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Upside down

Magkapatid pala kayo? ’Di halata!” (You two are brothers? I wouldn’t have guessed that!)

His almond eyes are two big, black pearls; mine are but narrow crevices. His neck is short with excess skin at the back; mine earned me the moniker “giraffe.” His flattened nose resembles our proud Malayan forefathers; my proboscis shows the European half of our genealogy.

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Sixteen years and 10 months ago, our own mother wasn’t able to guess it, either—she wouldn’t even believe it to begin with.

“Why did you give us this?” she had complained in embittered silence to the Lord. “I don’t want this!”

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My birth was met with jubilation by the family; his diagnosis bore trepidation.

People hear me speak and shower me with either approval or reprimand; people hear him speak, exclaim how brilliant he is, and whisper to me or my mother: “What was it that he said?” Relatives lionize me as the future of the clan; the same men and women brand him as my burden to carry.

I bore that mentality, too, for as long as I can remember. Growing up to the sight of my mother frying peanuts in the morning so she could take my brother to his not-so-economical therapy clinic in the afternoon, I had always been engrossed in my destiny to take my mother’s place as the eventual guardian of my brother.

This attitude perhaps explains my competitive outlook in life. It was the match that set flame to my rebellious years, from my teenage years to my decision to enter the seminary. My salad days in adolescence were perhaps my subconscious saying “I refuse to work hard for the sole purpose of being his caregiver!”

Am I my brother’s keeper? I answered that by getting barely passing marks in mathematics, once the cherry on top of my excellent academic record. Am I my brother’s keeper? My truancy was the middle finger rammed up my parents’ faces. Am I my brother’s keeper? Wrestling against that notion nearly lost me a prominent scholarship in junior high school.

I resented my brother: Why did he seem to get a free pass at everything? Why was the spotlight always going his way? His hugs and kisses I marked as those of Judas: “What could be his motive for this?”

One evening, after a losing streak in League of Legends, I decided to spend what was left of the time in the computer shop scrolling through Facebook. My news feed’s algorithm was composed mainly of adult magazine models, gaming, NBA, and memes, so it was a great surprise when a non-sponsored page popped up. It was a collection of historical anecdotes about famous and not-so-famous photographs. One of them was a black and white picture of two boys of seemingly Asian descent; one stood barefoot, lips pressed together, and the other was strapped on his back, fast asleep—or so I thought.

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The photo was taken after World War II by Joe O’Donnell, who was sent by the US Armed Forces to cover the aftermath of the war in Japan. O’Donnell’s original description only told the story of a boy who was fighting hard to keep his emotions at bay while “men in white masks” were about to take his brother’s lifeless body off his back for cremation. The creative mind of the Facebook page’s author, however, embellished the story: As a soldier tried to relieve the boy of his “burden,” the boy supposedly replied: “He’s no burden. He’s my brother.”

The effect of this story on me is like the blast of the sun to this day. I can still recall how, for the first time since the Heats got clobbered by the Spurs in 2014, I found myself struggling to keep my tears at bay, lips tightly pressed together, just like the older brother in O’Donnell’s photograph.

It usually took five minutes for me to get from the computer shop to the dormitory. On that night, however, the walk seemed to take an eternity—enough for me to realize that there was no burden in my life. He is no burden, he is my brother.

With my mind purged of prejudice and my heart cleansed of hatred, I realized during that sleepless night that in him I didn’t have a burden but a friend with whom to enjoy the journey of life. He wasn’t a yoke to endure, but a shoulder to cry on when the yoke of life would become too heavy. He wasn’t a cross to bear, but a brother whose infinite kisses and hugs would further strengthen my back to carry my own personal crosses across the finish line.

It’s a sad reality that despite the flood of information available about people with Down syndrome, medieval prejudices about them continue to flourish. They are called “retards” and worse, and their families are subject to talk by the superstitious.

But I am blessed to be a sibling of someone with Down syndrome. I can surely testify that the only human persuasion my brother is incapable of learning is hate, and that the special joy he has brought to our family has turned our grayest frowns upside down.

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Ian Dave A. Gultiano, 18, is a college seminarian from St. Vincent Ferrer Seminary. He spends his free time reading Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Alexander Pope, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, among other authors.

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Visit inqyoungblood.com.ph

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