Like many couples, Geff Curtis and Melinda Kaiser-Curtis like weekends best.
They sleep in. They eat when and what they want. They play with their three dogs.
Later, they could take a ride and go shopping. They might fold laundry as they watch a DVD. Or, if the weather’s nice, Melinda and Geff might take a stroll around their Anderson neighborhood.
The home they own is near Anderson River Park, where, come summer, they rarely miss a Mosquito Serenade concert, because they are crazy about music, and they like to belt out the songs they know.
They’re such regulars that they became friends with another couple they met at the Mosquito Serenade, Tina and Dave Bartle, who hosted the couple’s wedding reception in their Happy Valley backyard a few months back.
Despite their seemingly independent lives, Geff and Melinda have significant disabilities: Both have cerebral palsy, conditions they say are the result of birth traumas.
Their disabilities are so severe that neither can walk, and they rely upon motorized wheelchairs for mobility, whether it’s a few feet away to the kitchen or miles away to catch a bus to go shopping. (Their battery packs can last approximately 20 miles.)
Those who take the time to meet and get to know Melinda and Geff will find they are smart. And they’re funny.
They can tell you the story of how they met, how Geff was going to school and living in the UC Davis dorms, where Melinda was a visitor. He was shy. She was not. But they hit if off, and now they’re each other’s best friends and cannot imagine life without one another. A total love story.
They’re curious, and are inclined to ask questions, such as of the young photographer in their home to take their pictures, who found herself telling, at their prompting, about her love of photography, and her school, and her favorite classes.
Likewise, they can get serious, and will tell you how they feel when they see strangers stare, or worse yet, when people pretend to look over or through them, as if they’re insignificant or invisible.
And they’ll share how they can hear perfectly well when some people make rude comments, such as calling them retarded. They remember the time one bus driver cursed as he helped them onto his bus, as if he didn’t think they could understand a word he was saying.
Their faces cloud as they tell about the anger and frustration they felt to be bypassed by another bus driver who zoomed by their stop without picking them up, knowing full well he saw them, but just didn’t want the hassle of two wheelchair passengers.
They discuss the satisfaction that comes from doing as much as possible unassisted and how patronizing it feels when people assume they’re also developmentally disabled, and then treat them like small children. On the other hand, they say there are times when they would genuinely appreciate some help. Just ask.
They talk about the embarrassment and humiliation of dropping something – maybe clothing on a hanger – while shopping, but not being able to reach it, and having people know darn good and well that they could use a little help, but not stop, or even look their way. They realize that they may look unusual, and that to some people, especially kids, they may appear even a little intimidating and scary. But they just wish people would take the time to ask questions, or say hi; acknowledge they’re alive.
Granted, although they agree that Geff is relatively easier for most people to understand than Melinda, they know they can both can be difficult to understand at times, especially for those unaccustomed to their sometimes excruciatingly drawn-out pronunciations.
When asked if they can understand each other all the time, the couple both laughed loudly and gave the same response in unison.
Their physical limitations are so profound that a personal assistant/caregiver, Norma Logue — aka “Mom” — who’s been with them for nearly 20 years, stops by the couple’s home twice a day, five days a week. She helps with things that are nearly impossible for the couple to do themselves, like cook a meal on the stove, or shave, or thoroughly brush teeth.
Each week Logue also prepares food for the couple to eat during the weekend when she’s gone, so all that’s required is for them to heat the food in the microwave.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, Geff, 41, and Melinda, 39, were getting ready for lunch.
Geff, with a wide grin, has a shock of short red hair and a pair of rectangular-framed glasses MacGyvered with duct-tape.
He had the TV tuned into a football game in the living room that’s adorned with the couple’s recent wedding certificate, which is symbolic, but not legal, because if they legally married it would jeopardize their respective financial situations. That’s why legally, Melinda’s name is Kaiser, but informally she prefers to go by Curtis.
They’ve had a wedding ceremony, and as far as they’re concerned, in the eyes of the Lord, they’re husband and wife.
The living room wall also displays Geff’s diploma from UC Davis that showcases his degree in economics.
He’s never worked in his field, partly because he’s never found a place that could accommodate his disability, but largely because to get a real job would put his disability income at risk.
They try not to dwell on those realities, because there isn’t much they can do about it.
But on this day, they’ll have spaghetti for lunch, which was prepared earlier by Logue and stored in the refrigerator.
Melinda, with almond-shaped blue eyes, a ready smile and short-cropped light brown hair, likes writing more than almost anything, but she also likes working in the kitchen, whether it’s washing dishes or serving their meals.
All Melinda has to do is take the spaghetti from the refrigerator, put it in the microwave, remove it from the microwave, dish the spaghetti onto the plates, set the plates onto the table and then get their drinks. She’ll have water and juice. He likes iced tea.
For most people, this entire process might take just a few minutes. But for Melinda, it could take much, much, much longer, literally in slow motion. Just making her husband’s iced tea took about 20 minutes.
She’s an author who’s written a self-published book about her life. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from UC Davis. She and Geff both have matching computers with special keyboards topped with large plastic pieces that allow them to type without hitting too many keys at once.
They both are avid emailers and have Facebook accounts.
“We … have … opinions,” Geff said, twisting his head from side to side as he delivered each word slowly.
Something they discuss a lot is their wish that people could see beyond their disabilities, to view them as fellow human beings who feel, think and love, who can make love and make lunch, just like everyone else.
Lunchtime. Melinda rolled over to the counter and reached for Geff’s Big Gulp plastic cup, with a large, graspable handle. She rolled to the refrigerator’s water dispenser and depressed the ice and water levers until the cup was full. Some spilled on the floor. Melinda drove around it and rolled to the plastic container of tea bags. With fingers that are stiff and bent like hooks, Melinda tried multiple times to pry the lid off the container. Snap, miss. Snap, miss. Snap, miss. Got it.
She extracted a tea bag, which fell to the floor. She extended one bare foot and with her toes, grabbed the tea bag, which she reached with her hand. She pulled the protective paper cover from the teabag, then plunked it in the water.
Getting sugar cubes from another Tupperware container took another five minutes. Success. The iced tea was made. Then Melinda turned her attention to the puddle of ice and water on the floor. With a towel in hand, she slid down from the seat of her wheelchair and flopped to the floor, and as she wiped up the water, she called to Geff.
Geff rolled rapidly to the kitchen’s threshold and sized up the situation. He quickly reversed his chair and sped through the living room to the hallway to a small closet. There, he retrieved a broom and dustpan and delivered them to Melinda, who used them to capture the ice. She crawled to the trash, reached up and threw away the ice, then crawled back to her wheelchair, hoisted herself back up into her seat and rolled to the sink to wash her hands.
At last, time for lunch. At the table, Geff paused before picking up his spoon, and gave an apologetic smile.
“Sorry,” he said. “But … this … could … get … messy!”
Melinda laughed. And Geff did, too.
Lunch wasn’t the least bit messy.
They ate and drank. And shushed their dogs who barked outside the window. And talked about what they’d do with the rest of their day.
Just like any other couple on any other weekend.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.