Spiritual Life

LIZ KELLY: This year, let’s help bring others to life

In 1952, a little boy named Leslie was born prematurely in the Midwest. He had brain damage, cerebral palsy, and problems so severe with his eyes that they had to be removed.

His birth mother put him up for adoption. The county asked a local nurse-governess, May Lemke, 52, who had already raised five children of her own, if she would take the child, warning her that he would surely die, and soon.

May’s response? “Not under my care.”

When Leslie first arrived at May’s, though he was 6 months old, he was so weak and lifeless that May couldn’t tell if he was asleep or not. He was unable to eat or swallow, and the first few hours under May’s care were critical. She stayed up all night nursing him with slippery elm and massaging his throat in an effort to help him eat. Neighbors and friends thought she was crazy, but she said, “I talked to God about it and he said, ‘Give it a try, May!’” And try she did. Miraculously, Leslie was soon eating – and growing stronger every day.

At 10 years old, Leslie had grown to a normal size but was still completely dependent. He was non-conversant and unable to stand. The spasticity in his limbs was so severe he couldn’t hold a utensil. But May, determined that Leslie should have as full a life as possible, created a contraption whereby she strapped Leslie to her back – she wasn’t even five feet tall – and carrying him by this method, she told him, “This is what it feels like to walk, and soon you’ll be able to walk too.”

By age 12, Leslie was able to hold himself up. In a priceless scene in the television movie that was made of Leslie’s life, May, jubilant at this achievement, raises her hands to heaven and says, “Thank you, Lord! But don’t think this is the last thing I’m going to ask you for!”

By age 15, Leslie was walking. He could dress himself, use the bathroom, and feed himself.

Far more extraordinary was Leslie’s relationship to music. May and her husband Joe noted that Leslie would brighten when he heard it, so they bought him a piano. And in the same fashion as her walking contraption, May would place Leslie’s hands atop hers while she played simple tunes. It wasn’t long before Leslie began to play on his own, the spasticity in his hands miraculously disappearing whenever he touched the keys. Soon he was playing the piano and singing songs verbatim after hearing them only once, never having had a single music lesson.

In an especially memorable moment, May and Joe were awakened in the middle of the night to hear Leslie playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 flawlessly. It had been the theme song from a movie Leslie had listened to the previous evening. “God’s miracle,” said May, “came into full bloom that night.”

Through his music, Leslie’s personality shone through, playful and creative. He would go on to charm and amaze audiences around the world. In the 1980s, when May developed Alzheimer’s, falling prey to a terrible vacant silence, it was Leslie’s music that would bring her back to life. As he played, she would revive and say, “That’s my boy.”

Whose faith will you bring to life this year? Who in your world needs a leg up, some assistance and your determination to find their miraculous flourishing?

All-powerful Father, there is no such thing as “a hopeless case” when you are at the helm. And when I am blind to it, enliven my faith to see the delightful, surprising, generosity of your plan.

Liz Kelly is the author of nine books including the award-winning “Jesus Approaches” and “Love Like A Saint: Cultivating Virtue with Holy Women” (2021). Visit her website at LizK.org.