Joe and Rosa Blair Find Marriage Is a Loving Refuge from a Perplexing World

updated 09/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At 7:30 in the morning amid the smell of freshly brewed coffee and the sizzle of frying bacon, Joe Blair is cooking breakfast. In the middle of his preparations, he notices that his wife, Rosa, has not yet emerged from the bedroom of their small Illinois apartment. Spatula in hand, he walks down the hall. "Are you okay?" he calls nervously into the bedroom. "Yes," she answers. A moment later, Rosa appears. She points disapprovingly at Joe's unbuttoned shirt sleeves, which are dangling dangerously close to the stove's hot burners. Dutifully, Joe rolls up the sleeves and continues cooking. As they eat he reaches over to rub Rosa's knee. "I take good care of you," he says. She pats his arm and offers a gentle correction: "We take good care of each other."

It is a simple, even boring, domestic scene, but for Joe and Rosa Blair it represents a triumph over staggering handicaps. Both Joe and Rosa are mentally retarded. Joe, 25, has an IQ of 76 (100 is considered average), and although he can read a few words and do simple arithmetic with the aid of a calculator, such tasks as shopping or paying bills leave him flustered. Joe also has a psychological problem—a history of impulsive petty theft—that has cost him a couple of jobs. Rosa, 31, has an IQ of 74, and although she is fluent in both Spanish and English, can neither read nor write. To compound that handicap, she also suffers from violent epileptic seizures that even a recent brain operation failed to cure. "In some situations they are like five-year-olds, in some they are like 10-year-olds and in others they are like 15-year-olds," says Don Becker, the director of Little City, the Illinois-based training and treatment center for the retarded, where the Blairs live. "Alone they can't deal with the complexities of life, but with minimal support services they can lead normal lives."

Joe and Rosa were seeking "normal lives" when they married in 1982. It was a controversial move. In 30 states—fortunately for them, Illinois is not among them—marriage between retarded people is illegal. "The misconception behind those laws," says Becker, "is that the mentally handicapped lack the emotional and sexual feelings of a normal person." Opponents of that view argue that marriage is a positive step toward bringing the retarded out of institutions and into mainstream society. "Marriage," says Dr. Alan Abeson, executive director of the Association for Retarded Citizens, "is part of trying to give mentally retarded people the opportunity to experience normal situations." Thus far, despite many rough problems, marriage seems to agree with the Blairs. "Once we got married, we've been happy," says Rosa. Gazing at her husband and grinning, she continues, "I've been satisfied with this monkey here."

In 1956 when her family immigrated from Puerto Rico to New York, Rosa Delgado was a normal, bouncy, curly-haired three-year-old. But shortly after she entered first grade at Brooklyn's PS 47, a tragic accident permanently changed her life. While playing on a neighbor's fire escape, she fell two stories. The result, doctors later diagnosed, was mild retardation coupled with grand mal epilepsy, accompanied by outbursts of uncontrolled violence. Over the next few years Rosa set fire to her apartment, tried to strangle a friend and attacked her mother. Stays in mental hospitals in New York and Illinois did not help. Neither did a stint at a Catholic school for the retarded: Rosa was expelled for, among other reasons, throwing a chair at a nun. In 1969, at 16, she arrived at Little City. There she slowly settled down and curbed her violent streak. "I had a good therapist and I've come a long way," she says proudly, sitting in her living room, her husband's arm draped over her shoulder. "When I first came to Little City I tried to kill myself. I drank lighter fluid. People were always teasing me about the seizures and I'd get frustrated. I was waking out of the seizures and heard people laughing and I jumped at them. I even busted a kid's head. I was just a piece of garbage."

Hearing that, Joe teasingly tweaks her nose. "Now," he says, "you're a cute little shorty." She pinches his cheek and returns the compliment. Then, playfully, Joe rubs his palm on her crew-cut-length hair—a reminder of her recent brain surgery. Knowing that Rosa is self-conscious about her shorn head, he kisses her reassuringly. "I just love picking on you," he says tenderly. "We love picking on each other, don't we?"

Short and lean with boyish features and a thick, anarchic shock of brown hair, Joe Blair has been retarded since birth. When he was 6, Joe and his brothers and sister were taken from their widowed, alcoholic mother by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. For four years he was shuttled through a series of foster homes. When he arrived at Little City in 1970 he was an insecure, disturbed 10-year-old, prone to fantasizing, fighting and stealing.

Two loners who found it difficult to fit in at Little City, Joe and Rosa began to play together despite the fact that she was six years older than he. "I was a tomboy," recalls Rosa. "We'd go outside and play ball or wrestle or play cards. I thought of Joe like a cute little brother." She pauses. "Now he's a cute little husband." Over the years Rosa's fondness for Joe bloomed into love. For years, though, her love went unrequited; Joe had another girlfriend. "I thought, 'If he ever breaks up with this girl, I'll show him what love is,' " she recalls. "Then he let go of her and I took him aside and we had a woman-to-man talk. I said, 'For so long I've had a crush on you. Would you like to be my man?' He said, 'Sure.' So we were boyfriend and girlfriend for several years and then we got engaged."

At first Rosa's family was not happy about her engagement. "It seemed to me that she was still a child," says her mother, Lydia Santana. "But when I realized that she had normal sexual desires, I felt if was better for her to be married because of our religion." Rosa's mother and sister took the betrothed couple shopping for an engagement ring. And then, on June 11, 1982, in a rented hall in Chicago, Rosa, who was dressed in a flowing white gown and veil, exchanged wedding vows with Joe, who was dressed in a white tuxedo.

When they set up house in a federally subsidized one-bedroom apartment in Little City, it was Joe who took over most of the household tasks. A doting husband, he cooks for Rosa, waits on her and constantly reminds her to take her medicine. "Joe doesn't just love her, he cherishes and adores her," says Rosa's sister, Alma Rentas. Rosa returns his love, mothering him, comforting him, chiding him when he carelessly gets dirt on his white slacks and warning him not to drink beer on an empty stomach. "I have to help him," she says. "It's my own rules. I call him my baby. I'm just showing him love. He didn't get it from his mom, so now he's getting it from me."

Sometimes Rosa is not satisfied with just mothering Joe. Sometimes she longs for a real baby of her own. When she gazes at a photo of her newborn twin nephews, she sighs wistfully. "I wish they were mine," she says. "I got this thing about having babies. It's like having a crush on kids. I want a little princess. I get chills every time I see a kid." Deep down, though, Rosa realizes that motherhood is not a good idea. "I would feel bad if I had a baby in my hands and I had a seizure," she says. "I would probably drop it and it would get brain damaged too." Joe agrees. Before they married, he got a vasectomy.

With her dream of motherhood all but abandoned, Rosa yearns for something else—independence. Although she loves the security of her apartment complex—where counselors are available to help with such puzzling procedures as putting together a shopping list and paying doctor bills—she seeks the challenge of living in the big world outside of Little City. Staring out of her sliding glass doors, she looks toward the borders of the 56-acre campus. "I wanna go out there," she says. "For once in my life...I've been here long enough." Becker disagrees. "Mildly retarded people like Joe and Rosa will always try to do more than they can," he says. "It's like the dreamer who never stops."

Thus far neither of the Blairs has been able to hold a steady job. Rosa worked for a while bussing tables at a nearby McDonald's, but she was forced to quit because of her seizures. For four years Joe held a good job as a mail clerk for an oil company and brought in $925 a month, enough to pay for such luxuries as a color TV and a stereo. When he was caught walking off with a Walkman radio, though, he was fired. A few months later he landed a job in a cafeteria—but he was seen rummaging through a supervisor's desk. Joe says he was just looking for a Band-Aid, but he was fired anyway. Now the Blairs support themselves working at Little City's vocational center. They are getting by, but just barely: After rent and food, they have only a couple of dollars a week in pocket money.

Still Rosa clings to the hope that someday they can move beyond Little City. She diligently tries to cure Joe of his habit of stealing and talks optimistically of the day "when we get out there." Recently those hopes suffered another setback. After a trip to the supermarket with Joe, Rosa discovered two unexplained packages of gum in the shopping bag. "I know what you're thinking," Joe shouted, "but I didn't take them." Carrying a Bible, he boldly marched into counselor Paula Schneller's office. "I know I got a problem but I been working on it," he said. "I swear on the Bible I didn't take the gum. I'm telling you the honest-to-God truth. I would at least admit to Rosa if I did." Then he stalked out of the office, a tight frown twisting his face.

Shaken and tearful, Rosa sat stoically in the counselor's office and courageously looked her troubles in the eye. "I'm afraid Joe will never have the power to live outside until he gets rid of his problem," she said. "I guess I gotta stop thinking about my goal, which is getting out of here. I think my hopes are too big."

Indignant, Joe telephoned the store manager, who conceded that the gum might have belonged to a prior customer. A few minutes after their moment of anguish, Rosa was sitting on her couch with Joe's head resting on her shoulder while he stroked her cheek. "I've got you calmed down now," she said. "I think you should see a therapist for a chitchat."

"I want you to help me," Joe said.

"I don't have the smarts," she said.

A half-hour later the couple was sprawled across the living-room floor, playing the Pac-Man game and giggling with joy.

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