Friday 23 August 2019

Brendan O'Connor on the disappearance of Nora Quoirin: 'A special kind of love - and a special kind of loss'

The story of Nora Quoirin has touched the nation and is made all the sadder by the fact of her difference

PORTRAIT OF INNOCENCE: Missing teenager Nora Quoirin. Photo: PA
PORTRAIT OF INNOCENCE: Missing teenager Nora Quoirin. Photo: PA
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Who'd be a parent? Take last week. Fifteen-year-old Mikey Leddy from Navan died after he fell from a wall in Puerto Del Carmen in Lanzarote. The 15-year-old was on holiday with his mum and dad, Aisling and Damien. Family holidays are magical times, when families reset and bond and get to know each other again. And then suddenly, in a split second everything changes forever and lives are ruined.

Also last week, 19-year-old Jack Downey died after taking a contaminated substance at a festival. Like Mikey Leddy, Jack was a popular, sporty young lad. Taking random substances is ill-advised, but equally Jack did nothing that thousands of teenagers don't do at festivals, and indeed every weekend. He did nothing that loads of kids, well brought up, well adjusted, sporty, outgoing, don't do. He just got unlucky, and his family have had their lives changed forever. That's just two stories that made the news. But hundreds, maybe thousands more parents and families had their lives changed forever last week through accidents, misadventures, diagnoses, illnesses, unexplained death, babies who didn't make it. While parenthood can bring people incredible joy, it can also bring awful pain.

You can feel the anguish emanating from the Malaysian jungle, from the family of Nora Quoirin. Her family woke up to a nightmare last Sunday morning, an open window downstairs and no sign of their Nora. But they know her, and they know in their hearts she would not have wandered off. The family have been at pains to thank the police for their search efforts, but you can feel their frustration at what they see as the wrong emphasis in the search. For now, it is a very sad mystery, and we can only imagine what that family is enduring. The image that stood out for most of us last week was the idea of Nora's mother Meabh's voice pleading with her daughter through loudspeakers in the jungle. "Nora darling, I love you. Mum is here."

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Mum is here, probably the most comforting words a child can hear, but in this context, so sad and plaintive. This poor family, in a strange place, which must seem even more strange and foreign now, in the middle of a jungle that promised an unspoilt natural experience, and maybe adventure, but which must now feel like a tangled hell.

While the plight of the Quoirins has touched everyone, it would be fair to say that parents of children with special intellectual needs are feeling a special common cause with this story. Without wanting to make assumptions about the Quoirins, we can identify with Nora and her family in a different way.

Everyone wants to protect their children from the big bad world, and then, as time goes on, we have to let go of them, let them make their own way. But with some kids, with special needs, it's different. Vulnerable is the word often used, and it is a word that has been used a lot about Nora. I sometimes prefer the word innocent. There is an innocence about some of our children. One of the starkest images out of all the coverage of this sad story was when Nora's family pointed out that wherever Nora is, she would not understand what was going on. It conjured a very sad image, of this frightened child, unable to comprehend what was happening, a timid child, who needed her family, who needed familiar things around her, suddenly confused and upset in a new situation she can't grasp. Can you imagine how distressing that would be? People who have children who might freak out at unexpected noises, or in strange places, or in a room with too many people talking, will understand some version of that awful distress only too well.

Strangely, in the middle of all this, one thing that strikes you is admiration for the Quoirin family. Taking kids with special needs on holidays can take a certain amount of determination. You have to force yourself out of your comfort zone, and you have to accept that there will be obstacles and difficulties and meltdowns and also, that you will probably deal with your fair share of ignoramuses along the way. It will often seem as if the easiest thing to do would be to stay at home. Home, where there's no few days of readjustment required, no strange noises and smells, no security gates to be walked through at airports and no noisy planes to be walked out to, no unfamiliar beds with unfamiliar bedsheets and pillows, no different food and different sensations to be overcome, no walking to be done, no strangeness. But you do it. You do it for yourself and for your other kids, and you do it because you are determined that this thing will not break your family, will not make you limit your life, will not stop you from pursuing joy. And to go to Malaysia, to a jungle eco-retreat, is, in a sense, the ultimate in life-affirming for a family like Nora's, the ultimate denial that disability or innocence or vulnerability will stop you and your kid and your other kids from experiencing the world in all its glory.

Paradoxically, holidays can also be a time when disability becomes diminished, when everyone else in the family steps away from their important, pressing concerns, slows down and relaxes and changes their priorities, and 'real life' intrudes less. This is why kids like Nora are often, as Nora was, especially excited about family holidays.

So each time, you pick yourself up and you go. And after all, you think, what's the worst that can happen? We will overcome it, because we have love and grit and we can survive anything at this stage.

And then the worst happens.

And I suppose those of us who identify a bit more with this family know, too, that there is a special pain involved here because there is a special love involved. It's not that you love one child more, but one child sometimes needs a different love. It can be an all-enveloping, all-encompassing love, a love that can sometimes, in bad moments, be resentful, because it seems relentless. It is the love you have to give a child who is helpless without you, who has a bottomless need for you, who cannot, or won't function without you. As Nora's mother Meabh so elegantly put it, these are kids for whom family is their whole world. And sometimes, when you're worn out, being someone's whole world can feel like a terrible burden, but sometimes too, it can feel like the most strangely beautiful thing in the world to have been chosen to experience this intense need from someone, to have been tested like this, and to mostly pass. Sometimes it can really clarify and offer perspective to have someone who barely sees the border between them and you, who relies on you, without thinking, for so much, no matter how much independence you try to teach them.

And that is what is so poignant in those words, Mum is here. Because whatever resources another child might have to function in whatever situation Nora is in now, Nora's mother knows that Nora has none. She is a child, we are told, who would not have gone anywhere alone, unless someone from her family was there to hold her hand, and odds on that person is mainly her mother. And Nora is helpless now, unable to understand what's happening, somewhere strange or frightening, where her every instinct is screaming at her that she needs the solid familiarity of her home base, of her world, her family, of mum, and mum isn't here.

Every parent who experiences loss experiences an unbearable pain. But this story, of this fun, funny, affectionate, extremely loving child, who loves to play games and tell her family silly jokes, but who is shy and anxious outside of her family, is especially sad. Nora likes to wear clever, funny tops too, and the picture of her in her Snoopy top is somehow a portrait of innocence. Let's hope by the time you read this, or soon anyway, this "very special person" is back in her own world, with her family.

Sunday Independent

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