When her blind, facially disfigured son Jermaine was a newborn 20 years ago, Jacqui Kess-Gardner prayed he would die in his sleep.
Instead, the boy from Ednor Gardens, a neighborhood near the old Memorial Stadium, developed into a musical wonder, amazing fellow students and teachers at the Baltimore School for the Arts with his prowess and perfect pitch as a classical pianist. Now, at 20, Gardner is a student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, training to become a professional musician and recording artist.
He and his mother appeared yesterday at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library before an appreciative audience who remembered him as a child performing on the local Oprah Winfrey-Richard Sher show, People Are Talking. He also became known outside the city through news articles on his disability and musical gifts.
Yesterday was a chance to hear the young man perform and his mother speak about the struggle behind the Mozart, Beethoven and Bach pieces he plays so flawlessly.
Reading aloud from her self-published book, The Incredible Journey: The Jermaine Gardner Story, Kess-Gardner, 50, said one of her son's eyes was so misshapen when he was born -- because of facial cleft syndrome -- that it looked like a raisin. "He was extremely hard to look at ...[and] I was furious with God for this one," she said.
The audience of 75 in the library's Edgar Allan Poe Room listened carefully to Kess-Gardner speak her autobiographical piece -- all except one person.
Gardner, the subject of the tale, sat at an electronic keyboard in the corner, wearing sunglasses and listening to music on his earphones.
"I gave the OK for the book, but I'm not interested in reading it," Gardner explained. "I've lived it."
Kess-Gardner, a nurse, said her volume is based on journals she kept over the years as Gardner, the younger of her two sons, grew up.
"I needed to write the story and cry over it," she said. "It was therapeutic."
The narrative's most dramatic point comes when Kess-Gardner realized Gardner, then only 8 or 9 months old, was playing on the piano -- by ear -- the music his brother Jamaal, 4, was learning at the Peabody Institute of Music.
"That's when my faith in God was restored," she told her listeners.
A trip to Dallas for three weeks of reconstructive surgery on Gardner's face is also described in detail as a major turning point.
The mother's first-person account is not all angst-filled, however. As he bloomed as a concert pianist, Gardner appeared in musical performances at the World Bank and the White House. The narrative ends when he begins college.
Marco Merrick, 41, a church organist, rose after Kess-Gardner's reading to praise her "fortitude."
"This was an epiphany for me, so inspiring," Merrick said. "She's been selfless in sharing her story."
A mother and daughter, Barbara Blackwell and Jeanna Hawkins, identified themselves as members of the Ladies Literary Tea at the Central Church of Christ in West Baltimore.
"I've always wanted to hear him [Gardner] play," Hawkins said.
Because the keyboard was too small for most classical pieces, Gardner played mainly jazz -- including an improvised rendition of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music -- as his mother signed books,
Audience members asked why Gardner headed to Oberlin for his musical studies.
"He wanted to be as far away from me as he could be," Kess-Gardner said, smiling.
Gardner did not speak formally but did chat between pieces.
He noted that he had added hip-hop to his repertoire. And he reassured the audience that he intends to "live around here, anywhere between Baltimore and Washington."
Most important, Gardner said, at the age of 20, the story of his life is just getting started. "The book isn't finished being written yet," he said.