“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.” The Catholic Spirit – January 2021
My dear friend and local author Elizabeth Kelly wrote the following story that I first saw in an abridged version our local Catholic Spirit Newspaper. It touched my heart so deeply and captured the essence of the Valentine’s message I wanted to share with the Gianna family. So, I reached out to her and she has generously given me permission to print the unedited version of this true story for your edification. The unexpected turn of events in this story brought me to tears and was a strong reminder that the gift of music and seeing each person and not their disease or handicap is so vital to relationship and a just society.
See where Leslie and May take you. What will be the action it inspires in you today? Don’t waste the inspiration… get out and make a difference in someone’s life – anyone – our world is in dire need of love and connection.
Warmest Valentine wishes to all of you!
Anne Marie Hansen
Love – its Power to Bring Others to Life
A true story by local author: Elizabeth Kelly (lizk.org)
On January 31, 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 in the first months of his life. His birth mother put him up for adoption. The county administrators asked a local woman, May Lemke, 52, a nurse-governess, 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 six 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 critically important. She would stay up all night nursing him with slippery elm and gently massaging his throat in an effort to help him eat. There were neighbors and friends who thought she was out of touch with reality, 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 ten years old, Leslie had grown to a normal size and was otherwise healthy, but still completely dependent. While he could repeat some phrases, he was non-conversant and unable to express emotions. He was unable to stand or to walk, and 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 would tell him, “This is what it feels like to walk, and soon your legs will be able to walk too.” Her determination in this matter especially was simply unflappable. By age twelve, 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!”
And it wouldn’t be the last answer to prayer that she would receive. By age fifteen, 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 popular tunes of the day. It wasn’t long before Leslie began to play on his own, the spasticity in his hands miraculously disappearing whenever he touched the keys. By the time he was twelve 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, when Leslie was about fourteen, 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 they had watched and Leslie had listened to the previous evening. Leslie had had virtually no exposure to classical music and yet he rendered this complex work with remarkable precision and beauty. “God’s miracle,” said May, “came into full bloom that night.”
Eventually Leslie was identified as a prodigious autistic savant, someone who “displays skills that are so remarkable that they would be classified as extraordinary or genius among individuals who do not have a disability.” He’s been described as “one in a billion,” learning to play many other instruments in addition to the piano. As the years went on more of Leslie’s playful and creative personality was revealed through his music. His recall was phenomenal. It became a running game, to “Stump Leslie.” And almost no one ever did. On the occasions where he did not know some song he was requested to play, he might make up a tune with witty lyrics on the spot to the delight of his audiences.
Leslie went on to charm the world, touring the United States, Japan, and Scandinavia. He has been the subject of numerous documentaries and television shows. Notably, two of his favorite songs are love songs of worship: “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace.”
In the 1980s, May’s health began to fade along with her memory, as she suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. And just as May had vowed that Leslie would never be institutionalized, so May’s daughter, Mary, vowed that May would never be in a nursing home. She brought May and Leslie to live with her.
One of the doctors who worked with Leslie over the years described her last years like this: “As May’s memory faded, it was only Leslie and his music that could bring those memories to life. ‘That’s my boy,’ May would say as they sang together. Then when the music stopped, May would fade to silence once again. Just as she had brought Leslie to life, Leslie could bring her to life.”
May passed away at her daughter’s home, November 6, 1993. Leslie still lives with May’s daughter, and still plays concerts in nursing homes, school, and churches. At the time of this writing, he is sixty-nine years old.
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.