By Margaret Treadwell
Our high school graduating class of 1960 voted Twink and Tommy “best dancers.” He has spent the ensuing decades dancing around the law on death row as a convicted criminal for two murders. More than once, he has been within hours of execution only to have the execution delayed by appeals. Once he escaped from prison, so the planners of our 50th reunion feared he might show up at our gathering last June. He didn’t, but Twink did. Her dance through life is remarkable in an understated but equally dramatic way.
Born just months apart, Twink and I grew up on the same street and played together in those elementary school years when primal relationships often retain significant importance in our lives. Although we drifted apart in high school and lost touch until this reunion, our delight at reuniting prompted our pledge to stay in touch. Her story has captivated me as we’ve talked lengthily long distance during the past weeks.
Like many in our class, Twink married early. Ten months afterwards, she bore her only child at age 20. Robert was born with Spina bifida and severe hydrocephaluses, twisted legs and clubfeet. He was paralyzed from the waist down; his pediatrician kept him in the hospital for nine weeks and, according to Twink, was going to let him die of his congenital malformation. A family friend encouraged the couple to take their baby to a neurosurgery center in Birmingham, Ala, which offered a lifeline through the insertion of a neurological shunt.
Although legally blind and subject to periodic seizures due to intermittent pressure on his optic nerve, Robert thrived when he was mainstreamed in first grade. He was taught verbally and had an amazing capacity to retain information about everything. He could tell you how to do things he’d never seen done thorough his acute listening skills.
Twink says, “I gave 24/7 to Robert. I prepared his food, fed and bathed him, managed his catheter care, helped him with bowel movements, played, laughed and read with him and constantly volunteered in his schools to care for him in those days before cell phones. He was my life and my joy.”
The high school yearbook was dedicated to Robert his senior year, and the standing ovation lasted for three minutes when the coaches lifted him onto the stage in his wheel chair to receive his graduating certificate. He was named an honorary member of the Fire Department and twice the poster child for the March of Dimes ( Colbert County, Ala).
But Twink also talks about how her heart would break when people would stare or say mean things to him. She says, “ He never voiced being hurt but would say, ‘No big deal. Let it go.’ A friend from church wrote a song about Robert entitled He Never Complained.
Robert was 42 when he died in 2004 – an astonishing age for someone with his diagnoses. His death was painless and peaceful at home with his parents in the parsonage (his father, a graduate of Emory’s Candler School of Theology when Robert was 24, is now a retired Methodist pastor working part-time). There was no unfinished business except how to move forward without Robert.
After a bilateral mastectomy in 2008, Twink says she is a perfect example of what can go wrong with the human body. When asked how she kept on keeping on with her care giving despite her chronic fatigue, depression, fibromyalgia, back problems from lifting Robert every day, and the understandable rough spots in her marriage, Twink says, “ My mothering instinct kept me going even when I was tired. I had a difficult childhood due to my parents’ complicated problems that prevented them from nurturing me. Determined to be a better mother, my faith was strengthened the many times I knew that I couldn’t do but so much and God had to do the rest. That worked on Robert’s behalf and also as his dad overcame adversity to become a minister and a rock for us. We had no financial resources, but just when we were at the bottom a parishioner’s check would arrive in the mail, another family would give us their car, or another would bring us his garden’s bounty. God provided for everything then and now.”
In addition to one of the longest serving death row inmates, our Class of 1960 boasts an astronaut, a distinguished civil servant, decorated Vietnam war veterans, a mogul of the music and recording industry, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and writers. Much as I admire their achievements that signal “success” in our generation, my reunion highlight was finding and knowing more deeply one person whose faith and love light up a room otherwise like the lobby of a hotel filled with strangers who are incapable of substantive conversations. Twink is our class act and my hero.
Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She can be contacted at Peggy McDT@gmail.com