HOUSTON — The parking lot at the Pediatric Therapy Center in southwest Houston was full, drive-around-the-lot-looking-for-a-space full, like the mall at Christmastime.
The PTC does a brisk business in all seasons.
The children, even the older ones, hold tight to their mothers' hands without embarrassment. When they leave the shade of the lot, many involuntarily lift their faces to the sun, which was warming in the late morning, headed to nearly 90, with a light breeze.
For all of the pictures of animals on the walls and the cartoons on the televisions, for all the smiles and encouragement from the therapists and doctors, this place is hard work for the children who walk in, or are carried in.
Ashlyn Horry used to sit in the back seat of her mother's car and refuse to get out. Then she would start to cry, and so would her mother, and there they'd be, Keva Horry pleading, Ashlyn Horry refusing, while other mothers in other minivans stopped behind them and wondered if they were coming or going.
Those were the moments when Keva Horry wondered too.
"This is life," she said without regret. "I'm dealing with it."
Ashlyn is 8. Her father, Robert, plays power forward for the Lakers. On Monday night, Robert had 20 rebounds in Sacramento, where the Lakers lost Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ashlyn was standing frightfully near the top of a four-rung ladder. A physical therapist held her around the waist, and while the ladder teetered, she handed her a stuffed ball. With help, Ashlyn pushed the ball with two hands over the front of a plastic yellow hoop, and the ball fell through, landed on a blue mat and rolled across the floor.
"She scores!" the therapist cried. "Yeah!"
Across the room, Keva Horry clapped. Ashlyn threw back her head and smiled. Her eyes joyously turned to slits and her arms and legs went stiff. When she opened her eyes, Ashlyn found her mother.
Keva picked up the blue ball and rolled it back, her first rebound of the afternoon.
"There's a pride now because I'm seeing things the doctors didn't expect her to do," Keva said. "That gives me hope."
As the Horrys understand it, Ashlyn, their first child, was born without part of her first chromosome. They've never asked for the name of what she has, because it has never seemed important. She cannot yet speak, walk or eat, and there is no guarantee she ever will.
"One doctor told me it's a freak of nature," Keva said.
Ashlyn spent her first six months in the hospital, and she has been back often.
She can cover ground with the help of a four-wheeled walker, a dicey transport without brakes. She leans forward, the walker rolls and suddenly she's nearly at a full run down the sidewalk, sending her parents after her with a mix of amusement and terror.
Ashlyn eats mostly through a tube in her stomach. An IV stand sits in a corner of her lavender-colored bedroom on the first floor of the family's home, beside her bed.
For three years she had a tracheotomy, allowing her to breath. Complications arose, as they often did then, and Ashlyn had her epiglottis--the flap that covers the windpipe during swallowing--removed, making eating a challenge.
Half of Tuesday's two-hour therapy session at PTC was spent in a tiny back room, where a kind woman named Judy Boshart dabbed baby food from a Dixie cup to Ashlyn's lips.
When Ashlyn swallowed or simply tried, she would get as reward a song or two from a nearby tape recorder, and Miss Judy would call her "Sugar Bear" or "Boo" and blow soapy bubbles and ask Ashlyn to pop them. So, Ashlyn sat in a wooden chair, vanilla pudding on her lips, jerking her head away from a plastic spoon, listening to Barney sing, "Do You Know the Muffin Man?"
Boshart pulled her face close to Ashlyn's, and rested her own cheek on the top of the little girl's head as Keva looked on. "Ashlyn's a people person," she said. "She loves people. They don't always understand. But she doesn't care."
Boshart understands, and Ashlyn seems to know that. Boshart called Ashlyn's ailment "a neurological syndrome that mimics cerebral palsy" in some ways.
The prognosis, she said, "Guarded. Somewhat guarded. It's been so touch and go with this baby. She was so sick."
The little girl might never become what others are.
Others become what she is, joyfully.
Keva Horry sat in her television room Tuesday afternoon as workers, with ladders and extension cords over their shoulders, continued to plod through the two-story Mediterranean-style home in Houston's posh West Chase neighborhood.
There were peacocks in the yard.
"Not ours," Keva said. "They belong to the community."
Apparently, they like the Horrys' place best. Robert and Keva had it built, and have been in it for about a year. The home is stunning, even set against the other grand and gated homes on the same leafy street.