Mother lode: strength and unexpected joy in facing a challenge
When her daughter Clarissa was born with Down’s Syndrome, Malu Tiongson-Ortiz feared failing as a mother. Drawing on a deep well of faith, she found strength and unexpected joy in facing the challenge
The love between mother and child may be the most primal relationship, but it is not inherently easy, admitted Malu Tiongson-Ortiz. “Faced with a child who needed a lot of my attention, I thought it meant giving up so much for her.”
Questioning her circumstances, she found the answer in her faith. “The reason we ask why something has happened to us is because we’re focused on ourselves,” she said. “With Clarissa, God answered my question—it was to make me a better person, to think less of myself, and to learn what it really means to love.
“It is easy to say you love someone when everything is fine, but when it is difficult, sometimes you say, ‘I don’t love you anymore.’ You turn your back and leave. You can’t do that to a special child,” she mused.
Yet, even this revelation took time to fully accept. As Malu raised her daughter and two older sons, her life continued much as it had before. “I was still working, doing things I enjoyed, like golfing, being with friends, shopping,” she recalled. “But when Clarissa was 18, I discovered that apart from Down’s Syndrome, she was also hearing impaired. It was a wake-up call.”
Finished with what she called her worldly life, Malu devoted her full attention to her daughter. She began homeschooling Clarissa, now 24 years old, and chronicling their experiences in a journal, which was later published as Embracing God’s Purpose for My Special Child. She also discovered their shared love and talent for art. Malu credits God for the special connection: “I’m a painter and I thank the Lord that He gave me this particular gift,” she said. “If I had the ability to sing, I couldn’t teach that to her because she can’t speak. God gave us both this talent so that we can work together.”
Smiling, Malu described their collaboration: “She is the photographer and I am her Photoshop!” She outlines Clarissa’s drawings in black, and then provides her with a palette of colors to paint. Later, Malu fills in missed spots and adds highlights to give the painting more visual depth.
Clarissa’s artwork is strikingly vivid and bold, depicting faces with open mouths and enormous ears. Malu interprets it as her daughter’s expression of frustration at her inability to talk or hear. “Clarissa is very sensitive. Since she can’t hear, she knows from the expression on you face if you like her or are angry,” she explained.
As Clarissa gets older, Malu admits that it is becoming more difficult to understand her daughter, although they communicate using basic sign language, or to deal with her increasing mood swings. “But it will not make me give up on her,” she asserted. “Maybe God is teaching me something again, leading me to the next level of faith.”
Malu reminisced about her own mother, who passed away when Clarissa was an infant. “She nurtured my talent, too. She was my admirer and my fan,” she recalled. “How she worked with me is how I teach my daughter.”
Passed down from one mother to another and illuminated by a deep faith in God, it is a perfect legacy of love.
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