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Special birthday for a special sister

Staff writer

Courage. Devotion. Love. These words define the relationship between Susan Unruh and her family.

“Our whole family, it’s all about her,” Nanette Lowry said.

Unruh is afflicted with Down Syndrome. She celebrated her 50th birthday Saturday. When she was born, doctors said she would not live to 30. In 1962, not much was known about Down Syndrome; doctors did know that heart and intestinal issues were connected with the syndrome.

Those same doctors tried to persuade the Unruh family to place Susan in an institution. The Unruhs were defiant in their desire to take her home.

“I think it was just, ‘we’re not going to let you tell us how she’s going to do anything,’” Lowry said.

Lowry is her older sister by eight years. She said she and her siblings, Steve and Karen, allow Susan to experience things on her own before offering help.

Nanette has always been protective of Susan. She and Steve Unruh would kick the shins of gawking food store patrons, who passed judgment as Susan walked down an aisle.

Nanette once hurled a heavy history book at a middle school teacher. The teacher had said that all parents of mentally disabled children were drug addicts. She later made the teacher apologize in front of the class.

She has mellowed with age, learning patience as a mother and third-grade teacher.

Patience comes easier some days than others. For all intents, Nanette acts as a mother to Susan. She has been Susan’s guardian for 28 years. There have been struggles with Susan’s recurring regressions. Susan was raised with Nanette’s adopted daughter. It was difficult to witness her daughter gain independence — a driver’s license, going off to school, and getting married — while watching Susan languish. Susan cannot read or write and she is committed to a structured schedule.

It is difficult to connect with a sister who is 50 years old and loves Justin Bieber.

Nanette did have a chance to be a sister on Saturday. Along with brother Steve, she masterminded a surprise party Saturday at Marion County Lake Hall.

After leading Susan through a welcoming column of friends and relatives, Nanette showed her sister a table of gifts. Along with a fishing rod and other presents wrapped neatly were a pink cane and an inflatable walker. She also gave her sister a good-natured ribbing about being an old woman.

Susan voiced her displeasure at the jokes, but a smile was never far from her face.

Through her struggles, Lowry sees that Susan has accomplished much. Those doctors back in 1962 never thought Susan would work. She washed dishes at Country Lakes Café for several years.

More than that, Susan defied the odds by living her life. To Susan and Steve Unruh, that accomplishment was worth a 50-foot camping trailer. They bought the trailer for Susan so she can fish at Marion County Lake.

It was also worth their never-ending devotion. Nanette quit her job teaching to spend more time with Susan. Steve fixes lunch and dinner for Susan every day, like clockwork.

“Fifty years later they don’t write these kids off,” Nanette said. “They need to look at what they can do, not what they can’t do.”

Last modified July 11, 2012

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