Lawrence and Maggie had been married for 58 years. They first met when they worked together in a large department store. Lawrence had just gotten out of the navy where he had served on the USS Wisconsin during the Korean War. The day Lawrence saw Maggie step off the bus in front of the store it was love at first sight. For her it was not quite so fast. After working near each other for several days Lawrence was convinced she was absolutely perfect. He loved everything about her. She, on the other hand, had been hurt before, and she now found it difficult to trust men. But over the next six months they began to date, and she started to feel differently about him. She soon realized that he was a gentle and caring man, and Lawrence began to think that Maggie was the person he wanted to marry. Although it took some convincing, she finally said yes, and in June of 1953 they became Mr. and Mrs. Curtis. She was 20 and he was 22.
Everyone agreed that they were made for each other. They were considered to be the perfect couple. They would finish each other’s sentences. They liked the same food, the same movies and they both loved to dance. They started building a world together that they knew they wanted to share for the rest of their lives. They had talked often about having children, and they were happy to discover that they both wanted a big family. They decided after a year of marriage to go ahead and see if they could have a child. Within a few months they got the good news. Maggie and Lawrence could not have been happier. They decided that if it was a boy they would call him William, and if it was a girl she would be Lisa.
The pregnancy was uneventful, and in the early morning hours of March 7, 1955 Maggie went into labor. At first everything seemed fine, but as the hours dragged on the situation deteriorated. During delivery it was discovered that the umbilical cord was wrapped around William’s neck causing him to suffer from severe oxygen deprivation. It seemed to take forever for the nurse to bring their baby to them and when she finally did she told them that the doctor would be in soon to talk to them about “the problem”. Maggie and Lawrence were scared, but they couldn’t help falling in love with the precious little boy that had been handed to them. In their eyes he was beautiful. His tiny fingers and toes were perfect. He had lots of dark hair and his wrinkled face made them laugh. They had a beautiful son and now they were truly a family.
When the doctor walked in, Lawrence tried to read the expression on his face, but it was emotionless. Maggie sensed that she was about to hear something awful, and she held on tightly to William. The doctor simply said, “I am sorry to have to tell you this, but your child is going to be severely retarded”. Lawrence flinched and turned to look at Maggie. She was staring at the doctor with a cold hard stare of determination. “I don’t care what you say, our son is beautiful.” The doctor looked at the chart in his hands and began to speak in a way that made it clear that he had given this response many times before. “Yes, he looks fine, but he was without oxygen and his brain has been damaged. I think the effect will be profound. I do not anticipate him ever having anything close to a normal life. He probably won’t speak and he may never walk. He will be a burden to both of you for however long he lives.” The doctor paused and cleared his throat. “I would not try to raise him yourselves. There are institutions were he can be placed that are especially designed to help his kind. Of course the choice is up to you, but in my professional opinion you would be better off letting him live out his life among others who are retarded so that you can live your own lives.”
The rage that began to build inside of Lawrence made him tremble. In a voice he was barely able to control he said, “Get out.” The doctor shrugged, “It is your life, but don’t be guided by your emotions. Try to think logically because…” Lawrence cut him off, “I said get out!” The doctor nodded and quickly stepped out into the hallway. For a moment the room was filled with stunned silence. Maggie and Lawrence were both trying to absorb the shock of the doctor’s words. Finally Maggie firmly said, “I am not giving up our baby. Please tell me you feel the same way.” Lawrence began to sense the crushing pressure that someone experiences when their world has been torn apart. “Of course I want to keep him with us, but what if the doctor is right? What if it is more than we can handle? What if there are other medical complications?” Lawrence hesitated, “What if – I’m not a good enough father?” Tears began to stream down Maggie’s face. “Lawrence, you are the kindest, most thoughtful, most considerate man I’ve ever met. You will be an amazing father. We will handle this together, and we will take each day as it comes. As long as we love each other we will find the strength to do what is needed to give William the best life he can possibly have.” In the midst of all the confusion and disappointment he was feeling, Lawrence was suddenly overwhelmed by how fortunate he was to have found Maggie in this life.
In the 1950’s the decision to place a child who was developmentally disabled in an institution was made by many couples because they innocently thought it was actually the best choice. In those days people tended to take a doctor’s opinion as gospel. It didn’t even occur to them that they could be getting bad advice. They just assumed that the medical profession knew what they were talking about – but it didn’t work that way for Lawrence and Maggie. It was not an option they could even consider. In their minds they had created a human life, and he was their responsibility. He was not going to be passed along for someone else to raise. He was not going to be considered a lifelong burden. He was not going to be hidden away and forgotten about. Instead he was going to be loved. He was going to be their son.
In the following years Maggie tried three more times to have another baby, but each pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. William would be their only child. Over the next five decades Lawrence and Maggie experienced the highs and the lows of raising a child with a disability. But no matter what life threw at them, they had each other. They weathered every storm together. They savored the victories that occurred in William’s life and they held onto each other during the struggles. As he matured, William developed at his own pace. It took a while but he eventually became quite a talker with an opinion on everything. And he not only learned to walk he was active in Special Olympics. He eventually received an education and held various jobs; however, he always chose to live with his parents. William had no desire to live independently. At home he knew he was loved, he was cared for and he was protected. The thought of not seeming his mom and dad each day made him feel bad.
When it came to thinking about the future it always centered on William. Every so often Maggie would bring up the delicate subject of what would happen to William when they could no longer care for him – but Lawrence always hated talking about it. It was just too painful to think about. Although he knew it was part of his responsibility as a parent to provide for his son after their deaths, he always put off making a decision. In his heart Lawrence had always hoped that he would die first so that way he would never have to live without Maggie. He knew it was selfish, but he was convinced that it would be better for William to be with his mother. Lawrence knew that after he was gone Maggie would do the right thing concerning their son.
As the years went by and Lawrence and Maggie looked back on their lives, they knew they had made the right decision for them and their son. If William had been institutionalized they would have missed so much joy and so much adventure. Every day had been a challenge, but each day also had its own reward. Lawrence and Maggie shared a bond that few married couples got to experience. They had committed their lives to each other while making tremendous sacrifices so that their son could live the best life possible and have the opportunity to become the person they knew he could be. Maggie and Lawrence found strength in each other, and their love had never wavered.
They had known from the beginning that they wanted to grow old together – and so they did. In their retirement years they were able to spend even more time together. They doted on each other and generally acted like two school kids in love instead of a couple in their early 80’s. Of course time had taken its inevitable toll. They were somewhat frail and they both had their share of health scares, but overall life was good – and from time to time Lawrence still delighted Maggie by sweeping her up in his arms and slowly dancing with her.
But finally their journey together began to slowly come to an end, and one afternoon the dancing stopped forever. Lawrence had gone to pick up William at the end of his work day. Maggie had worried that her husband was getting too old to drive, but he just didn’t feel comfortable when his son rode the bus. They walked into the living room and Maggie stared at them blankly. Lawrence rushed to her asking, “Honey, what’s wrong?” but she didn’t respond. Her eyes did not focus on him – she didn’t seem to be aware of anything. Terrified, Lawrence rushed her to the emergency room. For the next five days Maggie underwent a battery of tests and finally the stage four brain tumor was discovered.
It only took eight weeks for the cancer to claim Maggie’s life. Every effort was made to keep her as pain free as possible. During those two months she moved back and forth between being completely lucid and then having her mind enveloped by the darkness of the tumor. During the periods when she was able to recognize her loved ones she and Lawrence would reminisce, focusing on the many good times in their lives – and they finally made a decision about William. It was decided that once Lawrence could no longer care for him, their son would move in with Maggie’s youngest sister and her husband, both of whom adored William. As Maggie’s memory began to fade they both knew the end was near, and they didn’t want to waste a single precious second they had left with each other. They laughed and they cried as they revisited the moments that had defined their lives together. They each expressed their admiration for the other, and they both made sure they conveyed the depth of their love and devotion.
When Maggie’s final hour arrived Lawrence and William were at her side. As she slipped in and out of consciousness they quietly stroked her hair and held her hand. She could no longer speak, but she seemed to know they were with her. Thankfully she was not in pain. As her breathing slowed the nurse told them it wouldn’t be long. William could not hold back his tears as he said goodbye to his mother for the last time. It broke his heart to think she was actually dying, and it was difficult for him to believe that his mother was really leaving them for good. His parents had been inseparable, but now that was coming to an end. His father’s grief was painful to watch. The man who had seemed so strong all of his life now seemed broken. Thoughtfully, other family members led William out of the room so that he wouldn’t see the very end. Lawrence was left alone with Maggie. His worst nightmare had come true. She was going to leave him, and he was powerless to do anything about it. He sat and looked at her face thinking about the first time he saw her step off the bus six decades before. To him she still looked just as beautiful as she did that day. He wondered how the years had gotten away from them, but now he knew they were out of time. As he softly sobbed, Lawrence gently hugged her and leaning down to her ear he whispered “I love you, Maggie. We will be together forever.”
A few moments later it was over. For eighty-one years Maggie had led a courageous life. She had been a wonderful wife, a loving mother and a passionate advocate for her son and others with intellectual challenges. Even in death she had been brave. There are different criteria that can be used to judge a human life but perhaps the best way is to simply consider whether the world is a better place because a person lived. For Maggie Curtis the answer was an overwhelming yes. The world was a profoundly better place because she had made the relentless effort to support her son against all odds during his lifetime, and she had been the perfect partner to Lawrence, the man she adored with all her heart. Together they had spent their lives showing the world what love and commitment really meant.