Marina in the middle
Croatian mother Draga Manenica was not able to see or hold her third child when she was born and knew something was wrong.
It was in 1977, almost 43 years ago, a different time when having a baby with Down Syndrome was confronting even for medical staff.
“After one or two days the doctors told me Marina had Down Syndrome,” Draga said.
“I started to cry. I didn’t know what that was so it was a shock. So I asked God, please help me to accept this.
“If you don’t accept these things, it’s not good for you and not good for your child. It’s not easy but you must.”
Draga and husband Jure had only recently moved from Melbourne to Canberra, where Draga’s sister lived. Today her sister has 11 children and Draga and Jure have seven.
Hard working migrants, Jure would leave home early each morning for his construction job and return at 3pm to mind the children as Draga set off to clean offices, to bring in extra money.
Life is calmer now with Draga in her early 70s and Jure his early 80s. The proud pair have forged a family fired by love, with Marina at its centre.
“Isn’t she gorgeous?” boasts Draga, wrapping her arms around Marina. “Down Syndrome children are lovely. If you give them love, they give you back double.
“I got pregnant with Ana soon after Marina was born and the doctor asked me if I wanted to have the test for Down Syndrome.
“I said why would I have the test because I would never abort my child. It was hard when Marina was young and I had the other children but you don’t complain.”
Draga chuckles as she recalls Marina’s pranks as a youngster such as the time she lost one of her new handmade shoes in the supermarket.
“Marina was in the trolley and I was going up and down the aisles to find the shoe,” Draga said.
“Then Marina pointed to the freezer section. I opened one of the freezer doors to discover Marina’s shoe inside!”
Sending people cards is one of Marina’s favorite pastimes. Occasionally Draga has to settle Marina’s account at the post office as Marina hands over cards to post with insufficient postage.
“Marina is the boss,” older sister Paulina laughs.
“Down Syndrome people love people. Every Sunday we have a family lunch and one time I couldn’t make it and it was like the world had ended for Marina. She loves the family being together and rings to check we are coming.”
Marina’s weekly routine includes one day a week as a volunteer at the University of Canberra childcare centre and two days at community group Koomarri in Belconnen. Marina takes the bus and adores the children.
There is daily Mass with Mum at St Thomas Aquinas in Charnwood and a weekly keyboard lesson.
All of the activities are on hold due to the pandemic so the family have encircled Marina to keep her company and take her for walks.
“Marina has a tendency to get depressed so we are more attentive to her needs,” Paulina said.
“Marina and Mum pray a lot together and Marina loves music too. It soothes her.
“The silver lining is that we are all connecting better as a family. We need to go back to basics and enjoy time with family and that is what we are doing with Marina very much in the centre.”