Rick and Karen Santorum Get Raw and Revealing In New Book, “Bella’s Gift”

Rick and Bella Santorum. (Santorum family)
Rick and Bella Santorum. (Santorum family)

Santorums’ new book reveals how faith and love are tested by a daughter’s disability

Over and over, Rick Santorum has watched the old video of himself at a presidential candidate forum in Iowa. He can read in his strained expression the struggle that was going on in his mind as he tried to figure out how to answer a challenge put to the Republican contenders: “Bare your soul.”

The shadow on Santorum’s soul was the memory of a time when he hadn’t loved his own child as a father should. Could there be a more grievous sin for a champion of the pro-life movement?

When his turn came to speak, the former senator from Pennsylvania choked on tears and described the birth of his youngest, Isabella Maria Santorum. She has an extra 18th chromosome in every cell of her body, a condition deemed by doctors to be “incompatible with life.”

Until Bella was 5 months old and near death on a gurney in an emergency room, Santorum said, he had deluded himself into believing that “the best thing I could do was to treat her differently and not love her” as he had his six older children.

He had put up his guard, convinced “it wouldn’t hurt as much if I lost her. I remember holding that finger, looking at her and realizing what I had done,” he said. “I had seen her as less of a person.”

The 2,500 religious and social conservatives who were in that Des Moines church three years ago sat in silence, captivated.

Which was not the reaction at his home in Virginia, where his wife was nursing Bella through another harrowing weekend.

Karen Santorum was livid that Rick had violated their agreement to keep the details of their disabled daughter’s condition out of the glare of his 2012 presidential campaign. Worse was the clumsiness with which he had done it.

“That is what was so hurtful. He expressed it in a way that it could be misinterpreted as him not loving Bella, when in fact he did, but he was grieving in the way that he did because he was deflecting,” Karen recalled in an interview alongside her husband.

The Santorums have written a raw and revealing book, “Bella’s Gift,” to be released on Tuesday. The couple say it was intended as a guide for other families in their situation, providing the type of support that they often found lacking.

“By accident, it’s almost a marriage book,” Karen added. “We didn’t sugarcoat anything. We just said it the way it was.”

Theirs has been a shared journey, but one in which they initially found themselves on different paths.

The Santorums each started with a different interpretation of God’s will. Hers was a conviction that providence had put a challenge before them, one that they should fight to overcome. His was an acceptance that it was out of their hands, and that they should come to terms with that.

He was out of step with others in his family as well. There was the time that Rick and his teen daughter, Elizabeth, were putting together a crib for newborn Bella. Rick told Elizabeth to save the box, in case they needed it to send the bed back to the store, because “we just don’t know how long Bella is going to be here.”

He wrote: “I wish I could take those words back, because I’ll never forget the way she looked at me, as though I had not only hurt her but condemned Bella myself. My feisty Lizzie grabbed the box and tore it up as she started to cry.”

“Bella’s Gift” is an un­or­tho­dox volume to put out as Santorum gears up for a second presidential bid.

It is not a campaign manifesto with 10-point policy proposals or grand visions for his party. And it is somewhat off-message, given Santorum’s declaration that he will pivot from social issues to economic ones for 2016.

The book takes him back to old territory — the morality of abortion — which is an option chosen by many facing what their family did.

“Bella gave me the ability to talk about the dignity of every human life without talking about abortion, because there is a bigger issue,” Rick said.

The Santorums wrote their chapters separately, often late at night in their bedroom. Karen got the desktop, leaving Rick to work on the laptop.

As of last week, he still hadn’t read some of the sections she wrote, not wanting to expose himself again to the feelings of that time. “It’s just hard. It’s tough to read sometimes. But I’ve read most of it,” he said.

Bella’s disorder, Trisomy 18, is a rarer, more lethal cousin of Down syndrome. Only half of those born with it survive a week; fewer than 1 in 10 make it to their first birthday.

Bella’s seventh birthday is three months away.

She will never walk on her own, or speak intelligibly, or dress and bathe herself. Yet Bella is a sunny child, a delight to her parents and doting siblings, Karen said. “She has a beautiful, joyful life. She is the happiest little girl I have ever seen.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Karen Tumulty and Colby Itkowitz

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