The boy in the wheelchair looks like his handsome father. But those who know Chancellor Lee Adams say he is his mother's child.
He has Cherica Adams' sweet nature, her outgoing personality, the same determination.
Lee, as he calls himself, turns 10 on Monday and his grandmother, Saundra Adams, is throwing him a party. For her, his birthday is always bittersweet.
Lee was born of tragedy. His mother, Cherica Adams, was shot four times while driving home on Rea Road after midnight Nov. 16, 1999. Doctors delivered Lee in an emergency Caesarean section, 10 weeks premature. A month later, Cherica Adams died. Lee's father, former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, is in prison for hiring the hit man who killed her.
Though the bullets missed Lee, loss of blood and oxygen to his brain left him severely handicapped.
"The neurologist made it sound like he would never talk and never walk," Adams said. "He gave me a grim outlook."
Adams refused to accept it.
A personal tragedy evolved into a tragedy for all of Charlotte. The shooting happened in an unlikely part of the city, in booming southeast Charlotte, and the accused was a player on the popular 4-year-old pro football team.
Lee's birth made news around the world because of his famous father. His mother graduated from West Charlotte High and worked for a mortgage company.
Carruth, who was 25, and Adams, 24, had gone to a movie that night, "The Bone Collector." Adams was driving home around 12:30 a.m., following Carruth's car, when another car pulled up beside hers on Rea Road south of Colony Road.
In a haunting 911 call, she told a dispatcher what happened:
"... I've been shot. I've been shot."
"You've been shot?"
"... I'm eight months pregnant."
"... How did this happen?"
"I was following my baby's daddy, Rae Carruth, the football player."
"So you think he did it?"
"He slowed down and a car pulled up beside me."
"And then shot at you?"
" ... And then, where'd he go?"
"He just left."
Police arrested Carruth nine days later, on Thanksgiving Day 1999, and charged him with conspiring to murder Cherica Adams. They said he arranged the shooting because he didn't want a baby and didn't want to pay child support.
After Cherica Adams died Dec. 14, Carruth was charged with murder. Once again, the story became worldwide news. Carruth was arrested the following day, hiding in a car trunk at a Best Western motel in Wildersville, Tenn.
As horrifying details of the murder unfolded, Saundra Adams quietly took her grandson home on New Year's Eve to begin their life together.
Lee was tiny, about 5 pounds, his lungs so fragile Adams didn't take him out of her house for four months except to see doctors. The damage to his brain caused cerebral palsy, affecting nearly every muscle in his body. He was wracked by seizures.
Adams, who was 42 then, said she found in herself a strength that seemed inexplicable. She had been on a spiritual journey the previous year, studying the Bible, and said she felt at peace at home with Lee despite her grief. He was her link to Cherica.
Adams quit her job as a mortgage broker and kept Lee close by. Like any mother would, she got up every two hours in the middle night to feed him. For a long time, she was afraid to let anyone else care for him. She knew his rhythms. She knew the different sounds he made and what they meant. She recognized his different looks.
She read to Lee every night from the Bible and from children's books, and one day when he was around 2, the boy who wasn't supposed to talk looked up and said, "Book."
She balanced him on her feet and walked with him around the house and one day when he was about 5, the boy who wasn't supposed to walk took his first step.
This year, at physical therapy at Child and Family Development on Park Road, Lee walked 184 steps without falling. That's 100 more than on his best day last year. He wears braces on his legs, and gets around in the outside world in an electric wheelchair or a walker.
"I believe he is going to overcome every challenge before him," Adams said. "It just takes time."
A few years ago, Lee could say nothing intelligible other than "hi," "yeah" and "why." He now says a few dozen understandable words. People close to him recognize more.
"That's where I see his frustration," Adams said, "the look that says, 'Can't you understand what I'm trying to say?'"
He is in third grade in a public school class with five other children who have cerebral palsy. He goes by Lee, in part because he can't pronounce Chancellor. "There is a huge gap between what he understands and what he can communicate," said Ann Guild, his speech therapist at Child and Family Development.
He can't say "grandmother," so Guild taught him to say "G-Mom."
Every chance she gets, Adams said, she talks with Lee about his mother. He has her eyes, her vibrant smile. Adams tells Lee how brave Cherica was, how determined for him to have a good life. She wanted a family, Adams tells Lee. She wanted you.
At bedtime, Adams prays with Lee and reminds him that "His Mommy Angel is watching over him."
Who loves you? she asks.
Does Mommy Angel love you?
On his birthday Monday, Adams will try to hide her tears. "Sometimes I feel a little sad. I tell him, 'They're happy tears. I'm thinking about how much we loved your Mom. I'm sad, but I'm happy that I have you.' The one thing that's been my priority is to let him know he was loved when he was created, no matter what happened later on."
Adams said she has told Lee what happened, but she doesn't think he understands.
"I tell him that his dad did a bad thing he was victim to."
Lee has his father's long, slender face, the tall forehead, the muscular body. Adams said Carruth has seen his son twice, once in the hospital the night Lee was born, the second time in jail, nine years ago.
Carruth is at Nash Correctional Institution serving a sentence of at least 18 years. He declined to be interviewed.
Adams won a $5.8 million judgment in a wrongful death suit against Carruth and three co-defendants, but has not collected that money because Carruth and two of the other men are still in prison. A trust fund for Lee, set up shortly after the murder, raised at least $15,000.
Tragic statistics mount
A couple of months ago at home, Adams was crying.
Why? Lee asked. Why?
"I told him G-Mom is sad because another smart girl lost her life and she didn't have to. Somebody else did a really mean thing, and they shouldn't have done that."
Tiffany Wright, a student at Hawthorne High, was waiting for the school bus one morning in September when she was shot and killed. Like Cherica Adams, she was eight months pregnant. Her baby, Aaliyah, died a week later.
Adams said she knows Tiffany's adoptive family in Kings Mountain. More important, she knows their heartbreak. And she knows the statistic: The leading cause of death for pregnant women is homicide.
"This has got to stop," Adams told a candlelight vigil for Tiffany held by Mothers of Murdered Offspring.
Judy Williams, who co-founded the organization, is one of the few people Adams trusts to take care of Lee. He stayed with Williams on weekdays for a few years when Adams took a job at a call center.
"I remember her saying once this was supposed to be her time to be a grandmother, to get him, spoil him, then take him back to his mom," Williams said. "She was robbed of being a grandmom and stepped into the role of mother."
Working to stand strong
Between speech and physical therapy one morning, Adams rubbed balm on Lee's lips. She tucked in his shirt. She cupped his chin in one hand and poured water into his mouth. Lee, who was thirsty after 45 minutes of speech therapy, tossed back his head and grinned.
In walked physical therapist Amy Sturkey.
"Hey, Mr. Smiley!"
"He-ey," Lee said.
"Ready?" she said.
Lee slowly lifted himself out of the chair, leg muscles straining, arms straight out for balance, his smile replaced by a look of concentration as everything about his body focused on getting up without losing his balance and falling.
"Come on, come on," Sturkey coaxed until he stood straight.
"Yea!" Lee exclaimed.
Lee is a strong, athletic child despite his handicaps.
He went through an hour of physical therapy routines: sit-ups, push-ups, crunches, then he walked down the hall, 87 steps without falling. He opened the heavy door without falling and entered the stairwell.
While other boys his age are perfecting their baseball and football throws, Lee is learning how to walk up and down stairs.
Sturkey stood below him and Adams, the nervous grandmother, hovered above. It's hard for Adams to stand aside. It's hard for her to watch him stumble without reaching out to help, to force him to try again until he gets the right word. Letting him loose on the stairs is hardest of all. It scares her.
Sturkey wants him to master the stairs in case of an emergency.
Lee held the rail with his left hand. In what looked like slow motion, he moved his left foot out, then down until it touched the step below. Then his right foot. One step. No stumble.
"Way to go, Lee!"
He slid his hand farther along the rail. Then again he slowly bent his left foot down, then slowly the right. Step by step he descended, cheeks glowing scarlet from the effort it took to make his muscles move in the correct way. He finally reached the next to the last step, No. 19. One more step to go. And then....
"Gotcha!" Sturkey said, swooping him up in her arms.
Lee got his reward, a sip of water. Then he retraced his steps, methodically making his way back up until he scaled the entire staircase, all 20 steps.
"Good job!" Adams said, and you could hear her relief. "Good job! Good job!"
Lee, exhausted yet triumphant, flashed that big grin of his.
A child's joy lives
Lee finds joy in each tiny accomplishment, whether it's a new step or a new word - or chicken fingers for lunch at school.
"He didn't have skills that were taken away from him," Sturkey said. "For him, he just gets stronger, faster, more balanced day by day. ... I see him celebrating every day, every skill, every smile that comes his way."
"You are such a hard worker," Adams said, and cradled her grandson in her arms.
Monday is Lee's birthday. He will be 10 years old. For a child born in tragedy, and still severely handicapped, Lee never seems discouraged. When he looks up at you with his oversized smile, you can't help but smile back.
His joy, Adams believes, is Lee's gift to the world.
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