DEVILLE, La. (BP)–The 9-year-old boy lovingly grasps his father’s face in his hand and pulls gently toward him. The father kisses his son’s forehead and whispers, “I love you, Brandon.”
The father waits patiently, praying. He longs to hear his son say the same to him. But no words come from the young boy’s mouth. Instead, the youngster coos like a newborn baby.
“Brandon,” Wendell Johnson says to his son, “I love you.”
Johnson repeats the phrase, but Brandon can only coo a response, still holding his father’s face in his hands. The two hug tightly before his mother Nancy takes him to his room.
“It almost sounds like he’s trying to say, ‘I love you,'” Johnson said, struggling with his emotions. “I guess I want to hear him say, ‘I love you,’ so badly I hear it in those sounds he’s making.”
It hasn’t always been this way. Adopting Brandon when he was three weeks old, the Johnsons reveled in watching their son grow up.
“He was like any other baby that first year,” Nancy said. “He ate, slept and grew. He was a beautiful, healthy baby boy. Brandon Layne was even beginning to say ‘Momma.'”
Then the world came crashing down around Nancy and Wendell. Ten hours after they took their son to get his 11th-month shots, Brandon’s eyes rolled back into his head and he began to seize. The nonviolent seizure lasted 45 minutes; medical personnel who rushed to the Johnsons’ home had him airlifted to the hospital.
“Before the shots, he was chattering up a storm,” Nancy said, “and since the shots he hasn’t said another word.”
For the next several years, Brandon underwent a battery of tests as he saw doctors in New Orleans, Monroe, La., Houston and Dallas. The diagnosis, though, was always the same.
“The doctors all said he probably had an underlying health problem, and the shots just made the problem come to the surface,” Nancy said. “The seizures affected Brandon’s verbal and motor skills.”
Doctors determined the shots had caused Brandon to have so-called absence seizures, damaging his brain.
Absence seizures cause a loss of consciousness, typically for a few seconds, with few or no symptoms. The affected person, most often a child, usually stops an activity and stares blankly. The seizures begin and end abruptly and may occur several times a day or in clusters.
“If you didn’t know his medical history, you wouldn’t know he was having one,” Wendell said. “A full moon and hard hiccups are really bad because they are known to trigger seizures.”
While most people might spend time in self-pity lamenting their plight, the Johnsons have turned to God to help them with their constant challenges.
“Brandon is a gift from God. He’s our special little angel,” Nancy said. “God gave him to us and it is our job to take care of him to the best of our ability.”
The Johnsons have seen God provide help in meeting the challenges associated with a special needs child. Not only has their large family rallied around them, they’ve gotten a huge amount of support and love from their church, Longview Baptist Church in Deville, La., as well as the community.
“At church, different people take turns staying with him in children’s church, and so many people, both in our church and other denominations, pray for him,” Nancy said. “We covet everyone’s prayers and we thank everybody who prays for us. It has really made a difference in our lives.”
There seems to be no limit to what people are willing to do for Brandon.
“At school, he … has this wonderful aide who cares for him and stays with him all day,” Wendell said. “They have been so wonderful and have simply done an outstanding job with him.
“I take him to school and eat breakfast with him, but I also substitute at the school — not his class, but others — and it is amazing to see how the kids at school treat him,” Wendell said. “I have never seen them be mean to him. As a matter of fact, they are very protective of him. They come up and touch his head, hold his hand or walk with him.
“People throughout Deville, and beyond, know him,” Wendell said. “As a matter of fact, [country music singer] Randy Travis sent Brandon an autographed picture. Every day when I take him to school, I put in his [Randy Travis] gospel CD and Brandon, in his own special way, sings along.”
Still, each day is a challenge.
“I don’t think a younger couple could have handled this,” Nancy said. “We had three adoption attempts that didn’t work out before we got Brandon. I believe that was God’s way to help prepare us for what was ahead. It helped to strengthen us … to strengthen our marriage.
“We always have to be on our toes around here,” Nancy said. “The only time someone isn’t watching him is when he’s asleep, and he doesn’t sleep alone. It gets physically and mentally tiring. But we are never both down in the dumps at the same time, so we lean on each other.”
And they lean heavily on God.
“We are both convinced God is constantly watching over him,” Wendell said. “Besides his books and the TV, he loves the swimming pool. Swimming may be his most favorite thing to do in the world. One day he managed to slip out of the house without our noticing, walked down the steps and walked into the backyard to the swimming pool. Thankfully, I had shut the top gate, but not the bottom.
“When we found him, he was standing there at the gate looking at the pool. I believe at that moment God placed His hand on his shoulder and stopped him from slipping into the pool,” Wendell said.
Another time, Nancy went upstairs for Christmas decorations and when she turned around Brandon was standing behind her, which she said scared the wits out of her. Somehow he had managed to get past the baby gate and climb a flight of stairs without losing his balance and falling.
“I think he knows and understands far more than we will ever realize,” Nancy said. “As much as that frightened us, we both believe God was there and protected him from harm.”
As protective as they are of their son, the Johnsons try to let him do things other children his age do. Bu they realize there are limitations.
“I am certainly not comparing Brandon to other kids or dwelling on his limitations. But it is hard when I see other children doing things like going to Vacation Bible School or playing Upward basketball, and knowing he can’t do those things,” Wendell said.
There are days when none of that really matters, like on a rare day when they can coax a smile or a laugh out of him.
“Smiles are so few and far between that when he does smile, it is a priceless memory for both of us,” Nancy said. “There are also those times when we get a hug. There is nothing like a hug from Brandon because his love is endless.”
While the Johnsons hope to hear their son say he loves them someday, they sense that his hugs take the place of his voice.
Philip Timothy is a staff writer for the Louisiana Baptist Message.