Sunday, February 21, 2010

Better than fiction

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.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 21, 2010 issue of “Matamata”


Patty said...

Hi, Mme. Tabada!

I don't watch that teleserye, but I'm in the middle of "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" so I wanted to comment on this entry (although belatedly).

It's been a good read so far. In theory, I guess one should be somewhat offended that David gave away his daughter just because of a preconceived notion. To me, it's the good writing that pushes that anger aside and keeps the story compelling as it unfolds. It's really interesting to know the consequences of his actions that fateful evening, through the years.

Haven't finished the book yet, but so far all I find lacking in this book is an in-depth look at Down syndrome, and what it's really like. Caroline's point of view does share a little bit of that, but it's all on the surface. Maybe Phoebe would have her own perspective in the book later on or something.

Mayette Q. Tabada said...

Hi, Patty!

In the later chapters, the book does dwell on DS. I won't spoil it for you :-) I like the reading guide at the end of my copy; I hope your copy has that as well. I credit Edwards for making me muse about studying special education. It helps a lot that I go to STC and get reminded how the school tries to mold teachers and students and families to respond to the challenges of disability.

Thanks, Patty, for dropping by and sharing your views. I have the other book of Edwards; this is the anthology of her short stories. Let me know if you'd like to read this.

By the way, if anyone is interested to own a copy of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, there's a mint hardcover in the bargain bin of NBS-Ayala Center Cebu. I saw the copy two weeks ago; it was priced P99. I drooled briefly but wouldn't part with my battered copy, the one I bought at

Cheers, Pat! Before I forget, if you have any questions about managing a campus publication, Ian's a good reference. He was a campus journalist, then an adviser of Tug-ani, the UPVCC publication. He has a lot to share!