The Exceptional Ones: Because of Mary

This is by far the most personal post I’ve ever written. If I had to sit down and write this to be published on The Wise Guise, it would have never been written, for a litany of reasons. But I wrote it as my personal statement for my law school applications. But as I recently watched the E:60 piece about the blessings of family members with special needs, as I went home to visit my sister and see her new adult day program, as tears streamed down my cheek watching multiple scenes with Max and Haddie on “Parenthood,” and as I think about how many unborn lives are ended in utero every day when prenatal screening reveals disabilities, I felt convicted that more people should read this than law school admissions counselors. It’s important for people who know me and people who don’t to hear about Mary. Because to understand me is to understand Mary and to understand Mary is to understand true joy, grace, and the purest blessings of life from our Creator. 

“Atticus was right.  One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” – Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird

Whether it’s a conversation over beers with a close friend or a soap box sermon for my out-of-control 2nd block U.S. History class from hell, Atticus Finch’s classic (and, some would say, cliché) advice is my go-to fortune cookie wisdom for someone in any walk of life who finds herself in my path and able to listen.  But as I frequently find myself invoking the fictional Mr. Finch, I question myself as to why I connected so passionately to this maxim.  The answer surprised and comforted me all at once.  I cling to Atticus’ adage not because of any efforts of my own.  I cling to it because of a person – because of my younger sister, Mary Rose Williams.

Mary Rose Regina Williams was born on August 20, 1989, exactly six weeks before I turned three.  Months after she was born, it became clear that Mary was special – different from normal babies.  While the diagnoses, tests, and many in the world would assess that Mary is ‘mildly to moderately retarded,’ ‘developmentally delayed/disabled,’ or ‘slower than normal kids,’ it is clear to anyone who encounters Mary that she was a gift from God, placed on earth to teach us all the true definition of unconditional love.  In an introductory Anthropology class, I learned that Amish believe that all disabled people are a divine gift.  This Amish principle provided me an articulation of my realizations that I had formerly been unable to convey.

Being Mary’s brother has not always been a bundle of smiles and rainbows.  Having Mary in our family inevitably changes how we operate and coalesce together.  There have been times when Mary’s disability has affected her behaviorally, resulting in violent outbursts in public and at school, towards friends, family, and even strangers.  One afternoon, when driving her home from school, Mary released some leftover anxiety from school upon me, physically grabbing at and beating me. While this incident could have been just another sibling spat, it turned into a moment I’ll never forget.  As I pulled the car on to a side street and stumbled out of the car, Mary barreled after me. As I wrestled her to the sidewalk to restrain her, an elderly man drove by, stopping, and screaming at me to “get off of that girl.”  He threatened to call the police.  Through tears, I pleaded with him to understand that I loved Mary more than anyone or anything in the entire world.  I called my dad, who raced over to clear up the situation and usher us home.  Climbing out of the car, still in tears, with my dad having sent Mary inside, I broke down in the driveway. My screams echoed throughout the neighborhood. “I LOVE Mary. How DARE that man accuse me of harming her? He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know what I’ve been through, HOW MUCH I love Mary!”

Reflecting years later provides me with a list of traits attributable to growing up as Mary’s brother.  Whether it’s crying out for understanding and justice or the humility and empathy necessary to not leap to judgment, I’m no doubt a better person because of Mary.  As a senior in high school, I began telling people that one of my life goals was to write a book entitled, “What Mary Taught Me.”  As I reflect on my life to date, it is clear that the person who had the greatest influence on me was my little sister.  The moment of outburst and misunderstanding by a stranger (who turned out to have a special needs daughter himself) was overshadowed by decorating the Christmas tree, watching SpongeBob, reading to her, countless inside jokes, and immeasurable ways of making her smile in that way that continues to light people’s lives.  Though not being academically “smart,” she’s more insightful and emotionally intuitive than most people I know.  In fact, the majority of her outbursts result from her keen intuition for detecting even the most subtle of tensions between people.  On the few occasions that she got into trouble at school, it was because she acted out against a student who was misbehaving, creating tension with the teacher and the classroom.

Though Mary will never discover a world-changing innovation, she is never forgotten by all who encounter her, whether the city mayor, the local weather man, or Coach John Calipari. (She’s on a first-name basis with all of them.)  Mary shows unconditional love and a zest for life found only in appreciating the small things and forgetting all the tedious details that produce stress in life. She’s a loyalist, still cheering on Calipari while dressed in UK Blue, even as the rest of Memphis scowls. She knows everything there is to know (and more) about the Duggars, owning books, DVDs, and always having a batch of episodes on the DVR. (On one visit to Memphis, my wife and I heard her counting repeatedly while in the other room. When we arrived to find her watching 19 Kids & Counting, and we asked her what she was doing, she simply replied that she was counting Duggars to make sure they were all there. We joined in on the counting.) She loves all my friends, but especially my friend John Nesbitt, who instantly and forever bonded with her during a summer visit home, where he’d wake up at 5 a.m. and watch World Cup with her. Mary doesn’t like soccer, but she did love asking and answering questions from John… for 3 hours before anyone else woke up.) She reminds us all of the childlike faith we once had.  And growing up as her older brother, I’m a changed man because of her.

Because of Mary, I always speak up for the underdog, squirming when I feel someone is unrightfully judging me or someone else.  Because of Mary, I try to look past first judgments and impressions, and empathize with people I meet and situations I encounter.  Because of Mary, I thirst for justice and appreciation of all human beings, no matter how diverse or different.  Because of Mary, I recognize the incredible ways that the Lord uses His children whom the world labels as “slow”, “useless”, or “not viable” to show us His unfailing and unconditional love.

Wherever I go, whoever I meet, and whatever I do, my joy for life and my undying desire to understand people’s footsteps to that moment are because of only one person.  It’s because of Mary.


Posted on by Joseph Williams in Faith, Featured, Misc. Posts

28 Responses to The Exceptional Ones: Because of Mary

  1. Julie Harston

    Wow! Mary Rose has brightened our day many times and taught us that one of life’s best lessons is just to be happy today. Thanks for marrying into our family and making Mary Rose a part of it as well. Your parents have done a wonderful job raising two successful kids!

  2. Stephani J.


  3. Tricia Cantrell

    ‘Really enjoyed reading this, Joseph. I was there with your parents as we waited for baby Mary to start talking and saw the true character of wonderful parents. It’s amazing how life experiences, even from early childhood, shape who you become as an adult. My guys (especially Jordan) were with Mary so often as children her funny quirks went unnoticed. Y’all knew by instinct when she might need help with something and almost responded subconsciously. My favorite “Mary memory” is when she’d come in the door calling for “Toto”. She never called Divot by his real name.

  4. Josh Smith

    Right on man. I love you and I’m so proud that God has given you the insight to recognize Mary for the gift that she is.

    PS. Allie and I love Haddie and Max. What an amazing show.

  5. Kaci M.

    Joseph, this is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Vanessa Butler

    You are absolutely right, Mary does show us the faith of a child; that faith that we forget to use when we are going through life because of the many obstacles that take our minds of Christ. This was a wonderful tribute to your sister. It’s also the very reason I joke with your Dad about being the very first client who will support you after you get that law degree and pass the bar. A man who has the capacity to learn from the what others would call ‘the least of these’ has my support always. God bless you for the insight to know that “all things work together for the good…..Romans 8:28” and you would not be the man you are without God’s grace in giving you Mary.

  7. Meg Murray

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing, Joseph.

  8. Amanda Bee

    That was absolutely beautiful. I’ve been blessed just by reading it. Thank you for sharing!

  9. Jan Margaret Rogers

    Thank you for sharing this, Joseph!

  10. Kristin

    Such a wonderful family! So much love. We are all blessed to have you guys in our lives.

  11. Johnny Williams

    Being the Father of these two so different yet so much alike kids, what can I say?? But if you or someone that you know does not believe in a Higher being or God, this is definitely part of the proof!!!

  12. Laura Hunt

    Joseph,this is such a touching story. Thank you for sharing it with me. I’ve always known there was something extra special about you and now I know why. Your sister sounds like an awesome person!

  13. Dave at Paragon

    Awesome Joseph. I love it when Mary and your Dad come in to the bank. Her incredible joy and zest for life is contagious. Not sure if she is excited to see us or get a free cappuccino? Gotta love her!

  14. Dorothy Harston

    Precious tribute to a wonderful little girl and a beautiful family. So glad to call you our grandson. Love you and Palmer so much.

  15. Aunt Joanne

    Thanks, Joe for sharing this wonderful essay!! You have always helped my boys to appreciate their Cousin Mary. They have a healthy respect for her keen perceptions and humor, not to mention her lightning-speed reaction time and her related efforts to dispense justice! Of course, we all adore Mary! She always gets my jokes! She was a great comfort to me, looking up at me and chuckling from the front of the church as I read my reflections on my dad’s life during his funeral. And regardless of the trials of the day, my spirit is always lifted after a few quick words with Mary over the phone. I look forward to her updates on the happenings in her life and her interests in the news of the day. She is starlight and I am her life-long fan. We love you, p, j and m!

  16. Leslie Kelly

    Joseph, you are and have always been one of the brightest, joyous men I know. I feel fortunate to have been given this beautiful insight into your relationship with Mary. You’re truly the best. And I know Mary feels overwhelmed by the love she feels from you every day.

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  18. Ruthie Dean

    Oh this, this made me cry. Beautifully written, JW!

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  20. lisa reinhardt

    Joseph this is a very emotional article. And so great.

  21. Becky Cremer

    Thanks for this, Joseph. As the only child of a single mother who was also the director of rehab at a children’s hospital, I spend a lot of time around all different kinds of kids– with different cultures, abilities, and challenges. In kindergarten, we were asked to draw a picture of a person to show that we knew all of our body parts. My person was bald and missing several limbs, and my mother had to come in and explain that that was what I knew. I come from a household that encouraged me to see the “normality” in everyone (as well as the strangeness!), and to see everyone as a gift from God. I run into Mary and your folks pretty frequently, and without fail it makes my heart happy. You have a special family and a special heart. Thank you.
    P.S. You are the only Republican I would ever vote into public office. And I would vote, with reckless abandon.

  22. Leslie Perry

    Thanks for sharing. My sister, Ashley Parks introduced me to the “special needs” world almost 20 years ago and I am forever changed by it. “Our” sweet Mary is one of the bright spots of the “Blessings” ministry. She makes us all smile!!!

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  24. Ginger

    I’ve known Mary Rose for three years now and every year I find myself saying “I wish I could be as happy about anything as Mary Rose is about (insert rainbows, horse riding, being a first time aunt, arts and crafts, etc)…

    She is such a lovely person and I am absolutely enamoured with her.

  25. Gerald McGee

    I clicked on the link in your FB post concerning Mary Rose’s birthday and just finished reading your essay…
    While we have never met and I have yet to meet Mary Rose, I work in the same building as your dad. I talk to him on a fairly regular basis, and quickly realized just how proud he is of both of his children. It is so obvious that he loves you both unconditionally, and now I see that he has passed that unconditional love down to you as well. Reading the words that express your love for your baby sister made me stop for that extra minute and take stock of my own life, and the love that I have for my own siblings, and for my own children. I can only hope and pray that I am able to show that love the way you show yours.

  26. lisa reinhardt

    This is truly a heart warming story. I enjoyed every word!!! And it is such a joy to know entire Williams family. All of you have a loving family from way back and it has been passed down through the years. God surely knew what he was doing when created you all.

  27. Sharon Worley

    You are an amazing young man! But then, you were taught by the best! Love your family!

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