Nancy Foster is clutching a bag of ice to her forehead.
It is the end of her day at the Maryland School for the Blind, where she works as a teacher's aide, and she is suffering one of her raging migraines. Nancy hasn't been sleeping well lately. Mainly, she's been worrying about Tony.
It is nearly a full-time occupation for her -- worrying about Tony's health, Tony's education, Tony's future. Nancy throws herself into it with fierce intensity. He deserves so much. His sheer enthusiasm for life leaves her awe-struck. She loves to show off pictures of Tony -- Tony skiing, Tony running, Tony in Halloween costume.
"He's so amazing, you know," she says.
Tony is mostly deaf as well as blind, and he is Nancy's foster son. The label is a mere convenience, giving her the right to care for Tony without taking away benefits that she cannot afford to give him. If it weren't for those benefits -- including a monthly stipend for his living expenses -- she would legally adopt Tony.
Nancy met Tony at the Maryland School for the Blind, where he is a student and where she has worked on and off since 1980. He has lived with her for five years, ever since Sept. 22, 1987. They call that their "Nancy and Tony Together Day" and celebrate by doing something fun, like bowling.
Nancy doesn't consider herself Tony's mother. After all, he is 20 and she is only 35.
He is, quite simply, "my best friend," Nancy says.
They come from different backgrounds. She is white. He is black. She was born in Cape Cod. He comes from Frederick. She is the only member of her family who never finished college. Tony is considered mentally retarded by the Maryland School for the Blind, although a private evaluation placed him in the low-normal end of the IQ range.
But they came together in a place where such disparities seem trivial. At the Maryland School for the Blind, there are children whose only parents are the state, children whose smallest action is a triumph of the human spirit.
It is a world apart, a place where differences like race and sex and ethnicity fade away in the face of extraordinary handicaps. It fosters either numbness or emotional intensity. It creates bonds that transcend boundaries.
At least five staff members, including Nancy, have committed to a child at the school.
They don't do it out of compassion, or a grand and noble impulse, or even a need to mend the hurts of these neediest of children.
They do it, like Nancy, out of slow-growing love for one particular child, one special person.
Ultimately, it is not the setting that engenders these singular loves. It is the children themselves.
Tony Hall walks into the late-afternoon hubbub of the Holiday Spa with another deaf and blind student. Each young man rests a hand on the arm of his trainer. The plush health club in White Marsh has a high-tech decor accented with bright neon. Earnest men and women are pedaling hard on Lifecycles. To Tony, it is a buzz of indistinguishable sounds and darkness, but he walks without hesitation.
Tony and his friend, Charles, come over from the Maryland School for the Blind every Wednesday, except when Tony has track practice. The health club is just minutes from the Taylor Avenue campus, which straddles the Baltimore City-Baltimore County line.
Today, Nancy is waiting at the club. She walks up behind Tony as he sits in the foyer and taps his shoulder. He reaches behind to feel her hair and face, trying to identify her. Their hands fly
back and forth in silent communication as they sign into each other's palms.
When Tony realizes it's Nancy, he tries to climb through a railing to hug her. They talk. Tony accompanies his signing with his own particular language, made up of garbled words that only those who know him best can decipher. Tony has been largely deaf since birth and blind since he was a toddler as a result of a congenital affliction called Stickler's Syndrome.
Tony wants to know if Nancy is going to exercise. She says no, she's here to watch. The $665 monthly stipend she receives from Social Services in Tony's home county of Frederick helps pay for Tony's sessions, but Nancy can't afford a membership for herself on her school salary. This year, she pushed Frederick County to pay for a full-time interpreter for Tony, Piel Levine, who serves as Tony's eyes as well as his translator. Now it is Piel who guides Tony from machine to machine at the spa.
Piel shadows Tony movements with the weights, helping him lift them. Nancy swallows a familiar objection. Nobody ever seems to think Tony can do it by himself. Nobody seems to see in him the ability and potential that she does.
Tony is sweating now. He gets a drink of water from the fountain, finding the spurt of liquid with his hand. He gropes for purchase on machines he has never seen and cannot envision. He throws himself into the movements. Periodically, he invites Nancy, Piel, Charles and Charles' trainer, Gwen Pair, to feel his biceps. He is alternately gregarious and intent as he struggles to do what is asked of him.
Gwen helps Tony onto the hyperback extension machine. Tony is anchored by his ankles as he lies on his back, his upper body hanging down. He is suspended in darkness.
He crosses his arms on his chest and struggles upward.
Nancy never intended to be a foster parent. She moved to Baltimore in 1979 with her husband and worked a series of odd jobs before joining the School for the Blind. By the time she met Tony, she had escaped her unhappy marriage. She had lots of friends. She had peace.
It was 1984 and Nancy had dropped by one of the residential cottages at the school to see old friends. Inside she found pandemonium. A child had locked himself in the bathroom and had refused to come out. He had screamed and carried on. In his own good time, he came out, unchastened. Nancy saw a thin little boy who couldn't see, couldn't hear, couldn't talk and couldn't sign. Yet he had found a small way to express himself.
Who was he behind that silence? What had he to say?
Later, she was assigned to Tony's class.
"How do you get to know someone who can't talk?" she remembers asking Tony's teacher, Julie Gaynor.
"Watch," Julie said.
So Nancy watched. She saw his frustration, the daily struggle of his life. She saw his passion for that life. She was touched.
Then Tony's foster parent, a cafeteria worker at the school, said she had to give him up. Her daughter had died suddenly, leaving four children. Tony would have to go to a state institution.
Nancy couldn't let that happen. Not to Tony.
Social workers took Tony from his father when he was a baby, after Tony's mother left her husband and two children. Since then, Tony has been in a dozen foster homes. Hers, Nancy says grimly, will be the last. Not because Tony will be 21 soon and out of state custody, but because when she decided to take him into her life she made a permanent commitment.
Tony's father, who has remarried, approves. Reginald Hall knows that Nancy can give his son what he cannot. He says he would be comfortable with Nancy's adopting Tony. He has gotten closer to Tony thanks to Nancy, who reinitiated contact that had been terminated years ago by social workers.
Nancy has a boyfriend, but Steve knows that Tony comes first. He gets along well with Tony, who always greets Steve with a hug.
Nancy's family accepts Tony as well, though her mother struggles with the relationship. She worries that Nancy will never be able to remarry as long as she has a deaf, blind, black teen-ager living with her.
"It's kind of like, 'What does Steve think of Tony? If he has problems, you have to send Tony back to Social Services,' " Nancy says. "I say, 'Mom, Tony is not a puppy that when I get tired I'm going to give back. I made a commitment to Tony first.' "
Having him has brought consistency to her life. She takes his well-being as a sacred trust. She has learned to fight for him -- an awkward role since it pits her against her employers at the school. She tries to make clear that her battles on Tony's behalf are nothing personal, but she won't give up. She has sought legal advice in her push to get Tony what he needs. The school, she says, just doesn't have enough staff who are trained in deaf-blindness.
At the Randallstown home that Nancy and Tony share with Nancy's friend Linda Woodward, Nancy tries to do what she feels the school doesn't -- ask more of Tony.
At home, Tony takes the trash to the curb on Wednesdays. He sets and clears the table, washes dishes and loads and unloads the dishwasher. He does his own laundry, folding it and putting it away. He cleans the bathroom, and although sometimes he misses a spot, "It sparkles when he's done," Nancy says.
He also takes care of his cat, Bubba Hall, which he received earlier this year -- his first pet ever.
Each morning, he shaves himself with his electric razor, occasionally lopping off his sideburns. He has his own room with "Anthony" on the door and he makes his bed every morning. On a Braille calendar, he and Nancy have marked vacations and visits to "Dad's house" in Frederick.
Nancy sees him getting a job one day -- perhaps folding laundry in a hospital. She wants him to have his own home, sharing it with other deaf-blind students. She says she has to explore funding for such housing -- it is in short supply.
Tony still would be able to call her house home, Nancy says. "There is a forever for us," she says.
It is a sunny afternoon, and the 96-acre campus of the School for the Blind is full of the whirring sound of lawn mowers. Students are gathering at the track, where they often run in tandem, a blind student holding on to the arm of one who can see.
In the wide, cool, linoleum-floored hallways of the buildings, an adult is occasionally seen bending over a child. Despite the institutional overtones of buff-colored walls and faintly antiseptic smells, there is a sense of self-containment about this place. Notices posted by elevators tell of births and other family events in the lives of teachers and staff. School employees often troop en masse to a ballet recital, a track meet and, occasionally, a funeral. For many of the children here, the school provides the only family they have.
As in any family, there are pettinesses and squabbles and disagreements. But there are invisible ties as well. Staff members share close friendships. Students act like siblings. Deep connections develop between children and staff.
"You basically don't meet people like this in your normal walk of life," says Howard Smith, who works at the school with his wife, Pat, and has a foster daughter who attends. "It takes a special type of person to work here. People are drawn to each other."
At the Maryland School for the Blind, 325 men and women are responsible for taking care of some 200 students, five days a week, 24 hours a day. The majority of the children live on campus, in dorms and cottages, and go home on weekends and holidays. The children come from all over Maryland. It is not uncommon for them to come to the school at age 5 and leave at age 21, when under the law their right to a free public education ceases.
Once, the private, state-funded school served mostly children who were healthy apart from their blindness. Today, those children are in their neighborhood schools as part of the movement called mainstreaming. For those who remain, being blind is often the least of their difficulties. About 95 percent of the students at the school have multiple handicaps. At least 85 percent are retarded or developmentally disabled. They are so dependent that the central challenge of the school is teaching independence.
The staff teaches students how to tie their shoes and how to cross an intersection, how to brush their teeth and how to read, how to drink from a cup and how to hold a spoon. They clean them and feed them. They change their diapers. They teach them Braille and they teach them about the birds and the bees. They are full-time, paid parents even though they are required to maintain professional distance.
School policy prohibits staff from socializing with students. Nevertheless, relationships such as that between Nancy Foster and Tony Hall are accepted. These are relationships that typically develop over time, says Kirk Walter, assistant superintendent at the school. It is left to the school and the staff to negotiate the gray areas that result. The dual role of parent and staff member, acknowledges Mr. Walter, can be "a little uncomfortable."
Yet school officials recognize the inevitability of strong attachments, the difficulty of maintaining distance.
"Our staff have to really care about what they're doing, otherwise it's a hard way to make a living," Mr. Walter says.
When Nancy first got to know Tony, he was notorious for his tantrums. During one burst of rage, he threw a metal object and broke an instructor's nose. His teacher, Julie Gaynor, had her own method of dealing with his rages. She had one of the aides walk him down to the school gym, where Tony would run on the treadmill until he was exhausted.
The first time Nancy had to walk Tony to the gym, he pinched and pushed her. He wanted a fight. She was terrified, but ignored him. He ran until he was drenched with sweat.
Afterward, Nancy took him to the bathroom and wiped him down with damp paper towels. It became a routine. The anger. The run. The calm afterward as he let Nancy make him comfortable. He would be grateful and relaxed, and he'd say, "Thank you, Nancy."
He started asking for her when it was time for the treadmill. After a while, he no longer needed that outlet. It was a process of coming to terms with himself. In sharing that process, Nancy began to know Tony.
"I guess I saw then that Tony wasn't a bad boy," Nancy remembers. "He just had a lot of emotions inside that he didn't know how to deal with."
When Tony had to have surgery to remove a tooth that had grown in his sinuses, Nancy and Julie Gaynor took turns at his bedside. Tony was covered in dried blood, tubes running into his veins. He was in pain, but he didn't cry or complain. He was 14.
She was helping him to the bathroom when his body revolted at the drugs in his system. He threw up all over himself and her.
Nancy recalls: "All he could say was, 'I'm sorry, Nancy. I'm sorry, Nancy.' And I said, 'It's OK. It's OK, Tony.' " She gave him a bath, his arm extended out of the tub to protect the tubes. "I got him back to bed and it was, 'Thank you, Nancy. I love you.' "
At nighttime, he asked: "Going home, Nancy?"
"What do you want?" she said.
"Stay here. Stay. Please."
So Nancy lay down on a fold-up bed next to his, and she reached through the railing of the hospital bed to hold his hand. She woke up in the morning with a numb arm and a circle of doctors staring down at her and Tony with their linked hands.
"I've never had that kind of bond with another human being," Nancy says.
That was December 1986. In January, after a lot of thought, she asked to become Tony's foster mother.
When school lets out for the summer, Nancy and Tony usually vacation together. It was during one such trip that Nancy had a heart attack.
It was May of 1989. They were at a folk-dance weekend in a YMCA camp in West Virginia. It was late Sunday night. Nancy and Tony left the dancing, walking into the darkness of the campground together. Tony was holding on to Nancy's arm. Then Nancy felt pain shooting in her neck, traveling down her arm, crushing her chest. She couldn't breathe. She knew she was going to black out. Everything was spinning. She could no longer feel her mouth, her body.
"God, this can't be right," she was thinking. "I can't die because there's no one to take care of Tony."
Tony felt the tension in her arm. "Nancy, Nancy, are you OK? Are you OK?" They made it downhill to the women's bathroom, Tony supporting Nancy. Inside, Tony grabbed a woman by the arm. She couldn't understand his garbled words. Nancy whispered: "I need a doctor." Then Tony sat on the bathroom floor, propping Nancy up in front of him, holding her.
When help came, they took Tony away. She remembers being under an oxygen mask and asking, over and over again, "Where's Tony?" In the week she spent in the hospital, Linda Woodward and Julie Gaynor took Tony. When Nancy and Tony were reunited she cried. He yelled, clapped, hugged her.
"I missed you," Tony chattered. "I love you. Nancy's heart is broken. Nancy's heart is broken. Are you better?"
Nancy answered his questions, feeling only fear. If she didn't recover fully, she would not be allowed to be a foster parent. She would lose Tony.
Tony worries about another heart attack. When Nancy has one of her frequent headaches, he wants to know if her heart hurts.
"When Nancy's heart hurt, I was sad. I cried," Tony signs. "She said, 'Ow, Ow,' " Tony remembers. "I said, 'Get up, Nancy.' I helped you."
If there is another heart attack, Tony says, "I can help."
He takes Nancy's hand in his.
She lifts his hand and kisses it.
He repeats the gesture, then stands quietly beside her.
GELAREH ASAYESH is a free-lance writer based in Silver Spring.