You don’t need words — or sign language, for that matter — to express love. That much is clear the minute four-year-old Christian Kilduff gets home from school and throws out his arms to give his big sister a hug.
She hauls him onto her lap, and he pulls her face right up next to his (although he is registered blind, Christian can see up close), and the two begin to discuss his day. The communication might a hotchpotch — part sign language, part spoken words — but it works.
Jade Kilduff, 18, is able to establish that her adored little brother had fun, enjoyed his lunch and got cuddles from his teacher. ‘It’s one of the perks of him being at a special school,’ their mum Diana, 37, explains. ‘Teachers there can give cuddles, and Christian loves those.’
Diana Kilduff, with her children Jade and Christian, centre. The family from Rochdale communicate with four-year-old Christian by use of sign language
Then these rather remarkable siblings begin to sing. The song is Lewis Capaldi’s Someone You Loved, and as Jade’s voice soars, Christian’s face lights up.
He sways on her knee, clapping and waving and attempting some words himself — partly with his voice, but mostly with his fingers. It’s an extraordinary sight, and one which has, understandably, touched many.
When Jade uploaded some clips of her and Christian signing his favourite songs on social media, they quickly went viral. Lewis Capaldi himself retweeted their unique rendition of his song, and even Gary Barlow has been moved to tears.
Watching the interaction between these two in the flesh, in their living room near Rochdale, is quite an experience. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a happier child than Christian. His arms go out to me, too. The photographer gets a bear hug.
Jade, pictured, left, has translated songs into sign language so she can sing along with Christian, who suffered severe brain damage at birth. His birth parents could not cope with the level of his disability, so he was fostered and later adopted by the Kilduffs
‘He just loves the whole world,’ says Jade. ‘And how could you not love him back?’
The story of how this extraordinary bond developed is the real tear-jerker though. For these two are not blood relatives. Christian was not even supposed to be a permanent fixture in this house. Severely brain damaged at birth — to the point where his birth parents could not cope — he arrived with the Kilduffs to be fostered.
Diana and her husband Neil, a motoring engineer, had been foster parents for around seven years, and had helped out with seven children who needed temporary care. Jade and her little sister Lucy, now 13, were used to sharing their home and parents like this.
Then came the phone call that changed everything. A baby boy had been born severely brain damaged. He was in a coma, and might not last the night. His birth parents had already had him christened, so bad was the prognosis. But if he did survive, and got through the coming days, he would need an emergency home.
Jade takes up the story. ‘Christian suffered from something called HIE, hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy. He’d been stillborn, starved of oxygen at birth for 24 minutes, and it looked really bad.
‘Mum had to talk to us about whether we could cope, as a family. There was a high chance he could die, and that we’d have to deal with the grieving. But we all said: “We have to.” ’
Christian was five weeks old when he was well enough to be released from hospital.
‘He was the tiniest baby I’d ever seen,’ says Jade. ‘His head was particularly small, but apart from that you couldn’t tell that there was anything wrong.
‘They said from the off that he’d never have a normal life. If he made it through the winter, it would be a miracle, because any slight thing like a cold or chest infection would mean the end for him. ‘If he did make it, they said he would just lie there. He has cerebral palsy, which means he wouldn’t ever be able to sit up, walk, talk. He wouldn’t have any control of his muscles. He’d probably only be able to move his eyes. But we decided we’d just try, and help him as much as we could.’
Four years on, and the little boy who was only supposed to be able to move his eyes and would be fed by a tube for life, is eating crisps and showing me how he can put on his shoes, albeit with help.
Jade Kilduff has even uploaded some of her videos of her signing songs along with her brother to YouTube, where they have been warmly welcomed by the likes of Gary Barlow and Lewis Capaldi
How is this possible? It seems Christian didn’t get the memo about how his life would pan out. Nor was anyone in the Kilduff home prepared to accept his fate.
‘At first I was worried about how I’d be able to help him,’ admits Jade. ‘I’d seen people with disabilities, but when it’s looking after them in your house and trying to support them, I was worried. Then you quickly realise, he is more than the doctors say he is on paper. All of a sudden, he wasn’t a little boy with disabilities we have to try and help. He was just Christian.’
Life became a string of hospital appointments. Also, milestones. Perhaps not the milestones a healthy baby would have, but milestones to celebrate nonetheless.
‘When other babies were sitting up, he still couldn’t, but I would say he was the cleverest baby, maybe the cleverest child in the world,’ says Jade.
‘His milestones were maybe wiggling his fingers or being able to move his head an inch. Some people might say: “Oh, he’s two years old now and he still can’t sit up. That’s very delayed.” But for him, sitting up at two was a miracle.
‘And when it comes to his speech, him being able to say five words is like me being able to speak fluent French. He shouldn’t be able to at all. So is he is a miracle. Our miracle.’
Jade’s mum takes a back seat during this interview, but what a remarkable woman she is. At one point, doctors were advising that it might be easier to feed Christian via a tube, so convoluted was the process of getting nourishment into him. Diana declined, determined to see if his swallowing reflexes could be improved, given patience. It worked, and allowed him that little bit more independence.
Even she can see Jade’s bond with Christian was special from the off. ‘We all adored him, but you could just see there was this thing between them. It was pure love, right from the start. I don’t think he would have made half the progress he has without Jade.’
When he was 18 months old, it was decided Christian would be put up for adoption, as other foster children had been. It was always a wrench, says Jade. ‘Because with every baby or child, we’d just treated them like a sibling, so it was hard to say goodbye. But we also knew they were going to a lovely home.’
Jade learned how to sign by watching online tutorials even though experts warned her that her brother would not be able to understand. He currently is able to sign around 100 words
With Christian, it was different. There were no immediate takers for a little boy whose needs, on paper, seemed so overwhelming.
‘No one wanted him,’ Jade admits. ‘They even organised an event where prospective parents could get to meet him and see how lovely he was. But there was no one.’
By now, Christian was a member of the family. ‘We didn’t want him to go and so we all talked about it and Mum asked Social Services if we could adopt him.’
There was a catch, however. Although everyone could see this was the best option, the Kilduffs would fail the selection process because they did not have a big enough house for Christian to have his own room.
So what did they do? They found a bigger house.
In 2017, they moved to a house with an extra bedroom, uprooting their lives to take Christian in on a permanent basis.
Jade describes the formal naming ceremony, where they celebrated signing the adoption papers, as the most joyful day of her life. ‘It meant Christian was my little brother for ever,’ she says.
Theirs is an ‘open adoption’, though, which means Christian does have contact with his birth parents, who delight in seeing his progress.
A photo from that day showing Christian and another teenage girl, who is also a long-term foster child (‘another sister’, says Jade), takes pride of place on a wall, and it seems the family is due to expand again. Diana, who thought she could no longer have children, has discovered she is pregnant again. There’s no doubt she will cope. ‘You just do,’ she says. ‘The more the merrier’.
A happy ending, then? Well, actually adopting Christian was just the beginning of another astonishing phase in his development. When it came to helping Christian communicate, Jade took on a pretty remarkable role.
She had studied basic sign language, as a hobby (‘in case I met anyone who was deaf’), and at an appointment with Christian’s speech therapist, she asked if she should try to teach him to sign. The idea was dismissed, she says.
‘The speech therapist said there was no point, because he wouldn’t be able to see me signing, and even if I was right up close, he wouldn’t understand, or be able to sign back.’
She disagreed. ‘I thought: “Well, the doctors said he’d never be able to sit up, and he was doing that, so I might as well try it.” So I did some signing with him, and he loved it.
‘He was smiling, really interested, staring right at my hand. No, he didn’t copy it, but he was enjoying it. For me, that was enough to carry on. Even if that’s all it had been for the rest of his life, that would have been enough.’
She taught herself (she uses a mixture of British Sign Language and Makaton) as she was attempting to teach Christian, spending hours watching online tutorials.
For an astonishing year and a half, she signed to Christian — without any indication he was taking in what she said with her hands. ‘Everyone was saying: “Jade, it’s very nice that you are giving up your time to do this, but I don’t think this is working, love”, but I just kept going.’ Her mum smiles. ‘We were all wrong.’
Jade replays the day where Christian first signed back. ‘The word was “finished”. I’d been trying to teach him to sign “finished” when he had done with his dinner. Then, one day, he did it back. I just started crying. I was shouting “come here, come here” and everyone came in and he did it again.
‘From then he started to sign “finished” every time he had had enough food. It was the start of all of this.’
Now she reckons Christian can sign 100 words, including Mummy, which he always struggled to say. ‘He could manage to say Daddy, and Jadey, but he couldn’t do the M sound. But the amazing thing is that his speech has been helped by the signing. He can manage more sounds, too, now. He’s just desperate to communicate, by whatever means.’
Next came signing to his favourite songs. ‘He’s always loved music. When you put on The Greatest Showman — his favourite — he goes mad. I thought: “Why don’t I sign this with him, so he can join in the singing?” ’
The results were simply infectious. Jade uploaded clips so her friends and family could see on Facebook.
In January, she set up a YouTube channel to teach sign language. She and Christian would teach a sign a day (usually words like snow, or dog, or chair).
‘I call it a Sign-a-day but in reality it depends on how Christian is feeling. If he isn’t in the mood we won’t do it, but mostly he loves it.’
Jade says that what she most admires about her little brother is his determination and single-mindedness. She shares it, though. She was due to go to university this month, but pulled out to go to a local college.
‘I couldn’t leave Christian,’ she admits. ‘He’s making such good progress. I don’t want to interrupt that.’ She will be home every night now, and even her choice of study is Christian-inspired.
‘I’m studying to be a special needs teacher,’ she says. For someone so young, she is a formidable force. She has also set up an online petition to press for sign language teaching in all schools.
‘It’s not just about deaf children, there are all sorts of children who could benefit and why should they be excluded?’ she asks.
Yet it’s the private exchanges between her and Christian that make Jade’s heart soar.
‘We will be sitting in the back of the car and he will say “Jad-ey”, and I’ll say “what?”, and he’ll go “wov you” (she makes the sign for “love you”, which involves crossing the arms over the chest), and that makes me cry, because he’s independently just looked up and thought “I love her and I’m gonna tell her”, and now he can.’
On cue, the little boy who was not expected to survive the night crosses his hands over his chest and says ‘wov you’ back.
It’s impossible to say which of them has the widest smile.