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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ask Stephen Maes and Nica Bierner what they love about each other, and they stare at you as if you have asked the dumbest question in the world.
Which you probably have.
What don’t they love about each other might be the better question. Why wouldn’t they love each other would be another one.
Love is a complicated thing, hard to put into words. It’s what they feel, not what they say.
But they indulge me.
“She’s special,” Stephen says. “She’s pretty and nice.”
Nica tries her hand at an explanation by spreading her hands apart and extending her index fingers as if preparing to conduct an orchestra, then drawing her fingertips together.
“Like this,” she says. “I feel it in my heart and blood. That’s love.”
They met 11 years ago at Stephen’s 21st birthday party. They were in relationships with other people, but that night all they saw was each other. They danced all night. They couldn’t stop smiling.
Six years passed before their paths crossed again at a Special Olympics poly hockey match in Roswell. At the end of the match, Stephen knew he had found his.
Stephen, 32, and Nica, 30, have been together now for five years. They are still smiling.
This evening, they will be married at a golf course, with an estimated 250 friends and relatives in attendance. It will be a celebration not only of their love but of their families’ love and support, which made this day possible.
Their families – particularly the couple’s mothers, Vivian Reese and Sheri Bierner, who have become good friends – are vital to their children’s relationship because both Stephen and Nica have Down syndrome, a chromosomal condition. Those with Down syndrome possess varying cognitive abilities from severe to high-functioning. They also face an increased risk for a variety of health concerns, including heart defects and respiratory and hearing problems.
Both Stephen and Nica have undergone heart surgeries. Both wear hearing aids. Both have jobs through Adelante Development Center, a nonprofit that provides employment for disabled adults. Both are heavily involved in Special Olympics. They love coloring, attending Albuquerque Isotopes baseball games and watching episodes of “COPS” and WWE wrestling. Stephen loves the spaghetti and pizza Nica makes. Nica loves coordinating their clothing.
The two are wearing matching lime-green Special Olympics T-shirts and jeans as we sit and talk in the home where Stephen lives with his mother and stepfather, Shawne Reese, on Albuquerque’s West Side.
Nica, who possesses a calming strength, gently pats Stephen’s thigh. Stephen, the jovial cutup of the two, spontaneously lands a kiss and calls Nica his “little bride.”
After they are married, they will live with the Reeses in the upstairs part of the home. On weekends, they’ll stay at Nica’s family home in Los Lunas with her father, Dwight Bierner, and mother.
Although Vivian Reese says Stephen and Nica are responsible, higher-functioning and independent, they still need extra support that living with their families can provide.
“From early on, we encouraged Stephen be as independent as he could be,” Reese said. “And I always hoped that he would find someone and never be alone. But I just didn’t see that happening. We were here, but you can still be lonely without that special partner. Then he met Nica. They’re very good for each other.”
For Nica, being married is something she has always dreamed of in very particular detail. The man she loves would get down on one knee to propose, and she made sure Stephen did. She would wear the big white dress, have a big wedding cake, and she is getting both. She would be married for ever.
“I’m excited,” she says. “I never want a divorce.”
But ask Stephen about marriage, and he responds in typical groom fashion: “It’s too scary. I’m scared to get married.”
Nica pats Stephen’s thigh again, and he grins.
“And I am very happy,” he adds. “I’m excited. Me and Nica love each other.”
Marriage among couples with Down syndrome is a rarity, but that is slowly changing. Jon Colman of the National Down Syndrome Society says the numbers are on the rise. That’s due in part to people with Down syndrome living longer since the health conditions that once shortened their life spans are now treatable.
Society, too, is learning to accept that special-needs adults have every right to the things other adults enjoy, including marriage. Love, as they say, is love.
The couple will have no children, but they are looking forward to getting a puppy they plan to name Scooby-Doo. But first, they’re off to Las Vegas for a honeymoon, with their moms discreetly along.
“I wish they would have chosen somewhere else,” Reese says. “But it’s their journey.”
That it is.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.