A Singer Faces the Harsh Reality of a Brain-Damaged Child

updated 06/13/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Phoebe Snow burst onto the music scene nine years ago, her future seemed guaranteed. A frizzy-haired 22-year-old from Teaneck, N.J., Snow had a style—a mix of jazz, blues and soft rock—and a protean, four-octave voice that left critics raving. Her first two albums made Billboard's Top 10, and in 1974 she was nominated for a Grammy as New Artist of the Year.

Though her overnight success story read like a fairy tale, Snow did not live happily ever after. A neophyte in the music business, she signed, then broke a string of contracts with managers and record companies, leading to a half-dozen lawsuits. The years of litigation that followed left her virtually bankrupt, and her five subsequent albums were criticized as being overproduced and bland. (The last, Rock Away, released in 1981, sold fewer than 100,000 copies.) As sales declined, word spread through the industry that Snow was a performer with a shaky future.

Yet none of these problems touched Snow as deeply as those that followed the birth other daughter, Valerie, in December 1975. Currently involved in a lawsuit, Snow will not talk about the actual birth. But the child was later diagnosed as being severely brain-damaged and became the focal point of her mother's life. "Everything else diminished," says Snow, including her other legal battles and her marriage to musician Phil Kearns, which legally ended in early 1979.

For the past seven years Snow, now 30, has raised Valerie alone in an apartment in Fort Lee, N.J., overseeing her care and therapy and witnessing her hard-won accomplishments. She says she has finally learned to accept her child's limitations and feels free to pursue her career once again. She's currently touring the country with her five-man band. Snow spoke with Michael Heaton of PEOPLE about her daughter.

My pregnancy was one of the happiest times of my life. I was 23 and ready to be a mother. But Valerie's birth was extremely traumatic. Afterward I was totally out of it, tired and sedated. There is much I don't remember. I do remember that nothing concrete was said about Valerie's condition. I was supposed to walk up to intensive care and see my child hooked up to life-support equipment and know there was trouble. The doctors said they were trying to find out exactly what was wrong. In my heart I knew it was bad, but I didn't want to hear it from anybody, the same way I don't want anyone to tell me if my singing grosses them out.

Valerie stayed in the hospital four weeks and then I took her home. Before we left, one of the residents said, "Your daughter is probably going to be brain-damaged." My reaction was, like, how dare you say such a thing about my child? That's how I chose to deal with it. I lived in loony land.

After Valerie had been home about two months, the pediatrician measured her head and said it was too big. He ordered a brain scan. This revealed that she had hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the brain cavity that can inhibit the development of the brain. The doctor said she would need surgery to correct it. I was devastated.

Valerie had to stay in the hospital six weeks. When I saw the surgeon for the last time, he told me that the condition had been corrected but that she could be severely brain-damaged; I should hope for the best. I took her home and that's when the vigil started. It became apparent even to me in my semioblivious state that by her first birthday she wasn't doing anything. She was just lying there. I think everybody wanted to shake me and say, "Hey, this is happening." But they didn't. Nobody did. By the middle of 1977, let's just say I knew. Valerie was a very brain-damaged child.

This is the worst thing that can happen to a parent. It's the living death of a kid. You go through the same five stages that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about in coping with death—disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I go through these stages all the time, but they fluctuate and repeat themselves because this person is alive.

Valerie has been to dozens of doctors over the years. Some say her brain damage is irreversible, some say they don't know. One actually told me she'd outgrow it. When you don't like the first answer you hear, you go somewhere else. I was ready to do crazy things. I was going to go to Lourdes; that didn't work out. When I'd hear the word "heal," no matter what it was, I would consider it. To comfort myself over what I was going to subject Valerie to, I'd do it to my body first. She saw a chiropractor for a while, and I saw him too. She saw an allergist and so did I. I even went to her pediatrician.

Finally, five years ago, I heard about a clinic in Pennsylvania where they teach a kind of physical therapy called patterning. It's a series of repetitive exercises that are meant to stimulate and teach the brain to send messages like it's supposed to. It's like training the brain to do its own thing, beginning with the crawling movements of an infant. It's done by volunteers who come to your home. The exercises are boring and the progress is slow. It's very draining, but it's done a great deal for Valerie. She can walk now by holding on to furniture. When she was 2 she couldn't roll over from her back to her stomach, so she's come a long way. She can't talk, though, and may not be able to hear fully, and that's why it's hard to know what she knows. She communicates with me on a very basic level. If you hold out a sock she can put her foot up. When I come home she definitely recognizes me. She screams and laughs.

A woman I've known since high school, Debbie Forte, comes in every day to be with Valerie. The patterning volunteers, whom I found by putting ads in the paper, spend five or six hours a day with her, five days a week.

Valerie stays at Debbie's house when I'm on the road. After she was born, my music became just a job to me. I had to support her, so I worked. The songs I wrote became confessional and full of self-pity. I always sang the blues, but this was the blahs. That all changed with my last album, Rock Away. I did a rock album so I could cheer up. When you're feeling sorry for yourself you forget how to have fun. Now I'm ready to have fun again.

I've been lucky that I've been able to make money. There's a proper educational program for deaf kids and one for kids who can't walk, but nothing for a multiple-handicapped child.

I never thought I'd be able to say this, but I am very happy and so is Valerie. There were people who told me not to keep her, that I should put her away. But I couldn't do that. I love her so much. It's like the bird with the broken wing you find in your backyard. We're partners. I've never spoken a word to this child that she can understand and she's never spoken to me, yet you know things. She's my best friend in the whole world. I couldn't imagine life without her.

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