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Friday, September 24, 2010

Brendan O’Connor’s inspiring article on the birth of his daughter with Down Syndrome

On 12th September, the Sunday Independent carried an inspiring article, ‘A prayer for my daughter’ by its columnist and RTÉ personality, Brendan O’Connor, on the birth only weeks before of his second daughter, Mary. It evoked a huge reaction from readers – the following week, 13 of the letters received were published.

The day before the Irish Independent’s Weekend magazine had carried another shorter, yet profound article by columnist, Mary Kenny, about looking after her husband who is deteriorating following a stroke.

What the articles have in common is a visceral bluntness, a shocking directness and honesty in articulating difficult dimensions of intimate human experiences, but an authenticity that connects with us as we read them, a ring of truth that involves us in the family stories they are telling. What is surprising about the two articles is that each leaves us with the same impression of a toughness of character in the writer and a highlighting kindness in the writing.

Mary Kenny’s piece describes the difficulties of taking care of her husband who is suffering from a progressive condition. Almost defiantly she sets before us the hard reality of her life caring for him – ‘I carry out my carer’s duties because it’s my duty: I’m the obvious person to do it.’ Right after she asserts how this has changed her. ‘Caring changes your value system. Kindness has become much more important to me than almost anything else. Abstract talk about “rights” and “equality” strike me as containing a great deal of hot air, whereas “kindness” and “genuine respect” for the person really do mean the world.’

And that’s just the right phrase, isn’t it, kindness means the world - gives us the right meaning of our world. ‘Governments have legislated to support the disabled, but no amount of law will produce kindness. And it’s kindness that matters. It lifts my heart, nowadays, when I encounter kindness – and it does happen.’

Brendan O’Connor’s piece is more extraordinary in the way it captures, as it were, in slow motion, his heart’s u-turn following the birth of his daughter, the way it turned his life inside out and upside down, dismantling the perspective he had lived out of up to that moment, and, to his surprise, landing him in a wider world, a world with a richer meaning, a world whose outer extent and inner atmosphere are defined by kindness.

‘Thursday two weeks ago, we went into Holles Street in the morning, tentative but full of hope; and by two o'clock, our hearts were broken and our lives were turned upside down.’ The discovery that Mary had Down Syndrome was a before-and-after moment. Looking back, he sees ‘life before Mary’ as ‘a different life indeed, when we were innocent and foolish and thought we knew what worries and troubles were.’

Like Mary Kenny, kindness has taken on a new importance. ‘I have learnt many things in the last few weeks. One thing is that kind words can be so important and such a consolation. I never gave much of a damn for kind words before.’ The consultant’s words to them, “Mary is Mary”, struck just the right chord. ‘But with those three words he came through for us in the most unexpected way. For some reason it soothed us as we stood there dazed, and in a waking nightmare.’ Kind words from all sorts of doctors, nurses, friends and some unexpected sources would help get us through the next few days.

He gives the example of a text message from the woman in their older daughter’s creche – ‘she sent the most beautiful text about how they looked forward to welcoming Mary there. For Sarah, it meant a lot that these people, who have embraced Anna so much, were also going to embrace Mary.’

In a series of amazing sentences he describes the transformation he was undergoing.

After we had our first child, I thought I saw the world very clearly for a while -- I saw clearly who my friends were and who I valued. After Mary, I thought I could almost see the difference between good and evil. And some people you just didn't want near you and some people you knew were good.

So now I know that people are amazing. And I have more of an idea what love and friendship and family and kindness are. Some days, in my more elated moments, I would think that having spent 40 years looking for the meaning of life, sometimes in the most self-destructive ways, Mary had taught it to me in a few days.

I don't know that I can put it in words yet but I think the meaning of life may be about now, and love, and not giving a damn about things that don't really matter.

The texture of the new world he has entered is one of greater realness, compared with where he was before. ‘Real life has begun. I have woken up. It's not all easy but it is real.’

And the principal reality that has entered his life is the new person, his daughter, Mary. It is she who has brought him into this new world. ‘But do I wish she had never been born? Do I wish that we had just been happy with one? Do I wish we could have our old life -- which I have idealised out of all proportion -- back? Not any more. She's here now, a part of our little family. And we'd be lost without her. She has burrowed her way into our hearts so there is no imagining the world any other way. And even if she broke our hearts a bit when she came first, she's fixing them up a bit every day.’

The concluding paragraph of this amazing article is a ringing affirmation, of trust in the new world he has entered, in which the word ‘okay’ is repeated like the word’ yes’ in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy:

The funny thing is, you know very quickly when something happens whether everything is going to be okay. And even in my shock and agony in that operating theatre, I think I suddenly knew everything was going to be okay. And it is. There might be sadness ahead and there might be challenges ahead. But everything is going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay. Better than okay.

Every human being brings something new into the world with them, the very mystery of their unique being as a human person, thereby making the world a bigger, better place. Kindness is the larger, better part of humanity, and vulnerability invites kindness from the human heart. Brendan O’Connor’s article gives us a rare opportunity of observing this expanding of world and deepening of heart as it happens.

Read Brendan O’Connor’s article here

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