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Blind teenager Ben Underwood (16) died after a long battle with cancer
Published: Jan 28, 2009 @ 3:16 PM
Ben Underwood (16)
Jan 19, 2009
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Aquanetta Gordon knew that her remarkable son's life on Earth soon would be over.
"You can let go," she told him. "You can go home. When you get to heaven, tell Jesus to save that spot right next to you. That's for your mother."
Hours later, Ben Underwood, the blind Elk Grove teenager who dazzled people all over the world with his ability to "see" with sound, died at home with his family surrounding him.
Ben would have turned 17 on Monday. Instead, friends and relatives will be gathering on that day for his funeral. The service is scheduled for noon at Harvest Church in Elk Grove, and the public is invited.
"I am so sad that I won't be able to see him physically anymore," Ben's mother said Tuesday. "But I'm praising God because I know that he is happy right now. So when I think of him, I just smile."
Ben built an enduring legacy after his story became public in The Bee in May 2006. He became a worldwide celebrity, an Internet sensation and an inspirational speaker.
"He motivated people who wanted to see again, wanted to live again," Aquanetta Gordon said. "Ben was blind, but he saw more than most."
A cancer called retinoblastoma took both of Ben's eyes when he was a toddler, but he never let his blindness prevent him from navigating the world.
Much to the amazement of those around him, including his teachers and doctors, he taught himself a skill called echolocation commonly used by bats and dolphins but rarely documented in humans. By making clicking noises with his tongue and listening to the sound waves he created, he learned to identify objects and get around safely.
Motivated by his mother, Ben attended mainstream schools, most recently Sheldon High, and engaged in all of the normal activities of childhood and youth. He refused to use a white cane identifying him as blind. He played basketball, danced, practiced karate, skated and rode a bike through his neighborhood. He mastered video games by memorizing scenarios and identifying sounds that characters made just before they changed positions.
"Ben was perhaps the most inspirational patient I've seen in more than 20 years in medicine," said Kaiser Permanente pediatric eye surgeon James Ruben. He praised Ben and his mother for refusing to consider his blindness a major handicap, and for demonstrating "how to best approach even seemingly insurmountable adversity."
For the past two years, Ben has appeared on television programs across the country and far beyond, traveling from Japan to Great Britain to tell his story and deliver inspirational speeches. He swam with dolphins in San Diego, surfed in Hawaii, danced with Ellen DeGeneres and charmed Oprah Winfrey. He became friends with iconic musician Stevie Wonder, who recently visited him in Elk Grove.
Through it all, Gordon said, her son remained humble and focused.
"None of it went to his head," she said. "He knew his purpose. Many of us focus on acquiring things in life. But love is so much more important than things. Ben understood that."
Ben's cancer was in check until 2007, when he developed a tumor in his sinus cavity. Intensive treatment failed to knock down the disease.
In recent weeks Gordon, who has four other children ages 13 and up and had been working two jobs, cared for Ben at home. As his life slipped away she got help from hospice nurses, family members and friends.
In his final days, Ben enjoyed listening to gospel music and getting neck and back massages. He seemed more concerned about his mother's emotional state than his own pain, forgoing medications and assuring her that he was fine.
"It was hard to watch my baby go from being so active and so happy-go-lucky to not being able to walk or talk anymore," Gordon said. "But the blessing was in seeing all of the people around him, loving on him.
"Now I know that Ben is in heaven. He is able to see, and he has no pain. He's in a place that none of us can even fathom."
Blind teen Ben Underwood mourned, celebrated
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