Photo: Association Tombée du Nid

An Opening to the Other

In January we “met” the Noël family during a conversation organized by the virtual cultural platform É-née. This conversation moved us and awakened our desire for openness and deeper relationship with the Other.
Dominique Robb

A few weeks ago, I “met” the Noël family through two conversations organized by É-née and led by Jean-François Thiry. É-née is a francophone platform that was created last year, in the midst of the pandemic, in order that we are not left alone and so that together we continue to live and see the beautiful things that are happening around us.

The first meeting took place in May 2020. Clotilde and Nicolas Noël. In the presence of their eldest son Côme, they told us about their family and their desire for adoption. The Noël family now has nine children: six biological and three adopted. What sets this family apart, besides its many members, is that the two adopted sisters and adopted brother are all disabled.

After the birth of their fourth child, Clotilde and Nicolas saw the seed of a desire for adoption. This desire has matured and grown over the years, but it has proven to be quite tortuous at the bureaucratic level. They explained that initially their desire was not necessarily to adopt a disabled child but rather to love another child and give him a family.
On the other hand, adoption laws in France, where the Noels live, prioritize couples who cannot have biological children. Families with children can adopt but only disabled children. Faced with this reality, the Noël family grew, little by little, and they welcomed Marie, Marie-Garance and Frédéric.

The second meeting, held in January 2021, was about their foundation, “Tombée du Nid” “Fallen from the Nest”. The foundation connects and supports families with disabled children. We also met Caroline and Guylain, a couple who, through meeting the foundation and Clotilde, decided to adopt a child with Down's Syndrome.

Several things struck me during these two meetings and helped me to understand that I want to be open to others. First of all, I was struck by the things that Clotilde and Nicolas learned through the individuality of each child. With the adoption of Marie, their family life had been transformed. Marie is a carrier of Down's syndrome and therefore she does not do things at the same pace as her siblings. With Marie, Clotilde says she has learned to be more present and to slow down, to revisit her priorities. It was not an end to freedom - like some people would think - instead it was a springboard to life.

With the arrival of Marie-Garance, the Noël's were confronted with the fragility of human life. Marie-Garance's physical disabilities necessitated several urgent trips to the hospital. Often her life was hanging by a thread. Clotilde recounts in retrospect that these episodes made her realize that the richness and depth of her daughter's life - like that of each of us - have nothing to do with its longevity. She says they have learned to live every day in the present moment and to look at what is given to them.

Frederick, the most recently adopted, was already two years old when he was adopted. He was so happy to have a family, but he was also aware of the abandonment of his biological family. In addition to the psychological challenges, the dietary challenges related to his condition have kept the Noel parents awake many nights, often cleaning up vomit. Clotilde has understood that she could easily fall apart in the face of the immense task and fatigue of those sleepless nights. On the other hand, she recommends laughing in these situations, otherwise it becomes too heavy.

The second thing that really touched me was the humanity that Nicolas saw during a appointment for Marie-Garance. He says he brought her in to adjust a supportive medical corset: since she cannot stand alone, the corset allows her to have a more comfortable posture. This corset is custom-made by a man Nicolas calls “the artisan”. Nicolas recounts with emotion how this craftsman, a big man with tattoos, was incredibly gentle with his daughter and showed incredible attention to detail. He worked tirelessly to adjust her corset (it was already the umpteenth fitting). Nicolas explained that the craftsman lived more than an hour from the medical center, but he came to town just for the appointment with Marie-Garance. He strived hard to make the corset useful to her while being also as comfortable as possible. When Nicolas, thinking aloud, asked him if it would be possible to adjust it to another seat they have at home, the artisan did not back down, in front of additional work, he was eager to do it. When he talks about the craftsman, Nicolas's face lights up. Like Nicolas, I was deeply touched by the craftsman totally present to the person in front of him.

These meetings with the Noël family reminded me of one of the presentations at the 2020 edition of New York Encounter which stayed with me long after, entitled "A Place for Life". The three panelists spoke about their family’s experience with their children. In particular, J. D. Flynn’s testimony came to mind. When he spoke of his two children, adopted and with Down's syndrome, he spoke with palpable, visible love and joy. He would describe their personality to us and to do this, he would start almost all his sentences by “My son, Max…” and “My daughter, Pia…”. His relationship with his children made concrete his relationship with God the Father. He tells how his children have difficulty doing simple tasks and they constantly come to ask for help. Flynn says he happily helps them and loves to do it. This has made him realize that, just as his children turn to him for help, he can turn to the Father for the same. And the Father rejoices in that.

The lives of the Flynn and the Noël family have been transformed and opened up through their children. The other is a gift, said Flynn: therein lies their value. Clotilde and Nicolas use the word “wealth” to describe the other. No matter the choice of words, the value of the other has nothing to do with their abilities, their intelligence or their autonomy, but it has to do with the fact that they are present and given to us.

Clotilde says that it was not her children who benefited from being adopted, but that it was her and her family, who can no longer live without them. This is not mere cliché affirmation or nice attitudes, because the two meetings illustrated clearly that their lives are far from being a fairy tale. In facing the administrative challenges of three adoptions, the long sleepless nights, the stress and frustration, not to mention the multiple hospital stays, you need to be motivated by something other than the need to “do good”.

The Noël’s and Flynn’s are sustained by their faith and that allows them to look at the other in this way. They are supported in their gaze and in this journey; they are not alone. They are surrounded by friends - and for the Noël’s, by the foundation. They are helped and sustained during hardship and isolation. They also witness to the joy their children give them daily. These examples help me understand that this openness is only possible thanks to belonging. An image Clotilde shared about Marie-Garance's adoption- marked me deeply: "our hearts are cemented to hers". This image remained in mind and reminds me of a quote from Psalm 63 in a passage from the school of community that I recently read: “My soul clings to you, your right hand holds me fast”. Perhaps that too is the relationship with the Father: we deeply wish to belong, to be anchored in a relationship that allows us to better see what surrounds us. When you see something real, you don't no longer want to break away from it.

Although my life is different from the Noël’s and Flynn’s, I too want it to be open to those in front of me. In times of pandemic, this poses a challenge: locked in our homes, how can we be open to the world? But I see that just having this desire, awakened through these meetings, is already an opening and a question to follow.


To watch the Noel family videos, as well as all the interviews on the É-née platform, visit e-nee.online/laviedenee

To watch “A Place for Life”, click here