Brendan O'Connor: 'The cruelty of Nóra Quoirin's loss after she had come so far'
Nóra Quoirin had battled from the moment she was born, and she and her family were the last people to deserve this cruel twist of fate, says Brendan O'Connor
A few years ago my wife, Sarah, was on a small island off the west coast with our kids. They were in the local hotel in the afternoon. It was the summer holidays but the place was very quiet. Our younger daughter Mary, who has Down syndrome, quietly stole a chicken nugget off someone else's plate, bit off more than she could chew and began to choke.
Mary will often slightly choke on her food, but nothing that a bang on the back or a drink of water won't fix. This was different. She was unable to breathe. By some kind of miracle, there were two paramedics from the mainland sitting at the bar. They shouldn't even have been there. They just happened to be out on the island to check the route for an annual race. And because someone had taken a fall on the mainland earlier, they had got a later ferry to the island than they intended to get. So purely by fluke, and incredible luck, they were there, practically the only other people in the bar area.
One of them managed to dislodge the food but somehow it went back down again and got stuck. And then the paramedics' faces changed. And Sarah knew they were worried. You can imagine how frightening it was. Some other kids that were there with them actually ran out of the building and hid. Sarah and my other daughter, Anna, still panic any time Mary as much as coughs on a bit of food.
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The paramedics eventually saved Mary's life. But in those seconds between when the food went back down and their faces changed, and when they managed to dislodge it again, a million thoughts went through Sarah's mind. It's strange the things you think about in these situations. But one thing Sarah thought was, "How can it end like this? We got her so far." It just seemed so unfair, given everything Sarah and Mary had got through together, from health issues, to acceptance, to an incredible enthusiasm to learn, no matter how much harder it was for Mary. The two of them, and all of us, had fought so many battles to find happiness and joy and a way of being in the world, and now it was going to end with a piece of f**king chicken. This determined little fighter, who battled through so much fear and so many challenges, her story was going to end like this?
There's an odd, but maybe an understandable thing you often find in families of kids with special needs. They often feel that on the profit and loss account of life, they have had their share of bad luck, their share of struggle, their cross to bear. And they feel they won't have any other bad luck, that it would just be too much for the universe to expect them to bear. But, of course, there is no great plan about how much good luck you get or how much bad luck you get.
And obviously, you don't want to characterise your child being the way they are as bad luck. But, you know, for all the joy it brings, and for all the gifts it brings in how it moulds you as a person and how it makes your family closer, and even happier, it adds a bit to the struggle too. And you can feel that's enough struggle for one family.
We dodged tragedy that day, a tragedy that would have probably ruined our lives. The Quoirins didn't. And one of the things that has connected people so much to the tragedy of Nóra is that sense of unfairness. They were the last people to deserve this cruel twist of fate. They had got her so far. She had travelled throughout Europe and Asia. She wasn't the greatest talker in the world but she could speak two languages. This family had managed to find joy in such difficult circumstances.
While Nóra's family had different hopes and expectations for Nóra than they might have for a typical child, they had presumably managed to recalibrate what they viewed as happiness and success in life.
Whenever a child dies, people say things like what the Quoirins said: "Nóra is at the heart of our family. She is the truest, most precious girl and we love her infinitely. The cruelty of her being taken away is unbearable. Our hearts are broken. We will always love our Nóra." And no doubt families always mean it. But those of us who know, we believe those words more than we ever believed anything a bereaved parent said. We know that she was, of course, the heart of the family. We understand, too, how true and precious Nóra must have been, and we understand that love for a child like Nóra can seem infinite.
They got her so far, and what are they left with now? The awful thought of her out there, uncomprehending, lost, away from "her universe" which was her family. They are left with the idea of her dying because her body became not only so hungry, but so stressed and distressed.
According to the autopsy, Nóra almost literally died of a broken heart, presumably unable to understand why her world, her universe, her family weren't there. It is one of the worst possible outcomes you could imagine.
You could imagine that this is why Nóra's family and her extended family are sceptical about the outcome of the investigation, that it is just too awful to believe. As horrible as it is to think, you find yourself wondering if it would be an easier outcome for them if Nóra had been taken, if she at least wasn't alone out there in that jungle for a week. But there are many other reasons for the Quoirins not to accept this outcome. Reasons of her location and her condition and her not being found earlier and other things we don't need to go over again here. But there is one thing her family know for sure: It just didn't make sense for Nóra to walk away like this.
Let me tell you something some of you will not know. In my experience, there tend to be two types of kids with special needs. Some are bolters and some are not. Some of them will literally run away if you put them down in an open space, or will tend to wander off if you take your eyes off them for a minute. And then others don't.
Others cling to what they know, and are not adventurers, unless they have their family or somebody familiar by their side, in which case they may fearfully venture forth, requiring constant reassurance.
Nóra's family clearly know she was the opposite of a bolter. She was clearly a child who would become incredibly distressed if taken out of her little universe. They know her. And they seem pretty sure she just wouldn't have done it. And I believe them.
In a way, you wonder for their sanity if they should try and accept this and move on, but of course they can't. They can't accept this and they can't move on. To be able to live with themselves, these people need and deserve a better answer than this.
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Outpourings of public grief for someone we don't know can often seem mawkish and phoney. But there was something about the people signing the book of condolence in Belfast on RTE News last Thursday, something about the way people are talking about this everywhere you go. People did not know this child, but somehow they have connected to this as an especially unbearable, especially cruel thing. There is something about this that has touched people deeply.
It is probably Nóra's innocence, and it is probably, too, the almost primeval, archetypal tale of this innocent lost in the dense, twisted jungle. And I also think that part of it is that people admire the Quoirins for getting Nóra so far, and determinedly managing to find joy and happiness and infinite love in such difficult circumstances.
They got her so far. This was so unfair.