IN the pilot episode of a TV drama series, a doctor helps his wife deliver their baby in an emergency. The baby girl turns out to be healthy.
Before the doctor can relax, his wife bears down again. It’s not just the entry of a twin daughter that’s unexpected.
She is aqueous in form, assuming flesh only when she’s immersed in water.
By some coincidence, I finished “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” a novel written by Kim Edwards, less than a month before the “Agua Bendita” series premiered.
The ABS-CBN soap drama is based on a serialized comics story created by Rod Santiago and published in Liwayway in the 1980s. Edwards’ novel was printed by Penguin Books in 2005.
In Santiago’s comics story, the “Agua Bendita” soap drama and the Edwards novel, the fathers make the same instinctive response to their other child: without telling their wife, the fathers give away the “abnormal” infant to another female assisting the emergency birthing.
In the Filipino “komiks” novel and the TV series, the faithful family yaya, or helper, shares the secret of the father because she, too, is shocked by the child’s strangeness but also compassionate about the child’s chances of being accepted by a “normal” world.
In “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” the doctor’s clinic assistant, a nurse named Caroline, puts her career and life off kilter when she decides not to put the child Phoebe in an institution but raises her as her own.
In Edwards’ novel, though, the other child’s curse is not to be born liquid, blue and transparent. Unlike her healthy twin brother, Phoebe has Down Syndrome.
Readers may be struck speechless, even offended, with a father who rejects his own because of an unfortunate perception that to have Down Syndrome is to be marked for deformity and premature death.
In the “teleserye,” the father/doctor may be forgiven; his other daughter is a freak of nature, a child of water, a “tiyanak (cursed baby),” according to local lore.
Here, Edwards towers over Santiago and the “Agua Bendita” scriptwriters in making her readers understand the complexities faced by persons with disability, as well as the families mixed up in their love and acceptance of them.
“The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” is set in the 1960s, not just decades but mindsets away from our more enlightened times.
In 2002, Proclamation No. 157 declared February “National Down Syndrome Consciousness Month” in the country.
This is a far cry from Kentucky in 1965 when even medical specialists perceived Down Syndrome as a curse foretold.
When Caroline rushes to an emergency room Phoebe, who’s gasping from a bee sting allergy, the attending nurse does not immediately assist but questions Caroline’s attempt to save Phoebe’s life. The nurse hints that the greater mercy is to “ease” Phoebe from a life fraught with uncertainties.
Do such monsters exist only in fiction? In an interview, Edwards revealed that her novel stemmed from a true story told by her Presbyterian pastor. A man found out late in life that he had a brother born with Down Syndrome. This brother was placed in an institution, where he died. His existence was kept a secret from the family, even from his mother.
Years ago, I knew a couple living outside the country. When the wife had a late pregnancy, she underwent amniocentesis, the extraction of amniotic fluid to detect the extra chromosome, the so-called 21st chromosome causing Trisomy 21, also known as Down or Down’s Syndrome.
The doctors confirmed the couple’s fear. Did they want to terminate a pregnancy that was certain to cost inconvenience, specially for working spouses who had other children and were coping with a fast-paced society?
Caroline later tells Phoebe’s father: “You missed a lot of heartache, sure. But… you missed a lot of joy.”
Or in the words of the ABS-CBN scriptwriters: "Ang pusong nagmamahal ng totoo walang pinipiling anyo at pagkatao (a heart that loves truly doesn’t choose).”
My favorite, though, comes from the mother who was better than the medical specialists in interpreting the significance of the 21st chromosome: “Extra love.”
I thought then my friend was foretelling the long days and longer nights of coping with her son’s heart problems and learning delay, just for starters.
I forgot love is a two-way street.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 21, 2010 issue of “Matamata”