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A Child’s Disability Meets a Mother’s Unending Love

The mother of a blind musical prodigy recalls her initial struggle to cope with her son’s disability.

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From the way my pregnancy had gone there was no sign of anything wrong with the baby. I took care of myself, ate lots of fruit and vegetables, did my stretching exercises. I had every expectation things would go as smoothly as they had when my first son, Jamaal, was born. An easy delivery and a perfect child.

But that May day, when I was in the delivery room, squeezing my husband’s hand as we heard our baby’s first cry, the nurse lifted the boy up in a receiving blanket and exclaimed, “Mrs. Gardner, something is wrong here!” The doctor shot her an angry glance. I looked in horror as the nurse pulled back the blanket to show us our son.

One eye was sealed shut. The other was a milky mass. He had no bridge to his nose and his face looked crushed. Although I knew I should take him in my arms and hold him, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. The nurse whisked him away and a few minutes later I was wheeled to the recovery room.

There I lay, the curtain pulled around me. My husband, James, had gone to make some calls. On the other side of the curtain I could hear other new mothers whispering to their babies, cooing as they coaxed them to nurse. I even heard one mother complain to her husband, “Not another boy,” and I was so filled with a jealous rage that I almost trembled. God, I prayed, why have you done this to us? I was furious.

I thought of all the dreams I had had for this child: How I would cuddle up with him and read from brightly colored picture books, his finger idly tracing the page; how I had hoped he would sing or paint or play the piano like his older brother, his eyes studying the keys. Instead, my baby was blind and painful to look at. I was in shock.

Slowly, deliberately, I walked to the phone and dialed my mom. She was home taking care of Jamaal. My agony and confusion poured out between sobs: “It’s a boy. His eyes won’t open. His face is deformed. I don’t think I can handle this. What am I going to do, Mom?”

My question hung in the air. Then Mom said in quiet, measured tones, “You will bring him home. These are the children we hold dear. Bring him home and nurture him.”

After I hung up, the postpartum nurse led me to a private room. I sank down on the sofa, my mother’s words echoing in my head: “These are the children we hold dear.”

“Nurse,” I said, “I need to fix myself up.” I unzipped my flowered cosmetic case and took out a comb and my brightest lipstick. In my suitcase I found my green satin robe and gold high-heel slippers. I sprayed on my favorite perfume. Maybe my son couldn’t see me, but I wanted to look my best for him.

I made my way down the polished hospital corridor, past the brightly lit newborn nursery to a darker room where special cases were kept. The incubators seemed like tiny space capsules tethered to flashing green screens. Machines whirred and whooshed softly. A nurse appeared at my side and led me to a rocker. “Sit here, Mrs. Gardner,” she said. “I’ll bring him to you.”

She placed a small, blanketed bundle in my arms. Taking a deep breath, I looked down at my son. I had hoped he would look different. But he didn’t. His forehead protruded. Under the sealed eyelid the eyeball was missing. The other was spaced far from it. His bridgeless nose was bent to the side of his face. The doctors called it hypertelorism. I didn’t know what to call it.

But even as anger at God surged through me I began to see things I liked about this baby. He had beautiful black curly hair. His tiny mouth was like a perfect rosebud. His skin was silky. I moved my finger into his soft brown palm and his long and tapered fingers closed around it. Gently I unwrapped him. Except for the face he was perfect in every way. He turned his head and nuzzled. I opened the green satin robe and soon he was nursing.

As we rocked I began to talk to him. “Hello, Jermaine,” I said. “That’s your name. I am your mommy and I love you. I’m sorry I waited so long to come. Please forgive me. You have a big brother and a wonderful father who love you, too.”

“I promise to work hard to make your life the best it can be. Your grandpa had a lovely voice and could play the piano and sing. So what if you can’t see? I can give you music. That I can do.”

Over the next few months, my husband and I poured our energies into filling up the darkness in Jermaine’s life. One of us carried him in his Snugli or backpack at all times. We talked and sang to him constantly. We inundated him with music, mostly classical interspersed with some Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder. Four-year-old Jamaal was already taking piano lessons and when he practiced I sat next to him on the piano bench with his little brother in my lap.

But I still couldn’t let go of my anger. I wouldn’t go to church. I stopped reading the Bible. I hardly ever prayed. Because I couldn’t stand anyone staring at my baby, I avoided going out of the house. I didn’t want to hear people’s comments. What really hurt was not getting any smiles from Jermaine, which is common in blind infants—they can’t mimic a smile because they don’t see anyone smiling at them. But it felt like another slight from God.

Every day my younger sister Keetie called me. “Jacqui,” she said, “you’ve got to pray to God to forgive you. You’ve got to come back to him. He has a plan.” Still I resisted.

Then one day when Jermaine was 6 months old, my sister called me while I was fixing dinner. The baby was strapped to my back, toying with my hair. Music blared from the stereo. Cradling the phone between shoulder and ear, I stirred the spaghetti sauce. And for some reason I found myself crying. I put the spoon down and repeated the words Keetie was praying, “Lord, forgive me. I have been angry at you. I’m sorry. Help me trust in your wisdom. I know you have some plan in this. Help me see it.”

“Hallelujah!” Keetie shouted.

Two months later God’s plan was revealed. Jamaal had been practicing the piano in the family room, playing “Lightly Row” again and again. (By then I had taken to leaving Jermaine strapped to his high chair next to the piano while his brother played.) He had just finished, and came downstairs to the bedroom where James and I were sitting.

Suddenly a familiar plink plunk-plunk, plink plunk-plunk floated down the stairs. I looked at James; James looked at me. It couldn’t be Jamaal. He was jumping on the bed in front of us. We stared at each other for a second, then tore upstairs.

At the piano, his head thrown back, a first-ever smile splitting his face, Jermaine was playing “Lightly Row.” The right keys, the right rhythm. It was extraordinary.

“Thank you, Jesus!” I cried, and gave Jermaine a huge hug. James ran to the phone to call almost everybody we knew. In the next hour the house filled up. I sat Jermaine at the piano in his high chair and we stood around expectantly. Nothing happened. I hummed “Lightly Row” and played a few notes. Jermaine sat silent, his hands motionless.

“It was just a fluke,” James said.

“No,” I said, “it couldn’t have been.” Our 8-month-old son had perfectly replicated a tune.

One morning two weeks later as I was washing dishes, he did it again, this time playing another piece Jamaal had practiced. Dripping suds, I ran into the family room and stood listening as the notes became firmer and the tune melded into its correct form. Jermaine had found the incredible gift God had given him.

There was no stopping him. He demanded to be at the piano from morning until bedtime. Often I fed him there, wiping strained applesauce off the keys as I thanked God. At first he only played Jamaal’s practice songs, then he played Lionel Richie’s “Hello” after hearing it on the tape recorder. At 18 months he played the left-hand part of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” while my sister played the right-hand. When he gave his first concerts I crawled under the piano to work the foot pedals for him.

By the time he was out of diapers I was desperate to find him a good teacher. I heard about a man at the Maryland School for the Blind and called him. I explained that Jermaine was already playing the piano. “How old is he?” the teacher asked.

“Two and a half.”

“A child that age is too young to start,” he said disapprovingly, just as strains of the “Moonlight Sonata” filtered in from the other room. “By the way, Mrs. Gardner, who is that playing in the background?”

“That’s my son!”

“Bring him in!”

Soon invitations for Jermaine to perform came from far and wide. He appeared on national television. He played for two first ladies in the White House, and Stevie Wonder asked him to play with him at his studio in California. Thanks to a pair of Texas philanthropists who saw Jermaine on TV he was flown to Dallas, where he had special surgery to rebuild his face. Now with his dark glasses on, he looks like any 13-year-old kid.

Today he attends a public school and excels in reading Braille, math and spelling. He has added clarinet to his repertoire. He says that when he grows up he would like to start a music school for the blind.

One afternoon recently I watched Jermaine play a few selections for friends. He had come downstairs barefoot, his long legs protruding from green Bermuda shorts. As his fingers flew across the keys I thought of my sister Keetie’s words. God had a plan for our son. He did indeed.

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