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Family Album / A weekly profile of a family--its history,
joys and trials, hopes and dreams. : Ariel and Maria
Legasppy

A Healing Love

Born Disfigured, Ariel Legasppy Makes His Way in the World With the Care and Encouragement of the Aunt Who Raised Him

November 08, 1998|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The South Gate City Youth Band marks waning summer and its golden anniversary with a spirited selection of Main Street marches before easing into a medley of Sinatra classics. Ariel Legasppy's silver trumpet catches splinters of light as he raises it to his lips and stands to face the audience.

"I did it my way," the song goes, and Ariel, 16, closes his eyes, the voice of his horn cool, full and smooth--like Sinatra himself. Music fills Ariel. It is the language of his heart, revealing that part of him less visible than the scars of four surgeries.

He was born with eyes too far apart, ears folded forward, one lower than the other. As an infant, sutures on his skull cap fused prematurely, requiring surgery to allow his brain to grow normally. His forehead remains flat, and while further surgery could round it out, he isn't sure it would be worth it.

The most prominent scar runs from ear to ear over the top of his head, but the more painful scars are within, close to his heart and his music. Throughout his life, he has been called names, stared at, tormented in the cruelest ways. He wonders whether people would say and do such things if they understood the devastation they caused.

Sometimes the most painful words are those expressed in whispers, and

in such hushed tones Ariel has heard others speculate that his physical peculiarities were punishment from God. Could they be right? he wondered as a child. Could even God be against him?

"I've always asked myself why a person like me would be born like this," Ariel says. "I'm not that religious or anything, but I think there's always challenges in life, and this is my challenge. If I meet this challenge, everything else in life is going to be easier for me. This will be my biggest challenge."

That he now looks in the mirror and sees someone whole and good is a tribute, he says, to family, for it is family that has given him courage and hope, strong arms to wrap himself in, a soft lap for comfort.

A family need not be big to be strong, and as Ariel stands on stage performing his Sinatra solo, he plays for the one person who has always been there for him. Maria Legasppy, Ariel's aunt, stands completely still next to the punch bowl, her hands clasped together beneath her chin.

When Ariel was a baby, he, his mother and Maria shared a house. It was Maria who switched to the graveyard shift, so she could be with him during the days. As he grew older, she took him to doctors' appointments, met with teachers to demand measures be taken when students teased him; and when no one else was there to tell him he was beautiful, Maria was. The two of them became a family even before Maria gained custody.

"There were times when I wished I was never born," Ariel says. "But she would always tell me to be strong, that I'm here for a reason, to prove that a person like me can make something of myself. So I've tried to be strong, because she was always strong."

Maria cheers as Ariel ends his solo and bows to the audience. An august pride washes over him, a fullness that comes at the end of a long stretch in a steep, uphill climb.

A Purpose in Life

Ariel changed Maria in so many ways. With his peculiar smile and his desperate need and eventually with his courage, he brought purpose and meaning to her life.

"He is the biggest gift I have ever received," she says. "He's the only thing that I have."

When Ariel's mother remarried and left, Ariel, then 11, opted to stay with Maria, who eventually gained custody and raised him as her own. His father, Maria's brother, lives in Las Vegas, and while Ariel says he feels close to him, they rarely see each other.

Maria describes Ariel's childhood through a series of photographs taken before and after surgeries to document his transformation. In all of them, she sees only beauty.

It hadn't even occurred to Ariel that he looked different until it was pointed out to him in the most piercing way. When he started preschool, he didn't understand why children were laughing at him and saying that he looked like a frog.

He asked Maria, and in her heart she seethed and cried.

"Don't listen to them," she said. She contacted school officials demanding that measures be taken to eliminate such taunting. Just to make sure, she sometimes would drive around and around the school, waiting for recess, then lunch, so she could wave to Ariel when he entered the playground and assure herself he was OK.

"The kindergarten teacher made me stop," she says, "She said Ariel was not playing with the other children because he was only paying attention to me."

When Ariel was 10, Maria took him to Disneyland. They were standing in line for the Matterhorn when they heard the couple behind them whispering: "Look how ugly he is." "He looks like ET." "He must be an alien." Ariel and Maria pretended not to hear.

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