‘All I want to do is keep his memory alive,’ she says. After her son died of cancer, his mother reimagines the elf on the shelf to inform the world about autism.

“It was love at first sight,” says the narrator. We both knew we had found something unique the instant Paul and I met that night in a local nightclub. We knew we’d spend the rest of our lives together even though we were young! We got along swimmingly and had high expectations for the future.

I recall the date of our wedding: September 28th, 2002. We were in such good spirits and didn’t seem to have a worry in the world. It was a happy time. We had wonderful careers, a beautiful house, and each other. We were bouncing ideas off each other. When one of them fell down, the other would pick them up.

mom and dad taking a selfie on a beach
Courtesy of Colleen McNally

We decided to start a family after a year of marriage. We were ecstatic! We found out we were expecting a baby after only three months. We couldn’t believe our eyes! But my joy was short-lived when I miscarried at 7 weeks. We were devastated, but in true Paul and Colleen fashion, we moved on with our lives. We desperately wanted a child, but after a year of trying, we were unable to conceive. At this point, we decided to see a doctor.

We began fertility treatment right away. I was on Clomid at the time, and I became pregnant again. But, once again, this ended in a miscarriage at 8 weeks. We had been married for three years at this point. We were psychologically and physically weary. We couldn’t believe it was going to happen again.

Early the following year, we relocated. All fertility treatments had been halted. We decided to focus all of our efforts on our new home, and guess what? I found out I was expecting a baby five weeks after we moved into our new house! Paul and I were overjoyed, but we were wary of getting our hopes up. Paul kept me upbeat.

Fortunately, this pregnancy went well, and Nathan, our first child, was born! We were finished! We declared right then and there that it didn’t matter if we had any more children because we already had our miracle child. Paul was the proudest man I’d ever seen, carrying Nathan in his arms.

dad holding his son to take a picture
Courtesy of Colleen McNally

But when Nathan was one, I became pregnant for the second time! Daragh was born after a smooth pregnancy for me. We had two tiny boys at the time! It was a wonderful time! More than life itself, we adored these two guys. We couldn’t believe how fortunate we were. We felt very fortunate after such a rough start. Every chance I got, I took pictures. We were enamored with each other.

I became pregnant again a year later, but it ended in an 8-week miscarriage. I became pregnant again a year later, but this time it ended at 11 weeks; we were told it was a partial molar pregnancy. At this point, I believe we’ve had enough. We couldn’t stand it any longer. My body has gone through a lot of hormonal changes… I had to take a vacation from it.

brothers standing still long enough for mom to take a picture
Courtesy of Colleen McNally

We devote all of our resources to our two sons. Daragh, on the other hand, was missing his developmental milestones. He could walk, run, and climb just like any other young child. However, he had difficulty with social contact and speech. He ate only specific items. He possessed a lot of peculiar characteristics. We soon recognized he might have Autism. Our doctor sent us to the Early Intervention Team, which is our country’s pediatric health system.

Paul and I were talking about the boys one day while on vacation. We decided to look for another sibling for Nathan and Daragh one more time. I became pregnant a month later and gave birth to a beautiful baby girl named Naoise. We couldn’t believe it when we found out we were expecting a girl. With so many miscarriages, I had convinced myself that I couldn’t possibly bear a daughter… yet I was mistaken! Little Naoise had arrived and was in good health!

brothers with their new born sister
Courtesy of Colleen McNally

Daragh was officially diagnosed with Autism at this point, shortly after Naoise’s birth. We determined that, as awful as it was to hear this, we would do everything we could to help him. We took numerous classes and experimented with various diets and supplements. To help him with his anxiety, we tried CBD oil. Daragh’s behavior became more troublesome as he grew older.

We became pregnant again soon after. We were in the process of getting Daragh a service dog named Lenny to aid him with his Flight Risk, which is a symptom of Autism. But we couldn’t believe what we were hearing. How were we going to deal with it? With three children, one of whom has Autism, and a large service dog, life was hectic.

Layla, our beautiful baby daughter, was born the day before Christmas Eve 2015! How fortunate were we? We used to tell the kids that each of them had their own angel. That God took four of my babies away from me to care for the four that we had! Life was wonderful, though a little hectic.

As a family, we did everything we could to meet Daragh’s requirements. We, a family of six with a large dog, would frequently be seen on the beach about 9 a.m. Daragh was greatly calmed by the seashore, but it also aided us.

dad with his two boy at the beach
Courtesy of Colleen McNally
son all dressed up in the car
Courtesy of Colleen McNally

Daragh’s behavior became increasingly out of control as he grew older. We decided to create a sensory chamber in our home for Daragh, where he could retreat when the world became too much for him. As I already stated, we would have done anything to assist him. He was devoted to his family. When he was at home, he was the happiest. He adored the holiday season. He was enthralled with life. ‘I’m mommy’s best boy ever,’ he used to tell me. ‘I’m Daddy’s best friend,’ he used to tell Paul. He was incredibly affectionate, despite his little speaking.

We all had a well-deserved trip to Spain in October of 2019! We observed Daragh wasn’t himself while on vacation. He hadn’t eaten in a long time. He was sluggish but didn’t sleep well. We were concerned that he was catching a cold. Nonetheless, he swam in the water and made every effort to enjoy himself. On this holiday, Daragh had just turned 11 years old.

Daragh was still not himself when we came home. His face began to expand slightly. It had a mottled appearance. That week, we took him to the doctor three times. There was nothing out of the usual found. We took Daragh to the hospital the following Monday. The hospital’s doctors were excellent. They immediately noticed Daragh’s lung was severely infected. They thought it was a nasty case of pneumonia. Daragh was taken to Templestreet Children’s Hospital right away. He was about to have a drain inserted into his lung.

I drove him to the hospital to have this surgery performed. I recall consoling Daragh by stroking his hand and telling him he was “Mommy’s best boy ever.” I let go of his hand as he closed his eyes. With Paul, I returned to his room. We sat and sat and sat and sat and sat and sat and

autistic boy posing in front of a bush in a bright lime shirt
Courtesy of Colleen McNally

A doctor approached us, took our hands in his, and softly informed us that Daragh did not have pneumonia. He was suffering from cancer. He had a large lump on his right lung that was pressing towards his heart. He was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Lymphoma. That was a moment we’ll never forget. Our entire universe came crumbling down around us. Daragh was Ireland’s sickest tiny boy. The problem was the mass’s placement.

Daragh was flown to Crumlin Children’s Hospital’s ICU, which specializes in pediatric cancer, in a special ambulance. Daragh was in a coma for 5 weeks and 5 days in the ICU. Doctors and nurses did everything they could to help. Daragh’s side was guarded by Paul and me. We had a conversation with him. We performed a song for him. We tried to cuddle him, but it was impossible because he had so many wires protruding from him.

Our precious special boy died away in the arms of the angels on November 24th, 2019.

How could we have been on vacation for 7 weeks and come back to this? We were, and continue to be, profoundly heartbroken. You lose a piece of yourself when you lose a child. Daragh was accompanied by a group of us. The anguish never goes away; you simply learn to live with it. I promised Daragh the night he died that I would continue to speak and educate people about autism. ‘I love you, mommy’s best boy ever,’ I whispered into his ear. Away In A Manger was the song I performed. ‘I love you son,’ Paul repeatedly said Daragh.

Since then, I’ve never stopped speaking out about Autism. When our elf on the shelf arrived at our house one Christmas… Elf, like Daragh, had a habit of looking out of the corner of his eye. As a result, we determined that our Elf had autism and gave him the name Duca, which was Daragh’s first word. I’ll be posting a video of our Elf demonstrating an autistic symptom every day in December. It was a huge success, and Daragh and his Elf were featured in all of the media.

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Our hearts have been shattered after Daragh’s death. Most evenings, Paul and I lie awake for hours, worrying about Daragh. ‘Why,’ ‘it’s not fair,’ or my heart,’ we constantly say aloud. When one of us says something like this, the other just knows. However, in honor of Daragh, I will continue to make our Elf videos. I honestly have no idea where I obtain my strength… In fact, I do. It’s had to be from our little angel.

We must continue to live our lives to the best of our abilities. We have three more adorable children who require the attention of their parents. We do a lot in Daragh’s honor. Daragh’s Balloon Ride is an Instagram feed I recently created in Daragh’s Memory.

mom taking a selfie with her autistic son
Courtesy of Colleen McNally

Daragh was a huge fan of Peppa Pig. He was Peppa’s biggest supporter. We were going to travel to Peppa Pig World with Daragh before he died. Daragh’s one desire was to go on Peppa’s Balloon Ride. He was never given the opportunity to accomplish this. We’ll go with our girls once the pandemic has passed. On the other hand, I talk about Daragh, parenthood, Autism, sorrow, and life after loss on my Instagram profile.

Our lives have been turned completely inside out. However, we will continue to do our best. We’d rather go through this ordeal than never have had Daragh at all. We were lucky and the luckiest parents in the world to have Daragh for 11 years. He had a lot to teach us. He showed us how to love.”

mom and dad taking a selfie after the loss of their son
Courtesy of Colleen McNally

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