She stands by him, and he starts to fall, and fear shows on his face, because he can't catch himself, because his brain was damaged in those minutes when his mother's blood was diverted, but now Sturkey catches him, and he smiles again. He won't quit. Step up, step down, right, left, deathly serious, neck bulging with the effort, jerking like a baby and bent like an old man, so easy to damage, so hard to repair, and when he is done his grandmother holds him, his breathing soft but deep, and she whispers in his ear.
"Rest on G-Mom's shoulder a little bit."
And he does, and soon they're off to another structured activity, this time in a church gymnasium with the Allegro Foundation, where children with autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy gather to play and learn. Could he have run the 40-yard dash in 4.29 seconds like his father? Could he have caught a deep pass over the middle in the NFL? A teenage volunteer throws him an orange beach ball, pillow-soft, over and over from three feet away, and Rae Carruth's son can catch it only half the time.
An athlete? Yes, Chancellor Lee Adams is an athlete. He won a gold medal last April, in the 30 meters, in a motorized wheelchair, at the Mecklenburg County Special Olympics.
A football player? Yes again. Last year at a park in Charlotte he played in a flag football game with other kids of similar ability. Someone tossed the ball in his lap and he took off in that motor chair with the flag trailing behind him. Every few yards he would stop, and the defenders would close in, and G-Mom would yell, Keep going! Keep going fast! And he would go again, just out of their reach, and stop again, and go again, and finally G-Mom ran to him and the coaches ran to him and he smiled and laughed with delight because he could tell from their reactions that he had done something very good. And that good thing turned out to be a touchdown.
His grandmother leaves the gym for a moment, for a respite from all that intensity, and he sees that she is gone. He turns to you, sensing that you must know something, and he looks into your eyes. And he holds the eye contact without fear or shame. The purity in his gaze is astonishing, like a clean white flame, and then he asks that question again.
She could have filled him with hate, for his father and his Carruth blood; or anger, for the loss of his mother; or bitterness, for the loss of who he could have been. She filled him with something more powerful. He hardly ever cried as a baby, so quick was she to feed him and hold him and change his diapers, and as time went on he seemed to cry only for others. He would cry if one child hit another child, or at the suffering of a movie character, or when his godmother had a nosebleed. When G-Mom had food poisoning, so severe she had to crawl along the floor, there he was, crawling beside her.
She taught him that the rain was a shower of God's blessing, and he believed her, so that when his schoolmates ran inside to stay dry he just stood there and let it fall on him. She taught him that he could do anything, that he had no limits, even though a neurologist told her he would never walk or talk, and now of course he can do both. He can ride horses. He started sixth grade at the end of August. He makes his bed and cleans his room without being told. He wakes up smiling and goes to sleep smiling and in between he looks like the happiest person in the world. On the spectrum of cerebral palsy, he is somewhere near the middle. Conventional wisdom says he will always need help, always be catching up, never quite get to normal. But you never know. Medical technology is advancing. He runs through his therapy with a blazing intensity, and Sturkey thinks he could one day dress himself, prepare his own meals and walk safely around his own home. His grandmother believes he will get a job, get married, prolong the Adams bloodline and do many other amazing things. It may not be wise to bet against her.
They're in the minivan again, driving toward home. You want to go with them, but she will drop you off at your hotel instead. She is polite but firm. The home is Lee's sanctuary. No strangers allowed. It's late afternoon now, the heavy air draped over the Piedmont like a blanket pulled too soon from the drier, and Saundra Adams is talking about Rae Carruth.
"I'm not gonna have anything negative to say about him," she says. "I thank him for my grandson. I thank him for my grandson."