It was October 16, 1999. After a morning game of tennis, Jim Bradford headed to Mrs. Winner’s Chicken & Biscuits in Brentwood, Tennessee, on a whim instead of his usual coffee route. Then, as he paid for his 25-cent, seniors-discounted coffee, he noticed a boy sitting by the window. The nine-year-old seemed to be sitting at the table alone. Feeling compelled to talk to him, Bradford could not have known what effect this chance meeting would subsequently have on both their lives.
Bradford asked a diner employee about the kid, who was sat at the table listening to an old boombox that had been fixed up with bits of tape. His white T-shirt bore the remnants of breakfast. His cargo shorts exposed braces around his legs and his right arm was bent at an odd angle.
Bradford learned that the kid spent a lot of time there. The boy’s grandmother, Pearl, was working at the diner. Because she was unable to afford a child minder, the boy – named H.K. Derryberry – would sit in the same spot until her shift was over. Bradford learned that Pearl was in fact the child’s legal guardian. He wouldn’t learn why, however, until some time later.
Driving home from work in Maury County, Tennessee, in the summer of 1990, Derryberry’s dad had lost control of the car. The vehicle tumbled down an embankment and struck a tree. Derryberry’s pregnant mom was thrown from the car. She was 19 and still three months away from giving birth to Derryberry.
Tragically, Derryberry’s mom suffered terrible head injuries and doctors were unable to save her. They did, however, still have a chance of saving her unborn child. Derryberry’s dad – with barely a scratch on him – and his mother, Pearl, had no say in the matter. The choice was that of the victim’s mom, who said, “Take him, salvage what you can.” It’s a decision Pearl today says she is grateful for.
Born 13 weeks prematurely and weighing only two pounds, it was an uncertain future for Derryberry. He would, however, spend the next three months in the neonatal ICU of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. But yet, in the diner before him, Bradford could see the boy’s survival came at a cost.
Back in 1990 preterm care wasn’t at the standard it is today. Born 96 days early, Derryberry developed cerebral palsy, thought to have been caused by a brain hemorrhage. He was also blind, his premature birth preventing his retinas from becoming fully formed.
Watching her grandson laying helpless in the hospital, Pearl made a promise to care for the boy in his mother’s absence. “I made a bargain with God,” she told Vanderbilt University Medical Center alumni publication Vanderbilt Medicine in August 2012. “I said, ‘you save him and I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to make his better.’”
It was a promise Derryberry’s grandmother would make good on, not least when his father disappeared one day. The three of them had been living at Pearl’s house in East Nashville, Tennessee. When life after the tragic accident seemingly became too much for him, Derryberry’s father packed up his truck and split. Pearl would become the child’s sole caregiver.
Though Derryberry’s father – an alcoholic – would seemingly show up now and again, Pearl was on her own. She would look after the boy’s necessary medications as well as managing his disabilities. In addition, she would dress him, bathe him and clean him up after meals. Furthermore, she helped with his schooling while driving him to therapy and doctors’ appointments.
Due to the limitations caused by his cerebral palsy and blindness, Derryberry was held back in school. Every weekend, Pearl would take her grandson to the diner where she worked the register. It was here that a chance meeting with an unlikely stranger would begin to further reveal the remarkably intelligent boy underneath the surface.
As Jim Bradford recalls, the pair met, “sometime in the fall in probably 1999.” Derryberry, on the other hand, will tell you it was, “Saturday, October 16, 1999. It was 55 degrees that day.” Derryberry, it transpired, has an unusual gift for remembering his life events.
On their first meeting, the nine-year-old Derryberry was unable to hold a typical conversation. So when he bombarded Bradford with endless questions, the older gentleman made his excuses and left. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the remarkable boy. So he returned to the diner the very next week.
Soon, he was going to the diner every week to spend an hour with Derryberry. Eventually, he would take the child with him as he ran errands. Before long, the pair would enjoy chicken dinners together every Thursday evening and Derryberry would spend weekends at the Bradford house.
One Sunday on their way to church, Bradford witnessed something incredible. Derryberry had overheard a conversation between two men as they scheduled a meeting for Thursday March 12. But, Derryberry interjected, March 12 was not a Thursday but a Tuesday.
But it wasn’t a one-off incident. Derryberry, in fact, was easily able to recall even the most minor details of his life. Give him a date in the past and he can tell you what he had for dinner and what was on TV while he ate. He remembers football scores and the precise times that news stories broke. From a young age he was able to reel off every doctor’s appointment, along with his weight and blood pressure.
Of course, Bradford can’t remember every detail of their friendship in the way Derryberry can. So instead, they wrote it all down in a book. Now, they traverse the country to promote The Awakening of HK Derryberry, hoping to inspire others with the heartwarming story of their unlikely friendship.
“He’s a kid you just can’t help but love,” Bradford explained. “We have a special relationship that’s wonderful for me. I’ve seen him develop in skills and have been able to introduce him to folks, and he’s allowed me to do a lot of things.” Derryberry added, “I want people to know how important it is to have a positive attitude. When things don’t work out, it can really get you down, but you have to stay positive.”