Nov. 10, 2006 — -- When I met 18-year old Patrick Henry Hughes, I knew he was musically talented. I had been told so, had read that he was very able for someone his age and who had been blind and crippled since birth.
Patrick's eyes are not functional; his body and legs are stunted. He is in a wheelchair. When we first shook hands, his fingers seemed entirely too thick to be nimble. So when he offered to play the piano for me and his father rolled his wheelchair up to the baby grand, I confess that I thought to myself, "Well, this will be sweet. He has overcome so much. How nice that he can play piano."
The original plan, I thought, would be this: We were going to talk a bit as he played. That was the plan. Hughes would explain how he managed to navigate the keyboard and how he first learned the piano and what his favorite songs were.
But then Patrick put his hands to the keyboard, and his fingers began to race across it -- the entire span of it, his fingers moving up and back and over and across the keys so quickly and intricately that my fully-functional eyesight couldn't keep up with them. I was stunned.
The music his hands drew from that piano was so lovely and lyrical and haunting, so rich and complex and beyond anything I had imagined he would play that there was nothing I could say. All I could do was listen.
That is the power of Patrick Henry Hughes. He quietly makes you listen.
"I mean, God made me blind and didn't give me the ability to walk. I mean, big deal." Patrick said, smiling. "He gave me the talent to play piano and trumpet and all that good stuff."
This is Patrick's philosophy in life, and he wants people to know it. He isn't fazed by what many of us would consider insurmountable obstacles.
"I'm the kind of person that's always going to fight till I win," he said. "That's my main objective. I'm gonna fight till I win."
Patrick also attends the University of Louisville and plays trumpet in the marching band. The band director suggested it, and Patrick and his father, Patrick John Hughes, who have faced tougher challenges together, decided "Why not?"
"That's right," the younger Patrick said.
"Don't tell us we can't do something," Patrick's father added, with a chuckle. He looks at Patrick with a mixture of love and loyalty and admiration, something not always seen. in the eyes of a father when he gazes at his son.
"I've told him before. He's my hero," the elder Hughes said.
Patrick's father attends every practice and every game with him, and learns all the routines. It's fascinating to watch them together, with Patrick focused on his trumpet's notes, swaying with the rest of the band in time with the music, and his father focused on being his son's eyes and legs.
And this is no sit-still-in-the-wheelchair-while-the-band-marches-around-you routine: Patrick and his father are right in the thick of it, with the wheelchair sprinting and spinning in formation and Patrick hanging on and playing his heart out.
Patrick says the other students in the band have been great to them.
"The students always help out Dad because sometimes he might get out of step," he explained impishly.
Patrick's father grins and nods. He concedes that navigating a wheelchair across the thick grass of a football field, in formation, sometimes at top speed, offers many exciting challenges for a man old enough to be the father of a college student. Fortunately, fellow band members are eager and willing to point him in the right direction.
"The biggest problem is sometimes when I'm backing up with Patrick, I can't stop quick enough." he said. "I'll have a horn player behind me, and they've gotten smart enough now that, rather than running into their horn, they put their hand up."
Some parents might see some bigger problems in all of this. For example, Patrick's father works an overnight shift at a shipping company and gets four or five hours of sleep so he can attend Patrick's classes and band practices with him all day.
Patrick's mother, Patricia Hughes, works full-time to supplement their income. She also takes care of the household, Patrick's medical needs, and siblings, and handles the concerns of every parent of a disabled child who looks down the road and wonders how it could possibly work out.
That's just not how the Hughes family looks at things. Patrick taught them to see it all differently, his father says.
"Back then he was born it was, 'Why us? What did we do that this happened to us?'" he said. "And we ask the same question nowadays, but we put it in a whole new light. You know, 'What did we do to deserve such a special young man, who's brought us so, so much."
Patrick John Hughes' gaze drifted again to his son, and both their faces lit up with smiles.
"He sees the world in a way that we can't even imagine," the father said.
Just listen to young Patrick and you know what his father means.
"I've always felt that my talent has really been a gift from God," he said.
Patrick includes his blindness, by the way, in the list of gifts.
"That's one of the great benefits I've found of being blind. I don't see the skin color, I don't see the hair length, I don't see the eye shape, I just see what's inside the person," he said.
Actually, Patrick said, blindness more than a gift to him.
"I would have to say a blessing, because overall, it's shown me a complete world."
That's how young Patrick Henry Hughes sees the world.
"He has so much more to teach me," his father said. "And I think to myself: I see just what you mean. He's taught me so much already.