God Is So Good: James’ Story

James Lowdermilk was eight years old the day he picked out a tune on the keyboard for the first time. The television had been tuned all day to the Jerry Lewis Telethon, an annual fundraiser for muscular dystrophy that featured, that year, a solo performance by a little boy who sang the old gospel tune, “God Is So Good.” Betty Lowdermilk was in the kitchen, cooking supper, half listening to the telethon, and the next thing she heard was the song’s melody coming from her son’s bedroom. She ran down the hall and found him sitting on the floor, playing the keyboard she had bought in the hopes that someday he might play it.

James is 46 now, and much of his life is defined by the things he cannot do. His words come out muffled, usually one at a time. He can write his name and address, but he cannot read. Even when he speaks, his tongue trips over the three long syllables in Lowdermilk. So much seems beyond his grasp, but music is another matter altogether. James’ fingers fly across the keyboard, picking out gospel tunes and American standards, the notes taking him to a place far beyond disability.

Betty keeps a music room for him in her house in Greensboro, with an electric keyboard, drums, a xylophone and a melodica. He comes home every other weekend, and after breakfast he heads straight to the music room. James and his mother usually eat out for lunch and then it’s straight back to the music room. His keyboard sits in front of a bay window, and in good weather neighbors walk by to listen to the music that drifts out onto the street: “Amazing Grace,” “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” “Silent Night,” “Jesus Loves Me,” “God is So Good” and so much more. Sometimes Betty comes in and sits down in a rocking chair and listens. The music still amazes her.

“And you see — he really plays. He really does,” she says. “Half the time he don’t even look at the keyboard. It’s wonderful. He’s right. God is so good.”

“Yup,” James adds.

Before James began to play, Betty had always heard that some children with Down syndrome are drawn to music. She bought him a keyboard. And when she thinks about how he can play when there are so many other things he struggles with, she has always settled on the one explanation that makes sense to her. “He gets it straight from heaven. I know it’s from heaven. I can feel it. I really can,” she says. “I’m sure you all felt a little of it today. Didn’t you?”

James lived with his mother until he was 27, when he moved to Winston-Salem to the group home on Ebert Street. He was always surprising her by abilities that defied expectations for a child with Down syndrome, even when that meant trouble. She likes to tell the story of the time he got into a can of red paint that she was using to paint the fence in the backyard. She had gone inside to the answer the telephone and in those moments he poured the entire can over his head. There was the time, too, he got into an open bottle of wine she’d left in the refrigerator and she sent him off to school drunk. And the times she would take him to the nursing home where she worked in the cafeteria only to find him in the dining hall playing gospel music and preaching to the congregation of patients.

When he’s home with his mother, James plays as long as he likes. But back at the group home, James follows a routine that often leaves little time for music. During the day, he attends classes for disabled adults. The minute he gets home, he irons his clothes for the next day, makes a box lunch and when it’s his turn to help with dinner, he cooks a packet of seasoned noodles or rice. When there’s time, he likes to fill out papers with his name and address. James Lowdermilk, he writes. “Address in Greensboro?”

Theon Warren, the group home manager, read about his talent for music in the reports that were sent to her with his admission papers. She didn’t allow a keyboard in his room because she worried his playing might disturb others in the household. About 10 years ago, someone donated an organ to the home for James to play. He plays for visitors and occasionally for his housemates. Theon never has figured out the settings on the organ; James did, long ago, without her help.

On Mondays, James sings with the Inner Rhythm Choir, a group for disabled adults. Jacki Rullman, the director, encourages him to play accompaniment, but has had to limit his time at the piano so that he doesn’t take over the rehearsal. Over the years, she has watched him learn an untold number of songs just by listening to the choir sing. When she asks for an accompaniment, James can pick out the tune and the key and she knows to expect a certain tempo from him. For a while, he played “Amazing Grace” at performances, but James liked to get fancy, improvising trills and rhythms that made it hard for the choir to keep up. So she switched him to “Do Lord,” a hymn with a heavy, steady beat. And she’s learned that performances go better if James comes to them unrehearsed. She’ll pat him on the back when it’s time for him to play and when he’s done playing, pat him again so that he rejoins the rest of the choir. Without these cues, he may try to steal the show.

Jacki hears the power of music too in the way James, and others who have trouble speaking, have learned to sing in full sentences, even verses. James laughs easily and hugs with abandon, but conversation with him is awkward. He may say something like, “Christmas party,” or “group home,” in reply to a simple question. But words often come out as “Hmmm,” “Gmme” or “Yea.” The music makes his halting speech come easier. When he’s seated at the keyboard at his mother’s or at the organ back at his group home, the words come in full sentences. Jacki explains: “You put words, you put sentences to music and somehow it’s just clarified. It’s like breathing. The beat is there. The rhythm is there. And it seems to take away all the things they can’t do.”

The first time I heard James play the organ and sing, he had just finished his chores for the day. He had ironed his clothes, made his lunch, and with Theon’s help he had stood patiently by the stove stirring a pot of Rice-A-Roni. He sauntered up to the organ, slightly hunched as usual. When he took his seat, his posture changed. He sat up straight, adjusted the settings and flexed his hands. The notes were full and deep, his voice clear.

Phoebe Zerwick, October 2013