Everyone’s story unfolds in its own particular pattern but Gillian Marchenko shares hers in achingly exquisite prose.
October is Down syndrome awareness month and Marchenko’s new memoir Sun Shine Down has made me aware of the complicated beauty there is in birthing a babe with Down syndrome. It’s the story of Polly, Marchenko’s third child born to her and her husband Sergei, and their family’s journey as they adjust to the many nuances of having a child with Down syndrome.
Marchenko’s poignant honesty about the grief she went through after Polly’s birth is eye-opening. We don’t talk about these things, do we? When life doesn’t turn out the way we plan, we cover over the sorrow with thin smiles and platitudes. We need more truth, more open hearts like that of Gillian Marchenko.
Polly was born in Sergei’s native Ukraine, a country where disabilities are not accepted and babies born with problems are often abandoned or hidden from society. It is into this world that the Marchenkos wrestle with their feelings of loss—amidst assurances that they can give their child up—because who would want a baby with Down syndrome?
Marchenko tells of how our world doesn’t know how to respond to a parent of a child with a special diagnosis. She shares stories of insensitive medical professionals and tongue-tied friends. But there are stories of others who held her and walked her through the grief. And it seems that our world needs to hear these stories to understand better how to love.
Sun Shine Down is a story of a love so deep, so foreign, that it takes a mother some time to recognize it. Marchenko tells about the Christmas when she let herself finally fully fall into the depths of a mama love that stretched her in ways she never knew possible:
Sure, I already knew I loved her. Over the last twenty one months I had been poked and prodded along to love her by her sisters’ immediate acceptance and love, by her deep sighs while she slept, and by the way Sergei protected her from the cold on a walk, bundling her up in the front pack with a blanket draped over her head. But this day was different.On this morning, something deep inside me cracked open: unabashed love, thick like wet clay. I gathered it up for us and squished it around. Polly grabbed and flung it to me. I balled it up and sent it, once again, to her. It went back and forth between us all morning. Her smile, brighter than the Christmas tree, lit up her little face. We were lost in mutual adoration. This was what other parents to children with Down syndrome meant. “Let the baby change you.” I'd gotten nowhere regarding Polly as a child with Down syndrome, but when I was able to see her as a baby, as my baby, a light switched on inside.
I cry each time I read it. In the prologue, Marchenko tells a story about a boy named Daniel in her first grade class who wore a prosthetic leg.
Before seeing Daniel, I did not know there were people in the world without things like legs. Broken people existed. What a frightening discovery.
What Marchenko discovers through parenting Polly is that we are all broken. And, yes, it is frightening. But when we allow that brokenness to transform us, life breathes rich and deep.
It’s a powerful memoir, gorgeously told; a book that opens a new world and gives us a door to enter into greater empathy.