The singular relationship of Nancy Foster and Tony Hall


December 13, 1992|By Gelareh Asayesh

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.

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