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In the Film “Any Day Now,” A Loving Portrait of Down Syndrome

12 Aug

The film “Any Day Now,” starring Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt (known for his role as the father on “Raising Hope”), is billed as story about the struggles and bigotry gay couples have faced when trying to adopt a child.

The fictional story, set in 1979, is told very poignantly and the plot moves at a fast clip. Alan Cumming is absolutely thrilling to watch; his character’s vulnerability and inner strength come across with all the subtly of a sledgehammer, but he is very authentic and you immediately want to root for him. Oh, and his voice! If you’ve forgotten about his Tony-winning performance in the Broadway revival of Cabaret in the late 1990’s (or were too young to have heard about it), this is your chance to be reminded how lush and haunting his singing voice can be. The movie is worth watching for that alone. And it’s currently available on Netflix, which makes it easy to watch.

But for me, what truly stood out about the film was its straightforward portrayal of a young teenage boy with Down syndrome. The boy, Marco, is a neighbor of Rudy, the character played by Mr. Cumming. Rudy takes Marco under his wing after the boy’s junkie mother ends up in prison because he can’t bear the thought of the boy being placed in the foster care system. What I loved is that Rudy does so without a trace of pity for Marco’s “mental handicap,” as it is referred to in the film. He does this because he is a caring person who sees a child in need, and that’s all there is to it.

The film does not resort to treacle in talking about Marco. In fact, his Down syndrome is barely mentioned, and to me, this was its genius. To be fair, Marco’s character, thought central to the plot, is a supporting one; the story is really about his parents. After Rudy falls in love with Paul, a closeted gay lawyer played by Mr. Dillahunt, he enlists Paul’s help in becoming Marco’s temporary guardian and eventually the two petition the court to become his parents. Along the way, they create a loving and playful home for Marco.

Never is the idea expressed that they have taken on an extra “burden” by caring for someone with special needs. (Perhaps because fighting a culture and a court system that viewed gay couples as essentially perverted and corrupting of children was burden enough.) At one point, Rudy and Paul take Marco to the doctor for a checkup, probably his first in many years, and the doctor rattles off a list of the boy’s current and potential medical problems. Rudy quickly retorts, with annoyance, “And the good news is….?”  The doctor pauses; he seems compassionate. “Well, I just want to make sure that both of you understand that raising a child with Down syndrome is a major commitment.”

“We got it,” Rudy says confidently, smiling at Paul. “We signed up for the gig, didn’t we?” The doctor wasn’t finished. “He’s never going to go to college, or live on his own. What you see is what you get.” Rudy nods his head quietly and the film cuts to another scene.

This part rang so true as holding up yet another mirror to our culture. When new parents are told their baby has Down syndrome, whether prenatally or after the baby’s birth, often what they hear first is a list of real or potential health threats with a generous side dish of “won’ts.” This was true decades ago, and it’s sadly still true today much too often, even though people with Down syndrome are living into their 60’s and are included with their typical peers in all walks of life, from education to employment. More than 200 colleges now have programs for students with intellectual disabilities. It is becoming more common for people with Down syndrome to get married, live on their own and learn to drive.

Support groups, advocates and medical professionals have been working together to provide a more balanced picture of life with Down syndrome to new parents. Some local groups, including the one I rely on for support, the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Charlotte, have a Parents’ First Call program that connects expectant parents to families who can talk about what it’s like to raise a child with Down syndrome. Last year, Massachusetts joined just a few other states when it passed a law requiring that balanced information be provided along with prenatal diagnosis of Trisomy 21. The Lettercase booklet, Understanding a Down Syndrome Diagnosis (available free as an e-book), is considered the gold standard for such information by medical professionals nationally.

 ♦

The filmmakers of “Any Day Now” were clearly concerned with raising viewers’ ire about the treatment of gay parents, historically and currently, and that they did – I have never been so angry while watching a film in recent memory.  But they also succeeded in doing something they may not have intended: to portray a older child with Down syndrome as simply a child like any other, a person in his own right. This may not seem astounding, but loving portrayals of minor characters with disabilities are not plentiful in the movies; often they are made into objects of pity or viewed as inconsequential or as token members of the cast. In this movie, Marco was the thread that tied everything together —  a funny, fascinating, lonely person who inspired great love.

Marco has his favorite belongings — I teared up at the opening scene when I saw what he was lovingly carrying around, because my son, who is 5, loves something very similar. Marco brings joy to his adoptive parents, he tries hard at school and is beloved by his teacher. He is incredibly sad and confused when neglected by his mother, like any child would be, but he thrives in the care of Rudy and Paul, finding his true home with them.

Ultimately, this film is about happiness and love, how we must embrace them wherever and whenever they are found and look beyond merely superficial “differences” like sexual orientation and disability. But be warned: this is not always a happy film, so make sure you are ready to handle the emotions you will feel and keep a box of tissues handy.

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A Special Homecoming Awaits

18 Aug

A while back I posted about the Maddex family, who are active in the Down syndrome community here in Charlotte and are in the process of adopting a boy with Down syndrome from the Ukraine, their fourth child (and second with Down syndrome). Well, they have made it to the grand finale in their adoption journey, and have been in the Ukraine for about two weeks, since early August 2011, visiting with Danil, or as his family and caregivers call him, Danila. He is so so sweet and their story just gets better every day. Please take a moment to read about their journey at www.addingtothemaddness.blogspot.com.

I know I am late to the party in terms of posting about this, but try to read from the beginning. There are a whirlwind of emotions involved on all sides, and some great tales to be told. It is very engaging reading, whether you have kids or not. So stop Twittering your  life away and read it — fascinating stuff!