It is natural, even necessary to ask a child, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” No one ever asked Martin Turck that question. No one ever wondered if one day he’d be a firefighter, an astronaut or even a janitor. Martin, or Marty, as everyone more commonly called him, was born with severe Down’s Syndrome.
When he was born in the mid-1950’s doctors told his parents he’d be lucky to survive the month, and if he did, the best thing for him would to be institutionalized. That certainly would have sealed Marty’s fate. Not from some endemic cruelty or neglect, but love is as essential to life as food or water or shelter. During the Rwandan Genocide, members of my team came upon a few dozen children huddled in an abandoned garage on the outskirts of the Goma refugee camp in, then, Zaire. Their defacto leader was a spry and spirited 12 year old named Michael. He was a lively and cocky kid when the team spoke with him despite that all the children’s parents had been murdered or had succumbed to disease epidemics sweeping the camps. The next day when the team returned they were told Michael had died overnight, simply giving up on life. That is the commodity of love in our lives. Marty Turck grew up in a family overflowing with love. He never suffered from a deficit of love.
He’d grown up in the forgettable little town of Emmetsburg, insulated from the world among the rolling farm fields of northwest Iowa. The Turck family was one of the biggest clans in those parts. Marty was one of 17 siblings. Later his eldest sister, Jeanne married into the Drew family. At a family reunion in 1991, held on the Drew farm outside of town, cars lined the gravel road for the better part of a mile. Every soul attending knew Marty. He was heralded by all, without exception, as the unofficial king of the family.
But it wasn’t out of pity. It wasn’t out of some guilty sense of obligation. It was all Marty. It was the love that he brought unconditionally. He trusted immediately and had faith in everyone he met with unquestioning sincerity and without reservation. Marty’s embrace was almost overwhelming. What one did with that love and respect was entirely their choosing. I honestly believe not a single soul that ever met Marty ever squandered that simple blessing.
I grew up with Marty. Like so many others in the family, Marty Turck was iconic to the family. I admit to being eternally fascinated at the supreme regimen to his life. The way he ate a meal in a precise pattern, tied his shoes carefully and with total concentration, or the way he set out his clothes. These things were taught to him, but he took to them, I firmly believe, as a means of erasing, however small, the differences he perceived between his life’s perspective, and those of the rest of us. Marty was deeply spiritual, a stalwart fixture at Sunday Mass at old St. Mary’s church. I can still see him there beside my grandmother in his short-sleeved white shirt, tee-shirt peeking near the collar, with his trimmed red hair, copious amounts of freckles, sort of chewing on his upper lip.
He lost his mother in 1976, and his father a few years later. His sister Jeanne and some of the other siblings took up the care for him. Marty soon managed a small room in town, he got a job and even bragged of a girlfriend. As the years went by I went to visit less and less, still trying to make the reunions, which more took the shape of a fair than a simple family gathering. Each time Marty would sweep me into those deceptively powerful arms, as he did everyone. It got so if Marty wasn’t there right off, something felt as if it was missing.
Last I saw Marty was some years ago. He was on a softball team, playing the infield. Over the last few years Marty developed Alzheimer’s Disease. Yesterday he passed quietly from the world, but he left behind a footprint of immense and beautiful proportions. He filled the world with love and touched everyone who knew him, which is why I wrote this piece. Call it a literary cremation, of sorts. Each thought here is a piece of Marty scattered throughout the world.
At the end of it all there is no purpose for our lives any larger than those we love, and those who love us. There is not some grand victory we all are striving towards. No flag to be planted at the end of the universe. All there is are each of us, alone if we choose, or filled with light and life and community if we choose that as well. Martin Turck taught me that. I recall the wonder and curiosity as he gazed upon Jesus upon the Cross at St. Mary’s, and though I have never truly believed myself, what weight I give to the possibility of something beyond this life I owe in no small part to him. I hope that he found that place.
He was a great man, though I doubt he ever knew it. He did indeed aspire to something, despite never being asked. For those of us who take for granted the illusion of full faculties-so called-we should hope to fill the world with such love.
I love you, Marty, and will miss you…