Thursday, May 23, 1996
Maybe it's time to bend rules

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Next time you hear some politician talking about family values, I hope you'll think of Ronette Portula and Paul Makin.

Ronette, 27, was born with spina bifida, a cleft palate and heart defects. Until a couple of years ago, she worked but then "my hips sort of gave out on me" and now she's in a wheelchair. She has endured 31 surgical operations, three in the past year.

She's charming and pretty with fine features, a dazzling smile, green eyes and curly blond hair. Her aunt, Jerrel Sawyer, calls her "a joy to this family" and a "blessing."

It is easy to see why Paul Makin fell in love with her.

Uncle Sam giveth..

Paul is mildly retarded. A big guy, 35 years old, good-looking with curly brown hair and a neat moustache, he brushes off Ronette's account of his help around the apartment with a laugh. "It was something I had to do. A rust spot in her bathroom looked just like Ross Perot. I had to get rid of it."

Of course.

Funny and talkative and indefatigable, Paul works at the Kenwood McDonald's. Money is tight. Once his weekly salary - about $400 - ran out before the week did, and he didn't have bus money. So he walked to work - from Kennedy Heights to Kenwood. Not too long ago, when Ronette was having surgery at University Hospital, he walked there too.

"You can't imagine how wonderful it is - the peace of mind for her family - to know that Paul is looking out for Ronette," says her mother, Joette Meacham who lives in Batavia.

Ronette lives in Margaret Bullock Geier Apartments, a lovely but not splendid place run by an agency called Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled (LADD). It's one of those lesser-known strands of the federal safety net, subsidized housing.

Ronette also qualifies for Social Security disability and Medicaid. And because of birth defects, she has been a pretty good customer of the latter. She also has regular need for drugs and medical supplies. More safety net.

Next time I file my income tax return, I'm going to think of Ronette. This appears to be the way things are supposed to work - genuine, catastrophic need being met with government assistance. Friends and family are making up the difference. "We could never afford to have a nurse do what Paul does for her," Joette Meacham says.

Ronette Portula worked while she could, and now she can't. Her problems are chronic and severe and she needs help, "about an hour every morning," according to Paul, "to get organized for the day." He works the late shift at McDonald's, but gets up early when Ronette has appointments with her doctor.

Paul wants, he says with a gap-toothed Letterman-esque grin, to "make sure she's ready to face the world." One can only imagine what that means. And I wouldn't dream of asking. How long, I wonder, does Paul expect to do this. He looks puzzled, then says, "Forever."

Making it official

They would like to be married. Ronette wears a tiny diamond solitaire engagement ring, her only jewelry except for the gold cross around her neck. They are in love, traditional Christians and want to be a family. Officially.

But, as we all know, marriage isn't made in heaven, a private promise between a couple and God. It's regulated by the government, that very kindly government that has been so supportive to Ronette, so long as she is single.

If she marries Paul, a man with a job, she'll lose it all. Those are the rules.

Quite simply, they cannot afford to be married. Paul can lift, scrub and cook. But he cannot make enough money to give his fiancee the medical care she is getting right now.

"We're going to have some kind of a ceremony this summer," Paul says. It won't be legal or binding, and they feel funny about it. They are rather old-fashioned and they would like to live together as man and wife.

"It's just not right," Paul says.

No, it's not.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.