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Javits' wife Marian decided early on that Washington was a Government "company town" and refused to live there, pursuing instead her interest in the arts in New York City. This arrangement led to an unconventional marriage, which Javits described as "two lives interacting and intersecting but not congruent." The discovery in 1979 of Javits' illness, also called Lou Gehrig's disease, led to a new dependence on his wife and also to a final career crisis. Even after losing the Republican nomination to Alfonse D'Amato, the eternal public man refused to retire and insisted on running for a fifth term in 1980 as a Liberal. That stubbornness caused his only election loss.
But the illness also displayed Javits at his most courageous as he adopted the plight of the terminally ill for his final cause. His mind sharp to the end, he turned up at meetings in his wheelchair, his head supported by a brace because his neck muscles had atrophied. "Life does not stop with terminal illness," he said. "Only the patient stops if he doesn't have the will to go forward with life." No one could fairly accuse Javits of lacking that will.