My brother, who is 29 and has been mentally retarded since birth, took a day off from work this summer to marry the girl of his dreams.
The marriage of Roger Drake Meyers and Virginia Rae Hensler 26, who has also been retarded since the day she was born, took place in the sun-speckled nave of a suburban California church. The groom, a busboy in a local restaurant, wore a three-piece black suit and a flower in his lapel.
The bride, who is studying to be a housekeeper, wore a white satin wedding gown with a three-foot train and carried a bouquet of daises and baby's breath flowers.
As the church organist played Mendelsohn's wedding music, flower girls strewed rose petals ahead of the bride, who was presented by her brother, a physician. The guests numbered several hundred, including family, frieds, and community acquaintances.
That the marriage could have taken place - wife I.Q's around 70, both my brother and his wife and in the borderline category of retardation - dramatically illustrates the changes that have occured in the past few decades in the field of mental-retardation and how experts now deal with people of limited intelligence.
As recently as 10 or 15 years ago these two persons probably would not have been able to marry, according to authorities.
Instead, they would have been warehoused in large state facilities, sterillized without their consent, frequently drugged for easy institutional care, allowed little or not contact with the "outside" world, and never encouraged to reach their own potential. There would have been few counselors to help them, and little or no state or federal money for their support and well-being.
Today, they are married, live in their own appartment, hold part-time jobs, receive about $450 each month in government aid in addition to their salaries, go out to local restaurants, and complain about high prices. In part because of their exposure to these "normalizing experiences, their I.Q's have risen sharply, in Roger's case from 50 - or only trainable - to 74 - considered at the top of the educable scale.
"Getting married is like coming out of retardation," Roger told the minister in the small office where we waited before the ceremony. "I'm worried about being able to take care of Roger for the rest of our lives," Virginia said, as she checked in her dressing room a few adoors away to make sure she was wearing something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (she was).
"Being retarded means it's twice as hard showing people how we are, that we can live the normal people. We're not that dumb, we're just slowiminded is all. You can see how fare we've come," Virginia said before the wedding.
Her retardation occurred on May 25, 1951, when a physician injured her head with his forceps as he wrestled her from her mother's body. "It was like a tug of war, my momma says," Virginia related.
As a result, Virginia's left side is weaker than her right side. She has a speech impediment, limps, has scoliosis (or curvature of the spine), and is partially blind in one eye.
"It's difficult having handicaps," she said. "I had to practice making myself understood. And I would be scared to do thing, like swimming, until Roger came along and told me not to worry, that I wouldn't sink because God was holding me up."
She sat in a chair in Roger's apartment the week before the wedding, her legs crossed at the ankles, handbag by her side, using the social graces she had spent so long in learning. "But I don't like to talk about it (the reasons for her retardation) because it makes me cry," she said.
Roger's retardation was caused by "a lack of oxygen," he said, repeating the information our parents had repeated to him. "It was when I was being born, and there was some problem, and not enough oxygen went to my brain."
His hands, proportionately small for his body, fluttered abstractly as he talked. "So I don't like to say that I have brain damage, but just that I lost some oxygen when I was born. I used to ask my dad why they couldn't use a tube or something to give me more oxygen, but he said he didn't know."
Each of them learned this definition of themselves late in life. "I was 21 retarded," Roger said. "I didn't know what he meant. All the special education classes I'd been in, I thought that was normal. I got mad and I said, 'No, no."
Virginia was told she was retarded when she was 15. "It was shocking. All that time I thought I was normal. I was shaking. I asked my mother and she said yes and then it was true."
Neither likes the term, "I don't like being labeled 'retarded'. People look at you funny. We're slow-minded, whic is why I like the simple life, but we're no different than anyone else," she said, Roger nodded in agreement.
In the step-by-step world of the slow-minded, where simple procedures like cooking take months to learn and complicated ones like making change take years, they and the 6.3 million other retarded Americans are now being encouraged to grab on to as much of life as they can.
Because of her traumatic birth, Virginia's special needs were noticed at once. She spent the first 18 months in a hospital, and then she began living in the firs of several private facilities for the retarded. Her father, a wealthy physician, paid her fees. When she was 15 she moved to the West Coast facility where she and Roger met six years ago.
Roger came home from the New York hospital a week after he was born, and his retardation not suspected until he was six months old. Roger lived with our parents until he was 22, with the exception of an 18-month stay in an institution where he was miserable: "The kids were rough and the people weren't nice," he said.
Then he was accepted at the nonprofit California residential facility where he lived in a unit with 25 other retarded children and adults. He lived there for six years and met Virginia there, moving last year to an appartment of his own in the community. Virginia also eventually moved into an apartment of her own, and each is still supervised by state social workers.
We met at the bunny rabbit," Roger said, mentioning a crafts exhibit at their residential facility where they literally bumped into each other seven literally bumped into each then, I've called her my 'bunny'."
The nonprofit facility, owned by a branch of the Lutheran church, cares for children and adults whose mental handicaps, sometimes compounded by physical handicaps, range from those so several that individuals can do little more than feed themselves, to the borderline retarded who, like Roger and Virginia, can with minimal supervision lead relatively independent lives.
At the time they met, however - Roger was 22, Virginina was 20 - they did not lead independent lives, and their activities often consisted of watching television all day, or playing their records, or doing little more than simply being at the facility.
It was a safe, secure world, with meals, entertainment, social and recreation programs available. But it was also a world that was too restrictive for them.
"We didn't have any privacy, we couldn't visit each other without the door being open. It was as if they (the supervisors) didn't trust us," Roger said.
Roger soon proposed - on his knees - to Virginia. "That's what normal people do when they get old enough," he said later. "They get married and have a home of their own."
But Virginia overwhelmed by the complexities that marriage would entail, urged that they wait.
Beyond their desire, however, they were little prepared for marriage. They could read words, but they stumbled over concepts. Neither could sort out bus routes, bank accounts, deal with shopping, or other simple but essential tasks. Their personal hygiene was good, but each had a tendency to get violenty angry.
These were (and remain) difficulties in physical coordination, and each had an innocence that has on occasion allowed them to be exploited by others. They knew about sex, but had no idea of contraception. They each believed that it is the duty of a married couple to have children, and refused for almost six years to believed that they would not to able to properly raise any child they might conceive. Because neither is congenitally retarded, their offspring would more than likely be of normal intelligence.
"But they also had, especially Roger, a tremendous desire to change," according to Dennis Martin, one of their counselors.
Roger had worked in various sheltered workshop situations, earning as little as 65 cents an hour for work that involved assembling packages of mechanical parts, or stuffing envelops - jobs that on the whole do not exist outside the sheltered workshop environment.
But Roger, who wrote poetry, thought he could earn his living as a poet. Or as an artists. Or as a toymaker. Or as a teacher, since he had worked as a teacher's aide at the residential facility.
Although our parents did not feel that he could handle the responsibilities of marriage, they told Roger - almost as a stalling tactic - that he could not get married until he could support himself at a real job. He should not just "daydream" about being a poet or toymaker.
So five years ago, Roger slipped away from a group of other retarded people during one of the group's weekly outings to a bowling alley and applied for a busboy's job at a local restaurant. Seven months after applying, he was hired.
"He needs a certain amount of understanding that I don't extend to the other employees, but I don't give him any special attention," said Warren Mays, the restaurant manager. "The entire restaurant runs around the work of the busboys. If they're slow, we don't move the customers in and out, the waitresses don't get enough in tips, and we lose money. If he goofs off I take him in a corner and talk to him."
Roger has always been a part-time employee, working in the restaurant's bar, a physically small area in which he felt comfortable. Last June he asked for a chance to work in the much larger main dining room.
"The cat said he was getting married and that he needed the extra money," Mays shrugged. "There was a lot of opposition at first. The girls thought he couldn't handle it, that he would get too nervous. But I saw it as a clear case of prejudice, not of color, but of kind. He's retarded, but so what? He took care of people in the bar, maybe he can take care of people in the main room."
The experiment worked, Mays said.
"He goes up to customers and says, 'Hi, my name is Roger and I'm your busboy,' something he gets from the waitresses. That helps our image. He hustles from table to table and sometimes that bustray weighs 24 pounds. And look at the way he sets things - the napkins are straight, and he wipes the crumbs into his tray, and not into the seat."
If a heart can ever be said to be bursting with pride, mine nearly burst shortly after talking with Mays when I watched Roger work the main room. Wearing his red busboy's coat, and black pants, he filled the water glasses, filled the coffee cups, lugged that busboy's tray into the kitchen, and then in May's phrase, "kept on trucking."
"After I bawled him out once for getting too friendly with the bar customers for getting too slow on his cleanup, I started getting telephone calls from people volunteering to me what a wonderful busboy that guy is." Mays recalled "Then Roger came up to me and asks me if I've been hearing anything about his work from the customers, and when I said yes, his face broke out into a big grin. I thought, 'Why you little fox, you asked them to call me'"
He has one other working trait: when he feels pressure, he leaves the serving areas and disappers into the men's room for as long as an hour. It is his way to calm down.
The waitress he works with in the bar, Toni Frazier, say she has developed a simple solution to that: "I just march into the bathroom and say, 'Roger, you come right on out here, we're busy as sin and I can't get along without you.' If he ever quits I'll probabily quit, too." I love him.
Once he got his restaurant job, Roger volunteered as a teacher's aide in the facility where he lived.
"Twenty years ago I couldn't do arithmetic. I couldn't carry numbers," he said. "But at home I worked hard at it, and now I can."
In his living room is a portable blackboard on which such exercises as 56 plus 3 equal 59 are written out by him in chalk. "I taught myself to do that," he said proudly, showing off some elementary school math books which our parents bought for him.
"In another 20 years I'll know even more, and I can teach others to do simple division," he said.
"Is that like subtraction?" Virginia asked.
"No it's the opposite of multiplication," he said.
Roger especially members two of his "pupils" from his teacher's aide job. Lionel, a severely retarded man in his 40's, couldn't write his name very well. "I held his hand and showed him how to write it," Roger said.
(Lionel took one entire eight-inch-wide page in Roger's and Virginia's wedding guest book to carefully - and very proudly - print his first name.)
Virginia worked for a while in a sheltered workshops, doing piecemeal work, but that job ended when a grant ran out. Never as outwardly motivated as Roger, she devoted her time to preparing herself emotionally for a wedding that only the two of them believed would ever take place.
"We helped each other," she said. "Roger gets nervous, and jiggles his leg a lot, and I would tell him, 'You're making me nervous, honey.' And I'd remind him to do hit i's when writing, and tell him when he wasn't pronouncing words correctly," she recalled.
She also began working on speaking, without a nasal whine to her voice that is one of the legacies of the accident at her birth. She began to think about menu planning and practiced saving the few dollars she earned every month, telling her mother that now she had earned four dollars, and could she please get married?
Roger and Virginia has arguments, and didn't speak for days on end, Roger had a violent temper, and learned through the growing force of his will to control it. Virginia stopped mothering him.
They devloped habits spawned of familiarity: he started a sentence, she completed it. She noded towards something, and he knew what she meant.
They developed a personal dignity others had never know in them before. They held hands. They kissed goodnight (when no one was looking). They took themselves seriously while no one else did. And they exhibited a growing self confidence.
Once they were taking a walk together, and an angry neighborhood dog raced up to them, barking furiously. Virginia was literally paralyzed with fear. Roger, not knowing what else to do, started barking back. The dog turned tail and ran.
"In many ways Roger and Virginia are victims of the system," said Bill Stein, the former counselor who worked most closely with them, and who traveled all day by bus to attend their wedding. "They have labels on them. They're 'retarded,' so they're not supposed to learn. We tell them, 'You'll do wonderfully, but only at this level.' No one ever talked to them, so no one ever knew what they couldn do," he said.
In the world they had known for most of their lives, keeping busy was a daily occupation, and some of their friends had epileptic fits, or screaming nightmares. But ouside, new ideas of dealing with the retarded were being tested. Most prominent among them was the concept of "normalization" - helping the retarded lead as common a life as possible.
These ideas filtered down to their residential facility, which in the early 1970s put up small apartment complexes on its campus, with mentally handicapped people such as Roger and Virginia by themselves, living in indivdiual apartments, with counselors in residence on each floor.
After several years there, where they learned to wash dishes, budgets, vacuum, shop, and perform many of the other chores of daily life which they had never been permitted to try before, they were moved out into the "normal" community with half a dozen other retarded adults.
"They are our best tenants," said Anita Tracy, manager of a typical 215-unit apartment complex where five appartments are rented to borderline retardates including Roger and Virginia.
"This is their big chance," she said, "and they're very conscientious. They pay the rent at least one day ahead of time. They go out and mingle with the other tenants around the pool or at the laundry room and talk about soap powder. Things like that."
Her husband Charles saw renting to retarded individuals as simply a matter of dealing with yet another minority group. "It was like when we rented to black people," he said. "I watched them (Roger and Virginia) and the other tenants like a hawk. But there was no reaction. No one pays attention to them. We don't do it to be good, we do it because it's good business."
There are problems. "They get upset when the little things go wrong, when the garbage disposal doesn't work," Anita Trscy said. "Roger forgot his doorkey so many times we suggested he wear a key ring on his belt, which he does."
It is not a carefree existence for Roger and Virginia. With every step of independence requiring a major exercise in logistics, there are problems. When Roger needed a place to store a package of meat once, he put it in his cupboard. Our mother found it there some time later, and the horror of what it smelled like still lingers in her mind.
Roger was cooking pancakes once when he decided to watch a TV show. So he left the pancakes cooking and sat down before the television. A neighboor saw smoke pouring out of Roger's living room window and called the fire apartment. Roger was fascinated as the red engines raced up, wondering what they were doing. After all, he recalled, there was smoke, but no fire.
As a child Roger showed a vivid sense of color in freehand oil paintings he did at school.As a teen-ager his patience allowed him to make accurate pencil drawings of buildings and street scenes. So, nearly independent, in his 20's, he enrolled in one of those "art schools" advertised on the inside covers of match books.
The cost - $425 for the course - was far beyond Roger's ability to pay, a point he had never considered. Our father got him out of that one, and though Roger did not protest too much, it was clear he would have preferred staying enrolled in the course.
Such incidents are stepts in his laborious learning process. But they are mistakes he no longer makes.
The stress of independence created in him a normal response to anxiety - he overeats. Hot dogs, hamburgers, pie with ice cream, extra cream in the coffee - if it is fattening he discovers it. He gained 25 pounds shortly after moving out of his restricted environment and into his semi-independent living quarters at the facility. He gained another 25 pounds shortly after moving into his own apartment outside the facility.
In the three weeks before the wedding he dieted, exercised - and lost 30 pounds.
His $914-a-month apartment (which he now shares with his wife), is decorated with reminders of the known and familiar. There are pictures of music groups, the Beatles and the Bay City Rollers, and he has record albums featuring Elvis' Golden Hits and the original Mickey Mouse Club. There are dozens of school books, wooden toys he makes in the wood-working class he attends at night, the blackboard on which he practices the carrying of numbers in addition - a process that took him 20-years to master.
While their parents were convinced it would be years before the marriage would take place - if ever - Roger and Virginia had an engagement ring made from an inexpensive pearl he had won in an amusement park, and Roger was paying $240 for two wedding bands at the rate of $20 a week. Virginia's mother had agreed despite her doubts to buy her a wedding dress for her "trousseau" although Virginia didn't know what that was. They had set their wedding for Easter Sunday.
At that point, with the parents clutching their fears, the counselors took over.
Marriage was their legal and moral right, Bill Stein, their chief counselor told them. But could they handle the responsibility? Both thought they could. What about children? They wanted them, very badly, as if parenthood would be the final sign that they are like everyone else.
Stein and the other counselors, took them to a private home to change diapers on a new-born baby, told them about midnight feedings and childhood diseases. "We didn't make the decision for them, but we showed some of the problems they might have," stein said.
Giving up their dream of children was one of the hardest things for them to do. "But what if the kid came home from school and asked us for help and we douldn't help him, what would he think of us then?" she noted.
They reluctantly decided not to thave children, and like millions of other people, chose a standard method of avoiding conception.
The wedding date was the next matter. Things were moving too quickly, at least for Virginia's family, who live nearly 1,000 miles away and were not up on all their plans. The date was changed to June 18.
There were wedding invitations mailed out to relatives in Indiana, Arizona, California, Washington, D.C. and invitations handed out to people in their community who see them every day: the bus driver whose route takes him near their home, the clerk form the bank where they have a savings account, the waitresses from the restaurant, the manager of their apartment building.
Several dozen retarded friends from the residential facility where they had formerly lived, some of them in wheelchairs, others who giggle all the time, were also invited.
And nearly everyone who was invited attended.
The day of the wedding there were consultations with the maid of honor (Virginia's sister-in-law), and the best man (this nervous reporter). Panic over the delay in the arrival of the flowers. The arrival of the flowers. And then, finally, the magnificent strains of Mendelssohn's Wedding March, and the ceremony itself.
Pastor Ed Svendsen, who has known them both for years, told the couple at the altar and the congregants that a spring wedding was appropriate for a couple who had grown so much. Roger cued him, sotto voce, to mention that getting married for them was like coming out of regardation. Svendsen mentioned it.
Roger cued him, Sotto voce, to mention that Virginia had brown eyes, like the eyes of the bunny rabbit, around whose image they had first met. Svendsen mentioned it. Svendsen then decided to lead the congregation in prayer.
Then vows were exchanged, the wedding rings taken off the white satin pillow and placed on waiting fingers, and Svendsen pronounced them married in the eyes of the Father, and Son, and the Holy Spirit.
After a reception there was a twoday honeymoon at a fancy beach-front hotel, whose management was never told anything other than that a "honeymoon couple" was arriving, but who soon found out in no uncertain terms that the new Mrs. Meyers didn't like their inside room, and changed it for them the next day so they had a view of the sea.
After the honeymoon the couple returned home, where they are receiving friends.
Tomorrow: The emotional cost rearing a retarded son.