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Maxwell still smiling

SILVERTHORNE – Debbie Presley Maxwell has a life story that could break your heart – and a smile to match.

Maxwell, 49, is a familiar face to almost anyone who has children. She works at the Osh Kosh B’Gosh children’s clothing factory store and in the Silverthorne Recreation Center’s child-care center.

Wheelchair-bound, Maxwell also spends several hours at the rec center each week, swimming, lifting weights and walking – supporting herself with her left hand – around the rec center track.



She laughs often, and heartily. Her relatively unlined face, framed by long, jet-black hair, belies her age. But Maxwell is well-versed in all life’s ups and downs, having traveled roads most people pray never to take.

Born in Pueblo, Maxwell married Steve Presley and moved with him to Summit County more than two decades ago. The couple had two children, Briana and Ezra, both of whom still live in Summit County. Briana, whose last name is now Nobel, has two children.



Steve Presley was a happy, peaceful man, whom Maxwell remembers as always having a beer in his hand. He worked at Henderson Mill until, in his mid-30s, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. While Presley stopped drinking as soon as the diagnosis came, it was already too late. He died three years later, leaving Maxwell widowed with two young children.

It was hard, she remembers, pausing for only a second to think back on those days.

She met the man who would be her second, and current, husband on the day of Steve Presley’s funeral. John Maxwell, who is employed by a local contractor, was working on a road mourners needed to travel to reach Presley’s funeral site. He promised to clear the road and keep it open during the memorial service. Later, he and a friend of Steve Presley’s came to Maxwell’s home and cut firewood and did other chores to help her prepare for the coming winter.

She struck up a friendship with John Maxwell that, two years later, evolved into a marriage. When the two had a baby daughter a year after they wed, their life seemed idyllic.

Debbie was 38, the same age her first husband had been when he died.

Seven days after her infant was born, she woke with a pounding headache.

“I remember holding my baby, telling her I loved her,” she said. “I told my husband I had a headache. I took two aspirin, and that’s all I can remember for months.”

She woke in St. Anthony’s Central Hospital, her right side paralyzed, the power ofspeech gone. Her vision was permanently damaged. Initially, she could not even tie her shoes.

She had suffered an aneurysm. The resulting stroke left her paralyzed on the right side of her body. Speech therapy brought back her ability to speak. But in the 11 years since, she has regained only a small amount of movement on her right side.

Nevertheless, doctors consider her a miracle. She knows now that she was not expected to live and, that for reasons no one can explain, the bleeding in her brain stopped.

This, too, she says, was hard.

“Sometimes I would cry,” she said. “But then I’d sit up and do what I was supposed to do.”

Her memories of the first few months after the stroke are fuzzy at best. She has a vague recollection of squeezing a ball to restore coordination to her hands, but few others. The one moment she remembers clearly is perhaps the one she’s most likely to forget.

Family members gathered around her hospital bed one day, their faces stricken, and told her that her baby – then 3 months old – had died of sudden infant death syndrome.

Only at this point in her story does Maxwell give in to emotion. Tears fall, and she is silent for a moment. She reaches for a Kleenex, laughs and apologizes. As sad as she was then, she was not alone in her grief.

“Everybody was there,” she said. “And they all felt so bad. They were so nice. My husband took some time off just to stay with me.”

She wondered then how much sorrow one person could take. But not for one moment did she wish to join her daughter.

“I was supposed to live,” she said. “I just had to. I felt bad, but I definitely wanted to live. My other two kids were so important, my husband, my mother, everybody.”

Maybe it was God, she said, who got her through her grief. But she is not sure she subscribes to the belief that everything happens for a reason.

“I don’t know,” she said, and shrugged. “Things happen to people. Things just happen.

“Someday, hopefully, I’ll get to see her. But life goes on. Everybody around me did, and so did I.”

Since then, she said, her life has been wonderful.

It was her family and the people of Summit County who reinforced her belief that life is far more good than bad. After her stroke, people from throughout the community descended on the Maxwells’ home, altering it to accommodate her wheelchair and adding on a bedroom, bathroom, laundry room and garage.

“They did all that for free,” Maxwell said. “This community has been wonderful to me.”

Maxwell takes full advantage of the Summit Stage’s Mountain Mobility program, a service that has been vital to her. Yes, she said, it would be much easier for her to get around in a less snowy climate, but she and her husband love the people here too much to leave, she said.

Someday, perhaps, they’ll move to Canon City, closer to Maxwell’s Pueblo relatives. But for now, they are here, in close proximity to Maxwell’s young grandchildren and two children.

Maxwell took only a few moments on this wintry April day to look back on her life and mourn what she has lost. As she did then, she shook off those sad thoughts.

All of it, she said, has taught her to love deeply and to live well.

“I try to tell the people close to me that I love them often,” she said. “We don’t know if we’re going to be alive tomorrow, so S one day at a time.”


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