Mommy's little angel

Marshall Ball can't talk. So he listens to God. Everyone else listens to Marshall.

You were right about God, Marshall.
He is a Good God.
And you, you there, with imagination in your eyes
And hope forever forwards in your soul, you are
A Good Person.
You are a human being and isn't it exciting to be one?
Isn't it glorious this life God has graciously given
Despite our own flaws despite our misunderstandings
He gave a gift again in Him and life is Good.

-- excerpt from a poem written to Marshall Ball by one Chris Robinson, reproduced on the Marshall Ball Web site

Chris, Are you telling me that fine poem is what you think? We do not agree. Marshall is not what you called me. Marshall is your angel. We need to listen. Take time to listen.

Boundless horizons: Troy and Marshall Ball in the front yard of Listener's Hill.
Boundless horizons: Troy and Marshall Ball in the front yard of Listener's Hill.
Augmented communication: Marshall with Laurence Becker and his "GM," Louise.
Deron Neblett
Augmented communication: Marshall with Laurence Becker and his "GM," Louise.

-- Marshall Ball, in response

The boy lives on a hilltop west of Austin. He is 13 years old, born with an as-yet-undiagnosed condition that renders him unable to speak, unable to walk and unable to communicate without the aid of an oversize letter-board and a friend or family member to support his elbow as his forearm falls, pecking out letters of the alphabet one at a time.

The alphabet added up to a book of brief poems, letters and inspirational thoughts published last year, Kiss of God: The Wisdom of a Silent Child. Kiss of God was released under the imprint of Health Communications, Inc., which also publishes the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and quickly became a best-seller on the USA Today and lists. With the sales have come publicity appearances on Oprah (three times) and articles everywhere from the Austin American-Statesman to People magazine to the London Sunday Times, and with the appearances and articles have come more sales. HCI reports having moved 180,000 copies. The author's mother says half a million.

A boy who cannot speak, he espouses the virtues of listening. Kiss of God's cover is a collage in which a painting of a winged angel trumpets near the superimposed boy's ear.

He calls himself an angel and a teacher and a thinker. Those who feel themselves touched by his writings call him a prodigy and a messenger and a prophet.

His parents call him Marshall.

If you are invited to meet Marshall, you will drive out of town into the rolling country near Lake Travis, through an explosion of upscale, khaki-colored strip malls and the ubiquitous tan limestone mini-mansions that have replaced the once ubiquitous mesquite scrub on the prime hillside real estate. You cut off the rural route onto a narrow, meandering asphalt road into the hills, and then off that road onto an unmarked drive that rises to the Ball property: approximately seven acres encompassing a compound of homes and guest homes and stables and barns and gardens and kennels and miscellaneous outbuildings. The hilltop is a hive of activity, with construction crews carving out a new road and several structures in various states of renovation and members of the Ball extended family, including blood relatives, therapists and hired caretakers, milling about on a typical Saturday afternoon.

Marshall has named his home Listener's Hill.

When you arrive, the boy is being wheeled about the grounds in a wheelchair by his mother, Troy, an attractive blond with an open smile and the look and bearing of a woman long familiar with horses, which she is.

Before Marshall grows cold and wants to go inside the main house -- a desire communicated by his unhappy-sounding wail -- Troy shows me to Marshall's "Thoughtful House," a small stone cottage dedicated to the boy's occasional retreat from the bustle to listen to music, or to silence. Hung from an exterior wall is a near-life-size sculpture of Christ nailed to the cross. Just outside the doorway the path expands into a limestone pavilion chiseled around the perimeter with four of Marshall's phrases: "A good feeling begins with God," "Going to God gives good answers," "Nothing comes from bad feelings" and "Begin to feel God today."

Most parents cherish the communications of their children, but Troy and her husband, Charlie, know there's something more to Marshall's painstaking utterances, something deserving more than a scrap of construction paper held to a refrigerator door by magnets. They know this by their own awed experience of their firstborn's precocity, and they have found their judgment supported by the continuing barrage of letters and e-mails testifying to the impact that Marshall's book has had on readers of all ages, all walks of life, all around the world.

So because Marshall is special, and because his parents are persons possessed of the necessary means, they have had their son's words -- words that for five anxious years remained hidden and unsuspected in the mysterious recesses of his young mind -- carved in stone.

The main house is comfortable and spacious, freshly remodeled around the frame of an older structure, anchored by a central kitchen appointed with expensive appliances and heavy granite countertops. The kitchen opens onto a loft-ceilinged living room whose generous windows open in turn onto an expansive vista of the surrounding hills and what would be the shimmer of Lake Travis in the distance, if the drought-impaired shoreline hadn't fallen so low.

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