Mary Grace Gellekanao
by Kimberly Luste Maran
Reprinted from the Adventist Review.
IT DIDN'T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE something special was planned for that Friday morning General Conference musical worship. The host asked everyone to move into the two center rows to get a better view of the pianist. The audience complied and got its first view of Mary Grace Gellekanao. She was sitting at the piano, and at the host's nod, she began to play.
This slender, diminutive young woman and her playing spoke volumes of the power, majesty, and yes, grace of our Savior. It was after just a few minutes that I knew I'd have no choice but to share her story through the Review.
The pieces she played were complex and beautiful, and it was overwhelming to hear such emotion and talent reverberate through the auditorium as Grace thundered through intricate arrangements or delicately stroked the ivory keys with quiet tones. It was also overwhelming to witness the performer herself in action. You see, Mary Grace was born with a congenital absence of her right forearm. She was making music with a fully intact left arm and hand and a just-past-the-elbow stub on the right.
After Grace's performance of several classical pieces and hymn compilations I stood, idly wondering for a moment why I had worn platform shoes that transformed me into a close-to-six-foot tower next to Grace's smaller-statured family, and approached the Gellekanao group.
I was delighted when Grace's uncle and a District of Columbia area pastor welcomed me into their conversation and seemed happy to meet me. When I mentioned that I'd like to talk to Grace and do a story for the magazine, they became excited. Soon I was introduced to the large entourage that had accompanied Mary Grace that morning. And I was just a bit horrified-and bemused-as they introduced me to other friends and family as the editor of the Adventist Review. Oh, well, I thought, as I gave up correcting them, I don't think Bill Johnsson will mind too much. It is for a good cause. We stood around, waiting for Grace as she greeted and thanked many worship attendees. After a few minutes, I met Grace.
It's odd when a person can have impressive stage presence yet be so real, so wholesome, so genuine in person. But this was the paradox that is Grace. She quietly answered a few of my questions, and because she had to leave the GC shortly for another performance promised to e-mail me in the weeks to come. Grace gave me a warm hug and a huge bright smile (stretching upward to reach me on my perch atop my shoes), and was immediately whisked away by her family. She kept her promise, and I soon learned all about Grace.
Persistence Pays Off
Grace was born on March 7, 1979, in Riverside Medical Center, Bacolod City, Philippines. She and her family lived in one compound, and even when she was very little, her parents would often leave Grace in the care of her grandma. "Even though my parents weren't vocal about it, I could sense that at first they were having a hard time accepting the fact that their eldest child had been born with a physical disability," explains Grace. "'Lola' took very good care of me and was the person who encouraged me in music. She is the one who, when I was 6 years old, brought me to a music school. Upon seeing my condition, the teacher was initially hesitant to accept me as her student. However, my grandma persisted until she was able to convince the teacher."
Grace has been playing ever since. "I got enrolled with the financial support of my grandfather," she says, "and thanks to [my grandparents'] belief in me, I was able to discover an important part of myself. It didn't take long before my knowledge about music improved, and now I am capable of playing difficult pieces. I still practice at least four hours
In 1994 Mary Grace and her teacher, Mrs. Sylvia Javellana, decided that she was ready to present a solo organ recital. The following year, Volunteers for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped and the Disabled, Inc., gave her the opportunity to perform a solo piano recital. But it was 1996 that proved to be a breakout year for Mary Grace.
"The most unforgettable year for me was 1996," she recalls. "I went to many places to perform." In February she went to Guam for a solo piano/organ concert during the fortieth founding anniversary of the Guam Seventh-day Adventist Clinic. Two months later, together with some of her fellow students from the music school, Mary Grace started a recital tour of Europe. A memorable recital took place in Frankfurt, Germany, at the Buergerhaus of Hausen, for the Family Club of Offenbach. Among the guests who attended the recital was a former ambassador to Germany, the Honorable Francisco del Rosario. Afterward the musicians toured parts of Europe, and on their way home to the Philippines they passed through Bangkok, Thailand. Mary Grace's performances didn't stop there.
|"A lot more concerts followed as I basked in the opportunities to share my musical gift with my audience and win the love and appreciation of my own family along the way," adds Mary Grace, explaining that her parents especially had a difficult time accepting her disability. "I tried to understand their reactions to my misfortune, though I was really affected by their discomfiture. Nevertheless, I still feel that in one way or another, I'm lucky that God endowed me with the gift of playing the piano and the organ, which gives me so much compensation for my condition. As the saying goes, 'I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.'"
So how does Mary Grace feel about things now? "I'm happy that God has been so good to me by allowing all these wonderful things to happen to my life. God uses even the greatest error and the deepest hurt to mold us into a person of worth and value." She's thankful for the support her parents have shown her, glad that they have come to believe in her as her grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, cousins, and friends have always done. And as much as her music was a bridge to better family relations, little did Grace know that her performing would later make a big difference on her outlook
The College Experience
Graduating in May 2001 with a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of St. La Salle, Bacolod City, a once very shy (and still somewhat demure) Mary Grace looked back fondly at the time she had spent immersed in her studies. "My college life was the most memorable time for me," says Grace. "I began to mingle with other people. I gained a lot of friends and really started to enjoy life and [sharing my] music." Grace had some worries about attending a Catholic college, but she did not have a difficult time-she didn't have to take any classes during the Sabbath, and students and staff respected her and her beliefs.
"I've had a few special people in my life, but there is especially one person whom I met when I was in college," Mary Grace maintains. "This friend has helped me love myself, fill up the empty space in my life, and she's brought me much closer to God. She has given me the courage to face life and has helped me trust people again. I feel so fortunate and blessed that she and others came my way."
The support during her college experience helped Mary Grace grow in many ways. She explains: "When I was younger, I couldn't express what I felt to anyone. I just kept it to myself. I longed to feel the sense of belonging, to be hugged. But I got this from no one-not until I met my special friend in college. As I've said, she has made my life more meaningful.
"Moreover," Grace is quick to add, "I'm fortunate that I have a Father and a Friend who is always there for me, through thick and thin. I have cried my heart out to Him, and He's my reason for living. I am who I am today because of Him."
Music Is Therapy
Studying for and receiving a degree in psychology, not music, may seem puzzling-at first. But Mary Grace elaborates: "It is my dream to be a missionary through my music with an aspiration that somehow in my own little way I can make a difference in someone else's life. I believe that by being a psychologist and at the same time a musician I can be effective in music therapy. I also hope that I can inspire others with disabilities. Physical disability isn't a hindrance toward success or happiness."
And what is music therapy? "Music therapy is the systematic application of music in the treatment of the physiological and psychological aspects of an illness or disability," explains Grace. "It focuses on the acquisition of nonmusical skills and behaviors, as determined by board-certified music therapists through systematic assessment and treatment planning."
To put it simply, Mary Grace yearns to help others-especially those differently abled such as herself-accept themselves as God's special creations and live productive, purposeful lives. "I know God has a plan for me, and I'm eager to make every minute of my life count for Him. I've promised myself that I will never ever take this disability of mine as a hindrance toward success and everlasting happiness. I know with God's help and guidance I can surmount my difficulties and live a meaningful life."
All Things Work Together . . .
It came as no surprise when Mary Grace told me that when people see her perform they tell her, through teary eyes, that they see God's marvelous work through her playing. I wasn't going to admit it to her face-to-face, but I had a similar reaction during her GC performance. The music she played was so incredibly beautiful that I no longer saw a young woman sitting at a piano in the middle of the stage; I saw Jesus. I did not hear a medley of classic hymns, I heard Christ playing a heavenly symphony. And I too had tears well up in my eyes. I saw and felt grace unfurled.
But even though I was blessed, as I believe everyone who has the opportunity to see Mary Grace in action will be blessed, I knew that her gift must have come at a price. That the very limitations that have, ironically, opened many doors (and hearts) for Grace must not have been easy to bear. Some of the things more able-bodied people take for granted, such as maneuvering a car's steering wheel, typing, cutting paper, and opening candy wrappers, are things Mary Grace either cannot do or has had to learn to do differently. When I asked her about this, she had a poignant and courageous answer for me.
"I'm capable of playing difficult pieces, but it is sometimes painful. Mostly, my right hand plays the hardest part of the piece. It sometimes hurts, especially when playing all those runs," Grace says. "But I just tell myself that the pain I go through with every key I strike is what makes my music unique from all others. The sound of the people's applause elates me, because I make them happy. They appreciated my efforts, and it's more than enough remedy for hurting hands.
"There are times that I feel a little disappointed, especially when there are things that I wish to do but can't because of my limitations. For example, I need someone to help me cut my food when I eat. I can't do roller skating. I have to wear heavy orthopedic shoes when I move around so that I will not be limping, and sometimes I get tired," Mary Grace continues earnestly. "But despite all these I know I can still make it because I trust God so much. I thank Him for everything I've gone through in life. My experiences have made me a stronger person. I thank Him also for blessing me with the wonderful and special people I've met. Their love, prayers, and acceptance brought big changes in my life-they have given me inspiration."
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