I have a few books which I treasure but none more than A Gift of Hope, by Tony Melendez. On the fly leaf are written these words, “Fr. Ted. May your words always bring joy and enrich peoples’ hearts. May God bless you. Tony Melendez.” These are not written “by hand.” They are literally written “by foot.” Tony Melendez was born without arms. He writes with the pen held between his toes—and his writing is much better than mine!
A Gift of Hope is Tony’s autobiography. It is one of those “couldn’t put it down” books which tells a very human story of faith, hope, love and determination.
Tony’s parents, Jose Angel Melendez and Sara Maria Rodriquez lived in the town of Rivas in Nicaragua. When Sara knew she was pregnant with Tony she developed what she thought was flu. She went to see the family doctor who gave her a prescription for a “wonderful new drug” called Thalidomide.
The year was 1961 and doctors and scientists had not yet made the connection between the rash of birth defects and Thalidomide. Some eight months later Tony was born with no arms, eleven toes and a horribly misshapen club foot. If Tony had been conceived ten years later, to less Christian parents, he would have been a prime subject for an abortion.
Tony tells of how the news spread like wildfire around Rivas that Mrs. Sara Melendez “had produced a monster,” All the neighbourhood kids stopped outside the house to get a look. Instead of trying to hide him. Tony’s mother brought him out and showed him to the children. This changed their whole attitude. The town fell in love with him and any child who dared to make a disparaging remark was in danger of being severely punished by the neighbouring children.
When Tony was about four months old the doctors in Rivas advised his parents that they did not have the equipment to straighten Tony’s leg and club foot. The only hope was to take him to California. This meant both his father and mother giving up their jobs, buying a second hand car and transporting the entire family to Los Angeles.
Jose and Sara were not American citizens and therefore had no medical insurance. Neither
could they get jobs as they didn’t speak English. The amazing story of how their faith was rewarded would take too long to tell but, with the help of the March of Dimes. Tony received all the necessary treatment. His leg and foot were moulded into shape and he began to walk.
By the time he was five he could do with his toes almost anything that we can do with our hands. “I could pick up a key to the house with my toes and unlock the door without any problem,” Tony relates in his book. With my big toe I could dial the telephone, start the water in our shower or tub; I could wedge a brush between the mirror and sink and brush my teeth and my hair.”
While in school, he played for the high school soccer team. He refused to accept the fact that he was different. “I didn’t feel handicapped. I wanted to be accepted as just another kid on the block. I wanted to learn my own lessons, to make my own mistakes. Win or lose, I wanted to fight my own battles without being rescued because I had no arms.” One thing he could not abide was pity. Again in his own words, “Laugh at me. Ridicule me. Knock me down and sit on my head. But don’t pity me.” This all might sound a bit arrogant, but all the time there comes through a beautiful character.
Although Tony had done very well at school, without arms it was not easy to get a job and his family was poor. His father had died and his mother had a low paying job. While in school he had been in the choir and the choir mistress suggested that he learn to play the guitar. His father had been an excellent guitarist and he had left Tony his instrument.
So, holding the guitar on the ground with his left foot and with the pick between his toes he could perform perfectly. In order to make some money he began going to the beaches and playing. But he always felt like a beggar. His mother used to say to him, “God has something wonderful in mind for you. Trust God and don’t get impatient.”
Tony began performing to jammed concert halls. Tony would sometimes begin a concert by telling the audience, “You are my hands.” This brought tears and cheers and every concert ended with a standing ovation.
In 1987 Tony was invited to come for an audition to sing for Pope John Paul on his visit to Mexico. The great day dawned and Tony found himself sitting with his guitar adjacent to the Pope’s platform and surrounded by thousands.
At the end, the audience – including the Pope – sprang to its feet cheering and clapping. Tony says, “It was truly a day like no other. I could have died at that instant and felt my life fulfilled.”
As a result of this event Tony is no longer a “beggar on the beach.” He has been invited all over the world to perform. But the Tony whom I met at the Human Life International lunch in Houston was an unsophisticated, charming and humble young man – assisted by a beautiful young wife. He has never forgotten his mother’s words, “Don’t worry, Tony. God has something wonderful in mind for you. Trust Him and don’t be impatient.” To me Tony is a wonderful example of “The power of the powerless.”