Music from Behind the Door

A single mom’s struggle to raise two exceptionally talented children with disabilities

By Hasmik V. Grigoryan

The loud television noise emanating from behind the door only deepened my apprehension. Yet, as I reminded myself, what other convenient leisure could the single mother we were about to meet offer her young children, both of whom are afflicted with disabilities?

Only a few years ago Siranush had no use of her fingers. Now she plays the music of Babajanyan, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Bach on the piano so skillfully that you’d want to hug Mary and congratulate her for having such a gifted child.

We were welcomed by Mary’s warm greetings as she unlatched the door. We followed her cordial voice into the kitchen.

My sense of unease somewhat subsided when we met Samvel, Mary’s son, who stood next to her. Mary was quick to inform us that, although this was our first visit, Samvel was quite happy to have us in their home. Even before seeing a visitor’s face, she added, Samvel knows who he wants to see come in or stay out. Throughout our conversation with his mother, the boy frolicked to his heart’s content, trying to involve us in his romps.

I listened intently as Mary spoke, all along wondering when I would start to feel anything resembling pity for her. Instead, each of her words elicited in me a mix of amazement and fascination. Pity had no place in the feelings that gripped me.

Mary is raising Samvel and her daughter, Siranush, all by herself. The children’s father has remarried and started a new family, in effect abandoning them. Siranush, 11, has used a wheelchair all her life. When she was younger, doctors recommended she undergo surgery, but Mary decided against it, preferring to explore a holistic approach to treat her child. Years of physical therapy, including a massage regimen, have yielded encouraging results, as today Siranush can move around the apartment on her own, with the help of a walker that her grandfather gave her. Siranush says she’s happy that her old walker, which was given away, is enabling someone else to gain mobility.

Only a few years ago Siranush had no use of her fingers. Now she plays the music of Babajanyan, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Bach on the piano so skillfully that you’d want to hug Mary and congratulate her for having such a gifted child. The girl’s performance is thrilling and not particularly surprising—until, that is, you realize that her legs are disabled or you’re told that there has never been a piano at home. Two years ago, having concluded that therapeutic exercises would not be enough to restore the use of Siranush’s fingers, Mary set out to find a special instructor who would teach her daughter how to play the piano. After a long and frustrating search, she found the right teacher. Today Siranush appears in various recitals, thrilling audiences with her energetic performances. Mary fondly remembers the day when, despite his skepticism, Siranush’s father brought her daughter a synthesizer. Now that instrument is among the family’s precious few possessions, looked after with particular care.

Siranush also draws, with a vivid style and technique all her own. Some of her paintings are featured in a desk calendar of the Pan-Armenian Nature Painting Contest, an annual event that encourages children throughout the world to develop environmental consciousness by painting natural scenes. Mary speaks of Siranush’s paintings with unfettered enthusiasm, saying little about the enormous effort and dedication it has taken her daughter to create her wonderful works.

To Mary, her son is as much a source of pride as her daughter. What makes Mary’s two children different, in terms of their disabilities, is Samvel’s special needs. While Mary must maintain a pleasant home environment for her nine-year-old son, she must be vigilant whenever the family is out, to make sure that his extreme inquisitiveness and hyperactivity don’t become a nuisance to others. Indeed, whereas what I observed in Samvel seemed to be no more than boyish naughtiness, doctors and Mary alike describe his condition as autism. It is an illness that during a short encounter such as ours might leave the impression of a slight deviation from the norm, yet is grave enough to require lifelong attention and care.

Like his sister, Samvel is artistically gifted. Every time the family had to move, Mary says, she lovingly packed her son’s drawings and clay creations and unpacked them with equal attention once in a new apartment, carefully displaying the artworks on shelves adjusted in the living room. Mary also handles her son’s books with great care. The family library may be small by any measure, yet the volumes, mostly illustrated encyclopedias and other works of reference, have a unique place in Samvel’s life. Mary is no longer surprised that her son is a voracious reader, with an innate thirst for knowledge about animals, lakes, national flags, stars, and even cooking.

As Mary recalls, during Siranush and Samvel’s initial years at Yerevan’s No. 129 School, their teachers and classmates alike thought they were not quite fit to be normal students. Today the siblings have surpassed all expectations, becoming the joy and pride of not only their mother, but the entire school.

The one thing that Mary finds difficult to understand is that both her children prefer to speak Russian at home, even though they excel at all subjects in school and have a great command of both Armenian and Russian. Mary, who is a teacher specializing in English and Russian, does everything possible to encourage her children to speak their mother tongue. But in the end, she says, the choice is her children’s alone.

In the meantime, television and animated movies continue to bring benefits to Siranush and Samvel, not by merely filling their time, but nurturing their inquiring minds and unquenchable curiosity in the hours following homework and reading.

Recently Mary Martirosyan sought assistance from a number of organizations, including the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund, to help her cover her children’s living and healthcare expenses as well as school tuition. Upon a review of Mary’s situation, one of the fund’s benefactors, Levon Kirajyan of Los Angeles, volunteered to pay her apartment rent—$200 monthly—for a minimum of one year. While the benefactor’s generosity will go a long way to ease Mary’s financial burden, the family needs additional support to sustain itself.

Hasmik V. Grigoryan works for the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund.

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.

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