Love Unlimited

A social worker acts as your matchmaker. Your parents can veto your beloved. Society wants you to stay chaste. That's dating life for people with developmental disabilities.

James McKune is rehearsing his Valentine's Day speech. "I'll say, 'Sarah, you are wonderful. You're a very beautiful lady. And you never cause trouble. And you don't say nothing to anybody. Sarah, you've been so wonderful. You're a very smart lady. And you're very lucky to have a guy like me.'"

The object of his tribute smiles shyly and looks away. Both her parents are at the table, eating lunch at Denny's in Wayzata. So are the program director of her group home, her boyfriend's conservator (a kind of court-appointed guardian), and an employee from his residence. This clan gathering has been convened to speak with City Pages about the most personal of all connections between Sarah Marie George and James McKune: their love.

If it were you, you might feel trapped in a Eugene Levy scene from American Pie. McKune, however, seems used to talking about such things with strangers, while George escapes the hot seat to concentrate on her food. Both depend in practical ways on the people sitting around them today. The two rarely go out on dates without accompaniment; they live in different suburbs and can't drive or navigate the bus system. Both have developmental disabilities: George was born with Down's syndrome and she requires help with such tasks as dialing the phone to call her boyfriend. McKune has a mild intellectual disability but he can call George without assistance.

Both are adults: James McKune, at age 64, is the oldest one here, his gray hair thick enough to sweep romantically to the side. Sarah George is 31. ("Boy, that's not bad," James quips.) Yet the two are not their own guardians (or conservators), which makes their most personal life choices a social decision.

Suddenly Sarah coughs. "You gonna be okay there, honey?" her companion asks, touching his hand on her shoulder.

This was how Sarah's mom, Sharon George, found the two when she first met James. She remembers the 1999 awards ceremony held by Opportunity Partners, where Sarah and James attend life-skills classes and perform manual-assembly tasks for pay. "When I got there, Sarah and James were sitting together waiting for me," Sharon says. "James cheered for every single person that got an award, and he was so proud of Sarah. Then we had a buffet lunch, and as we were waiting in line, he kept talking about what they should eat and shouldn't eat--that you shouldn't take the coffee

because it just made you nervous. We sat down, and he told me how lucky he was to have Sarah Marie as his girlfriend."

They've had relationships before, but never this serious. McKune and George go shopping; they exchange birthday cards; they celebrate holidays together. James makes taco dinners for her. On his day off, Wednesday, he meets the van that takes her to work and wishes her "a good morning, a good afternoon, and a good night," planting a kiss on her forehead. Last Valentine's Day, the couple slow-danced into the night at a party.

Those around George notice the change in her. "She'll start thinking about something and then say, 'I want to write a letter to James,'" says Cathy Miskowic, who is program director at the residence Sarah shares with two other people. Miskowic assists Sarah's romantic correspondence by transcribing what Sarah wants to say, then printing it clearly so Sarah can copy it in her own writing. "It's a good motivator, you know: 'You want to go to bed so that your eyes aren't puffy for James tomorrow.' Sarah doesn't like to waste time sleeping."

Still, Sarah is adept at stating what she wants and doesn't want from people, James included. "She'll say, 'I want to go to the dance,' and then we have to figure out what dance," Miskowic laughs. "And there was a period a year and a half ago when she didn't want to see him for a month or so."

Such independent-mindedness might reassure Sarah's parents as the relationship grows more serious. Only three months ago Miskowic met with Sharon, Sarah's mother and co-conservator, and Sue Walker, who is James's conservator, to discuss whether to allow unsupervised visits with James. The three surmised that such dates would probably involve nothing more than cuddling on the couch, but they wanted to talk as a group before granting the couple more privacy.

James has also expressed his wish to marry.

"I'd like to be engaged like other people," he says when I broach the subject. "Like when you have a family, a husband and a wife. They do that on the TV all the time. That's why I want to do that with her, because, you see, my other family, they're all in heaven."

He turns to George's mom. "Do you think that'd be okay if we get engaged?"

"Well, that depends," Sharon says gently. "Are you committed to each other?"

"What does 'committed' mean?"

"It means Sarah's very special to you, and she's the only one, and you, James, are very special to her, that you're the only man that she loves."

James mulls this over. And so do I.

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