need some time,’ he said.
Tam and I cooled things off and as my bump got bigger, I hoped our baby would bring us closer.
At the right time, I gave birth to our son Dillon, and Tam was there for us both from day one.
Two years later, Tam was on his way out when he dropped to one knee in the hallway.
‘Will you marry me?’ he said.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ I said.
‘Please give me an answer, I have to go out,’ he said.
I laughed and said: ‘OK, yes I will!’
But months later, Tam and I drifted apart once more.
I so wanted to be with him but his whole life had been turned upside down. Nothing came easily to Tam and the idea of settling down with a family was difficult for him to comprehend.
After some time apart though, it was Dillon that pulled us back together and Tam moved in with us.
‘I love you,’ he said.
‘I love you too,’ I beamed.
Finally, we were living as a happy family of three.
But every day was a challenge.
I not only had a child to care for, I had to look out for Tam too. He would turn on the oven and forget about it, and because his balance was so poor he fell over a lot.
I had to have my wits about me all the time. But it was worth it to be together and soon we set a date to get married.
When Dillon was four, we had a big white wedding at a fancy hotel with 200 of our family and friends.
As I walked towards Tam in my ivory beaded gown and stood by his side, I was overcome with happiness.
‘In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,’ I said.
The vows were so meaningful to us both.
My childhood sweetheart was finally my husband.
A year later I fell pregnant again and we had a son, Shane. In between Tam’s constant appointments, check-ups and physio, he was a great dad to the boys.
We went on to have three more children.
Now Tam and I spend our days at home in Armagh, Northern Ireland, with our brood, Dillon, 12, Shane, six, Dara, five, and two-year-old twins Cayden and Rebecca – my only daughter in a house full of boys.
When I first met Tam, I imagined spending the rest of my life with him - and now I actually am.
Of course I wish he had never had the accident, but it did bring us back together. He is very lucky to be here and I feel even luckier.
Thomas McKinney, 41, said: ‘After the accident, I found it hard to accept my new life. I had to re-learn how to walk and talk, and I felt like I was ruining my loved ones’ lives. But Orla turned my life around. I can’t believe that despite me losing my entire memory, I still ended up with her. It honestly feels like a miracle.’
Edited by Julia Sidwell