I recently read two novels, one right after another. The first was “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” by Kim Edwards. It had been a gift from my mother. The second was “Sing Them Home” by Stephanie Kallos. I had been waiting to read it with much anticipation, after loving her first novel, “Broken for You.”
It was entirely coincidental that I read them as I did, sequentially. They were different in style, and in overall scope. But they shared one very poignant and haunting theme.
The timeline in both books began with a young married couple in the early 1960s. In both, the husband was a physician, the wife a homemaker, soon to be a mother.
In “Memory,” the doctor’s wife goes into early labor in a snowstorm, and he has to deliver his own child at his clinic, with only his nurse in attendance. He safely delivers a healthy baby boy. Unexpectedly, while his wife is semi-conscious, he realizes there is also a twin – a baby girl. But when he delivers her, he sees that the child has Down Syndrome. Rather than put his wife through what he thinks will be a horrible discovery, he gives the infant to his nurse and tells her to bring the baby to an institution. Later, he tells his wife the baby was stillborn. And this lie, slowly and surely, destroys them both.
In “Sing,” the young wife has several heart-rending miscarriages. When she finally carries a child full term, the doctor keeps checking her eyesight, but never tells her why. Over the ensuing months, and then years, she struggles with ongoing bouts of fatigue and clumsiness, always blaming herself. Finally, she has terrifying episodes of vision loss.
At last, she goes to another doctor, a family friend in a neighboring town, and demands to know what is wrong with her. He listens carefully, and tells her that she has multiple sclerosis – and he also reveals that her husband has known it for years.
When reading “Memory,” it is hard to believe that Down Syndrome children were once taken from their families, locked up in wards, denied access to public education, and even denied medical care, on the grounds that they were going to die soon anyway.
Special education programs, group homes, day facilities, and other forms of family support have made it possible for most disabled people to be active and involved in the world today.
And in “Sing,” it is equally hard to believe that a doctor would keep from an adult patient the nature of his or her own illness, and even more egregious that a husband would do so. But that was the common medical practice not so many years ago. It was thought that patients who were told the truth would somehow not handle it properly.
Now, of course, most people believe in talking openly of disease, and even of death and dying. We write living wills, we call in hospice, we have grief counselors. Everything is centered around the patient’s right to know.
But this all makes me wonder. What novels, written 40 years from now, will make readers look back at 2010 and say, “Oh, god, how sad! I can’t believe they were so blind!” What routine decisions do our surgeons make in the operating rooms? What procedures do patients undergo that those readers will remember, faintly, as they turn the pages, and shudder, thinking of needless suffering and loss?
It is comforting to think that we are moving closer to a compassionate health care system. Comforting....but true?