An incredible thing happened at the symphony last night. As Scott and I sat in fabulous Music Hall in downtown Cincinnati, surrounded by most of our twenty children, nine-year-old Kathryn did her best to get her cerebral palsy-encumbered body comfortable in the soft folding theater-style seat and take in all of the stimuli bombarding her there. During the pieces by Maurice Ravel, she mostly seemed to settle into a kind of peaceful boredom. But during the first George Gershwin number, something changed.
Kathryn was born in Guatemala in May 2004 with severe brain damage. Much of the right frontal lobe of her brain never formed, and she has a rare brain deformity called Schizencephaly, characterized by clefts throughout her brain. These clefts interrupt the critical pathways that make our brains function normally. Her intellectual abilities are severely impaired; she experiences seizures; she has never achieved complete toliet training; and she requires much help with bathing, dressing, eating, transfers to and from her wheelchair, and all other daily tasks.
Initially, we were urged not to pursue Kathryn’s adoption and told that she would probably never interact with us or even know who we were—that she would spend her life as what is often described as a “vegetable.” We only knew that God had brought her into our lives and called us to go and bring her home; and that she was our daughter.
When we met Kathryn in 2005, she was so withdrawn from the world that she had been mistakenly diagnosed as also being blind and deaf. She rarely showed any reaction to the world around her, simply staring into space, locked away where no one could reach her. And then her daddy brought music into her life.
The first day we met her, Scott began singing to her, and within days, she was making eye contact and smiling at us. Music drew her out of the dark places where she was trapped, and she has loved music ever since. She starts each day asking us to play her favorites, and she ends each day falling asleep to music in her bedside CD player. And she proved everyone wrong. She does interact with us and love us and state her opinions and make choices and understand simple jokes and exhibit imagination.
But in spite of all her unexpected accomplishments and her great love of music, she has never shown any ability to recognize notes or tempos in the songs she tries to warble along with or “dance” to in her wheelchair. And then, last night….
As the orchestra moved into Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” she grasped my hand tightly and began to very rhythmically beat out the tempo against her own leg. At first, I thought it was just a coincidence that she was moving our arms together to the beat of the music, but she just kept going—keeping near-perfect rhythm, even changing her speed and intensity with the ebb and flow of the music. I held my breath, afraid of breaking the magic. I wanted to just sit there all night, watching one more lock click open in my sweet baby’s broken little brain. It happened over and over again throughout the concert—the stillness of her body during the Ravel pieces, and then the immediate connection and hand-tapping during the Gershwin numbers.
Could we have lived a full enough life without such moments as these? Probably. We already had a beautiful and happy family. Would our days be easier if we weren’t caring for this almost ninety-pound, practically helpless child? Absolutely. And we could reason that neither we nor Kathryn would ever have known what we were missing if we had left her where she was. Most people could argue that as sweet as such moments are, it’s not like Kathryn is really making any real contribution to the world.
But I think they would be wrong. I think that none of us really knows how much we may be affected by Kathryn’s determination as she struggles every day to figure out her own personal tempo in life; or by her moments of brilliancy; or by her ability to live out her name, Kathryn Felicity, which means “pure joy,” as happiness oozes from her very pores and euphoric joy sometimes bursts from her, lighting up her eyes or filling the air with hysterical giggles or sounds barely recognizable as singing.
I know for a fact that I am not who I would’ve been had Kathryn never come into our lives. She has made me a better person, helped me find my own slower, more deliberate tempo than the one I would be experiencing without the indelible imprint she has left on my heart.
And who knows? Maybe her little rays of influence break through barriers, penetrating the hearts and lives of others who just happen to momentarily cross her path during times like last night.
Just maybe, angels dwell among us for brief periods in the form of people like Kathryn, strumming the cords of our minds and souls, bringing more sense than we can imagine to the rhythm of our own lives. Just maybe.