In book, mom revisits life of son who saw with sound

Coping with the loss of a loved one is traumatic, but the loss of a child can be unimaginably wrenching.

Sometimes, though, inspiration can come from tragedy, as was the case with Aquanetta Gordon and her teenage son, Ben Underwood. Her faith and inner strength helped her through Ben’s death and allowed her to write the story of the journey they traveled together.

“You can either face your situation and make the best of it, or allow it to take you down,” she said recently. “Even though my son is not here, I thank God for the 16 years we shared. I learned so much. I turned that thing into something good because Ben did good things.”

“Echoes of an Angel: The Miraculous True Story of a Boy Who Lost His Eyes But Could Still See” is the Bee Book Club’s choice for April (Tyndale Momentum, $15.99, 296 pages).

Her book is intended to “give people hope for every situation in their lives,” Gordon said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re going through, everything you need is already in you. Just reach inside and bring it out.”

The public telling of young Ben’s extraordinary life and untimely death began with a series of stories by Sacramento Bee reporter Cynthia Hubert, published between May 2006 and January 2009. His story now continues in his mother’s memoir, co-written by Chris Macias, The Bee’s food and wine writer.

At age 2, Ben lost both eyes to retinal cancer but taught himself to “see” through a technique called “echolocation.” It’s the navigation system used by dolphins and bats, allowing the detection of objects through the reflection of transmitted sound waves. In Ben’s case, he would make clicking noises with his tongue and listen to the resulting bounce-back. In that way, he learned to identify objects – their sizes, shapes and locations – and maneuver in the world with relative safety. Complementing that was the ultra-acute sense of hearing he developed over time, which he used in conjunction with his clicking in place of literal eyesight.

To help him visualize the world when he was a child, Gordon gave Ben toys in the shapes of animals “so he would feel them and know what they looked like,” she said. “I got him Legos, and he literally would build shapes just like the animal characters. When he was 15, he was interviewed on TV and said, ‘I have to thank my mom because she described the world to me, and I now have a visual display.’ ”

Gordon called her son’s clicking noise “his ‘sound.’ He taught it to himself, and I truly don’t understand how. I would snap my fingers so he would know where I was at, but it wasn’t a situation where I was teaching him he was blind. I was teaching him he could see, but he would have to figure out how. There was no room for pity.”

With his mother’s encouragement, Ben went to public schools in Elk Grove and was involved in many of the usual activities of boyhood – sports, bicycling, karate, skateboarding. He even taught himself to play video games. His four siblings were there to help him with some tasks, too. “They saw the way I treated Ben, and they treated him the same way,” Gordon said. “It wasn’t feeling sorry for Ben, it was teaching him.”

“I’d known about Ben’s amazing echolocation abilities, but I knew there was a deeper story as I continued to meet with Aqua and her family,” said co-writer Macias. “I’ve never met a mom like her. How many parents would let their blind child ride his bike to school alone? That’s how much Aqua refused to let Ben or anyone else define him as ‘blind.’ Aqua’s journey with Ben shows that with unyielding faith and a mother’s love, the impossible can be overcome.”

There are other documented cases of blind people using echolocation to “see,” but Ben took the technique to another level. The YouTube footage of him is remarkable, showing Ben recognizing recycle bins and parked cars as he navigates a sidewalk. He rides a bike, throws a basketball for long-distance buckets, and wins games of foosball.

Ben became an international sensation, appearing in documentaries, in print and broadcast interviews, and on TV shows in this country (with Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey) and abroad. “He stayed level-headed about (the exposure) and never let anything take him to the place where he thought he was better than anybody else,” Gordon said.

Tragedy visited again when Ben was 15. The retinal cancer returned, quickly taking his life. Some 2,000 people attended his funeral on Jan. 26, 2009, on what would have been his 17th birthday, gathering to say farewell to “the boy who could see with sound.” Stevie Wonder, who had befriended him, played a musical tribute at the service.

Many of those who were close to Ben described him as having insight and wisdom beyond his years. “He was an old soul,” Gordon agreed. “It got to the point where I would go to him and talk with him about things; he had so much wisdom. Sometimes I would think, ‘He’s just a kid and I’m his mom – I’m supposed to know more than him.’ He had vision beyond sight.”

Gordon credits Ben with not only teaching her how to live, but “he taught me how to die.” Ben was 15 when he showed symptoms of a sinus infection during a flight back to Sacramento from Japan. But a CAT scan the next day revealed a mass between his eyes and sinus cavity.

“The doctor told us it looked like his brain was hemorrhaging,” Gordon said. “So Ben got on the phone and called his friends and told them, ‘Hey, I’m in the hospital and my brain’s leakin’.’

“I said, ‘Baby, you can’t tell people that, this might be cancer again.’

“He said, ‘And?’

“I said, ‘Ben, you might die.’

“He said, ‘You just be ready to meet me there.’ I understood he said that for me.”

Gordon remembers everything about her time with her son, especially an incident when he was 2 and doctors were removing Ben’s second eye. She and her pastor’s wife were sitting anxiously in the hospital waiting room when “the Lord spoke three things to my heart,” she recalled.

“The Lord told me Ben was going to live and not die, and that he would ‘see’ again. And he told me it ‘wasn’t for me.’ I didn’t understand that until later, when Ben went on TV (and inspired millions of people). Then I understood what God had spoken to my heart. That what Ben did (for others) was for the glory of God, not for me.”

What will Gordon say to Ben when she sees him once again?

“I’ll say, ‘Boy, you need a whuppin’ because you left too soon!’ ” she said with a laugh. “No, I will just grab my baby and tell him how much I love him. We had very like spirits and would go places together and talk and have fun times. He was that special person.”